Piero Taruffi: the 'pernickety' polymath with a sole championship race win


Piero Taruffi might not have had the searing pace of Ascari or the winning knack of Fangio, but his dedication to driving and engineering were second to none

Italian racing driver Piero Taruffi at the wheel of his car prior to his latest world record attempt, March 19th 1951. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Taruffi: ever the polymath, ever the perfectionist

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There was a book on the shelves at home to which the (much) younger me would regularly return. Entitled The Technique of Motor Racing, it was written by one of the sport’s more remarkable practitioners.

‘Piero’ Taruffi was a race winner and world record-breaker on two and four wheels over distances short and long and on and in vehicles of his and others’ designs.

His was a career that stretched either side of World War II – from teenage to his prematurely grey 50s – and included the management of teams of motor bikes and motor cars.

Between times he earned an engineering degree – a fact that caused him and Enzo Ferrari to circle each other warily for almost 30 years.

According to Taruffi, ‘Il Drake’ only asked him to race his cars – or, for a short period in the early 1930s, his bikes – when absolutely he needed him. In turn, the feisty Roman agreed to do so only when it suited him.

Taruffi was a details guy – pernickety, some said – and an early proponent of tailoring car set-ups to circuits and of donning a crash helmet.

Enzo Ferrari, Piero Taruffi, Mille Miglia, Brescia, 11 May 1957. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

All smiles at Mille Miglia ’57, but Ferrari and Taruffi rarely saw eye-to-eye often

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

That geekiness comes through in the book – no stone of speed is left unturned – but it is leavened by his brilliance as a tennis player, oarsman, skier, bobsledder, etc.

Once he had calculated a potential risk, Taruffi tackled the possible reward (helmeted) head on.

The thunderous, twin-engine Maserati V5 got away from him after leading the 1934 Tripoli Grand Prix at the super-fast and sand-strewn Mellaha circuit – breaking arm and leg – but otherwise he was renowned for accuracy and consistency behind the wheel and a vast knowledge behind the scenes.

He had not long before that crash stalked from Scuderia Ferrari due to a lack of opportunity. He wanted to go cars whereas Enzo wanted to tap his bike expertise; the latter was unamused when Taruffi – not the sort to twiddle his thumbs – used a self-prepped Norton to upstage his guys.

There was mutual respect – but Enzo was too much of a Luddite and Piero too much of a polymath for there not to be friction.

Italian racing driver Piero Taruffi driving his 'Double Torpedo' car, designer by Maserati, as part of a world record attempt, Terracina, Italy, April 5th 1952. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Taruffi engineered cars for land speed records as well as competing in grands prix – seen here at Terracina in 1952

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Taruffi, for instance, was a student of aerodynamics – witness the enveloping fairing complete with stabilising fin of the supercharged 500cc Gilera Rondine upon which he set a world speed record in 1937.

And his very successful TARF record cars of the 1940s-’50s were radical twin-boom affairs. In order to reduce frontal area and lower centre of gravity, the driver squeezed into one nacelle – steering using sticks because there was insufficient cockpit space for a wheel! – and the engine was carried in the other, the pair being connected and braced by aerofoil-sections.

Enzo, of course, reckoned this to be mostly bull. The engine was and would always be king for him.

From the archive

Designer Aurelio Lampredi’s Ferrari 500 Formula 2 car – promoted to GP car by external forces – was just powerful enough and sweet-handling even so.

Taruffi liked it and so it suited him to be in Enzo’s good books having supplied the marque with its first major win in the Americas: the 1951 Carrera Panamericana, co-driven by Luigi Chinetti Snr.

Though he was no match for sensational team leader Alberto Ascari and generally shaded for speed by Giuseppe Farina, Taruffi took his chance when he got it and stayed around long enough to capitilise on it.

Ascari was absent contesting the Indianapolis 500 for Ferrari and his mentor Luigi Villoresi had been injured in a road accident just prior to the 1952 Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten on 18 May.

So Farina qualified on pole – 2.6sec faster than Taruffi – and led the early stages before an engine problem forced him to pit. He commandeered newcomer André Simon’s car, which also burst underneath him.

21st July 1952: Italian racing drivers Piero Taruffi (1906 - 1988, left) and Alberto Ascari (1918 - 1955) celebrate their triumph in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Ascari came in first and Taruffi took second place. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

Debut ’52 championship race win was followed by more strong results, including second to Ascari (right) at Silverstone

Express/Express/Getty Images

Thus Taruffi, in typically measured fashion, scored the first win of the World Championship’s F2 interregnum.

The returning Ascari put that performance into context by scoring nine successive World Championship Grands Prix wins, but Taruffi seemed unusually settled. Whereas Farina railed against the former’s supremacy and primacy, Taruffi reeled off a string of strong results – third in France, second in Britain, fourth in Germany – to be third in the final standings.

Whereupon he fell out with Enzo over which car might better suit the demands of a Targa Florio and joined pre-eminent designer Vittorio Jano at (overly) ambitious Lancia in 1953.

Taruffi, who would win the 1954 Targa for Lancia, was a hard man to pin down.

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Perhaps he found his most suitable home too late: at scientific and thorough Mercedes-Benz in 1955. Replacing injured hotshot Hans Herrmann, he fitted right in and promptly finished fourth in the famous 1-2-3-4 at Aintree’s British GP and a close second to team number one Juan Fangio in the Italian GP at Monza.

Taruffi had turned 50 by the time Enzo turned to him – in the aftermath of Eugenio Castellotti’s fatal testing crash at the Modena airfield circuit – for what would be the final Mille Miglia.

Taruffi had been trying to win this round-Italy race since 1930, with a best of third place in a Scuderia Ferrari-run Alfa Romeo 8C in 1933, plus runaway class wins of 1934 and 1938 in Maserati and Fiat.

He had led on occasion and challenged for victory often before failing to finish in his eight post-war attempts.

Enzo handed him a 315S fitted with the yet more powerful 4.1-litre version of the V12 – and Taruffi started on a promise to his much younger wife Isabella that he would quit for good should he win. (She had accompanied him on some of his practice laps.)

Wife Isabella persuaded Taruffi to retire after ’57 Mille Miglia win

Carlo Bavagnoli\Mondadori via Getty Images

For the first third he shadowed team-mate Peter Collins, in a 335S with similar engine, but thereafter the younger man’s verve – even Taruffi, an advocate of physical as well as mental fitness, could not hold back the years – saw the Englishman draw inexorably away.

Indeed Kidderminster’s finest was on schedule at the return leg’s Bologna control to beat Stirling Moss’s record average of 1955. Taruffi in contrast – man and car wilting – considered withdrawal.

This is where Enzo chipped in, as was his wont. His version of events is that he told Taruffi to press on because Collins’ transmission was emitting a similar ominous grinding – while promising that he would in turn call off the chasing Wolfgang von Trips.

From the archive

Taruffi would refute that the latter had obeyed team orders – the German aristocrat in turn graciously insisting that the better man had won on the day – but that’s how it looked as they crossed the finish line at Brescia. The former was just feet ahead on the road having started three minutes behind his rival – in the same model albeit with a 3.8 – some 10 hours previously.

Collins and his photographer/co-driver Louis Klemantaski had indeed ground to a halt, outside Parma.

Taruffi, aka the ‘Silver Fox’, had achieved his gold standard.

However, the crash that killed Ferrari’s ‘Fon’ de Portago and co-driver Ed Nelson, plus 11 spectators, five of them children, cast a shadow over all else.

The Mille Miglia in this format had run its course.

So, too, had Taruffi, the driver.

This (relatively) safety-conscious combatant had seen a great deal of death – a biker and a sidecar racer were killed in support races to the 1952 Swiss GP (and near contemporary Rudi Caracciola had broken a leg in the card’s sports car encounter).

Piero Taruffi, the eventual race winner, accelerates away from the Rome Control in his Ferrari 315 Sport during the Mille Miglia, May 1957. (Photo by Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images)

Setting off from Rome on victorious ’57 Mille Miglia run

Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

It was time to stop.

Taruffi ‘settled down’ to write the book – the technique has dated but its insights into motor racing chime true – and practise what he preached at his racing drivers’ school.

Oh, and he team-managed until the early 1960s.

Enzo on Piero: “He threw himself into the sport with an inexhaustible enthusiasm.”

Add to that: with skill and expertise born of acute intelligence and the full panoply of experience.