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italians and formula 1 - part one
from fiat to ferrari

by Christopher Pepe
(return to sports)

For many years, Italian automobile manufacturers have been praised for creating beautiful and powerful machines of style and grace. Never accused of creating a brutta figura, manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari have confidently produced automobiles worthy of the autostrada and the Grand Prix.

While Grand Prix, or Formula 1 racing, was not invented by the Italians, it has been repeatedly influenced by their sleek designs and innovative power. Many would agree that despite fierce competition from their French and German neighbors, Italy has consistently set the standard for Formula 1 racing.

The Early Years

The Birth of the Grand Prix in France
The first organized Grand Prix covered a distance of 126 km and was actually a "Reliability Trial Run." It was held in France, and was run from Paris to Rouen. The trial run was organized in 1894 by a newspaper, Le Petite Journal, and the winning automobile would be a horseless carriage deemed to be "safe, easily controllable and reasonably economical to run." Twenty-one entries left Paris on July 22nd, and the first to reach Rouen was the Count de Dion in a steam driven De Dion tractor. However, the jury decided that the Count's car was not a "practical road vehicle" and instead awarded the prize jointly to the next two leading cars, a Peugeot and a Panhard-Levassor respectively. The winning average speed? An exhilarating 17km/h.

The following year, a true "race" was run from Paris to Bordeaux and back. This 1895 event was won by Emile Levassor, driving a 2-cylinder, 4-bhp Panhard-Levassor which he drove for 48 hours 48 minutes virtually non-stop. One feature of the 1895 event was the Peugeot of Andr� Michelin which used pneumatic tires (in this era, wheels used on other cars were either iron or solid rubber).

The immediate years that followed saw an ever-increasing search for speed. The easiest path to greater speeds was to increase engine size, and soon 7 and 8 liter engines were common place. In 1901, Mercedes broke the mould with the introduction of a 35 hp automobile. After solving some early reliability problems (and an increased engine capacity to 9 liters producing 60 hp), the car became a consistent race winner.

In 1906, the French held the very first Grand Prix for manufactures over a 64-mile course near Le Mans. Of the 32 cars that started the race, 11 remained after 12 laps (split over two days). The winner was Ferenc Szisz, a Hungarian, driving a 90 hp Renault. His Renault utilized detachable rims created by Michelin, enabling him to change tires in 2 to 3 minutes instead of the normal 15 minutes. And Renault helped the French continue their domination of the early years of the Grand Prix.

The Italians Take the Lead

Breaking French Domination
1907 was the year of the Italians. Taking to the field with cars from Fiat, Itala and Isotta-Fraschini, Italians managed to win most of the major races and finally break the domination of the French. The second French Grand Prix was staged under a new set of rules based on fuel consumption, effectively putting a stop to the quest for ever-larger engines.

Also in 1907, three new races were born. First, Germany staged the first of the Kaiserpreis races, where racing cars were not permitted, to the exclusion of touring cars with engines of less than eight litres. The race was won by Felice Nazzaro, in a Fiat. That year Nazzaro had also won the French Grand Prix and the Targa Florio, created by the wealthy Sicilian Vicenzo Floria. Second, the Coppa Florio, held near Brescia in Italy, was run along the lines of the Kaiserpreis and saw Ferdinando Minoia winning in an Isotta-Fraschini. The third major event was a race sponsored by the Paris newspaper Le Matin. Run from Peking to Paris, this 15,000 kilometre event took cars through some of the worst terrain Asia and Europe could throw at them. This race was also won by an Italian, this time driving an Itala. The Itala drivers finished the course in exactly two months. A further two months were to pass before the second placed car arrived back in Paris, thus making for the largest ever winning margin in a road race!

Economic Problems and the Advent of War

The racing industry contracts
From 1909 onwards there was a marked reduction in the number of races being staged. Economic depression seriously affected the European motor industry and several major manufacturers withdrew from racing. Most notable was Renault who did not rejoin the top line motor sport until 1977. Also, the cost of trying to stay ahead of the constant race changes were too great for most of the manufacturers, and many withdrew.

The United States makes a move
The depression had less impact in the USA and racing entered a period of rapid expansion. American drivers had spent the first twenty years of racing being totally dominated by their European counterparts. Things started to change in 1909 with the opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The spectators loved it from the start. Not only could they see the entire track at the same time, but the design made for extremely competitive and exciting racing. The racing promoters agreed with them. Crowds could at last be controlled and charged an entry fee. Oval circuits sprung up all over the US and by 1917 the American Automobile Association was staging the national championship races exclusively on such circuits. By now, however, it was common knowledge that Europe was slipping towards war. As war swept across Europe, the roar of engines fell away to be replaced with the sound of cannon fire. They did not return for almost seven years.

Racing Returns

The rise of Fiat and Alfa Romeo World War I inflicted serious damage on the sport of auto racing, best exemplified at the 1921 French Grand Prix where the Europeans were overwhelmed by the visiting Americans. However, European engineers had learned a lot during the war, and European cars were soon experiencing some incredible technological advances. Overhead camshafts and supercharged engines soon became the norm and the Europeans quickly regained their dominance over the racing circuit. Among the most dominant forces of the European automobile renaissance were the Italian outfits of Fiat and Alfa Romeo.

The growth of the Grand Prix
The twenties saw a massive swing towards small purpose built circuits. Between 1921 and 1927 the number of Grand Prix increased steadily each year, with races being run in Italy, France, Spain, Britain and Belgium. In 1925, the first attempt at a World Championship was made, with organisers nominating the Belgian, French and Italian Grand Prix, and the Indianapolis 500, as championship events. This was a contest between manufacturers and Alfa Romeo was the first to take the laurels. In 1926 the title went to Bugatti whose stunning T39 model proved very hard to beat. The 1927 title went to Delahaye and then for 1928 the rules governing racing were relaxed and the sport entered the era of Formula Libre.

Formula Libre

Free form racing propels Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and Maserati
Since the inception of Grand Prix racing in 1907, races had been run in accordance with a strict formula based on engine size and weight. These regulations were all but abandoned in 1928, as organisers ran their events under 'Formula Libre' rules - a free formula without weight, fuel consumption or distance limitations. This relaxation resulted in a great deal of success for Italian racing car manufactureres Bugatti, Alfa Romeo and the newcomer, Maserati.

But it was Bugatti with its supercharged Type 35B that dominated all of the major races in Europe. Bugatti drivers William Grover Williams and Louis Chiron took all of the major trophies, including the first-ever Monte Carlo Grand Prix in 1929. (note: The Bugatti race cars were some of the most beautiful cars ever built but suffered from inadequate brakes. A famous quote attributed to Ettore Bugatti after criticism of his brakes was: " I build my cars to go, not stop.").

Ferrari enters the fold
In 1930, Alfa Romeo decided to enlist some help in taking on their old rivals, and recruited a new company to direct all of their racing efforts. This company was called Scuderia Ferrari and was run by Enzo Ferrari. Alfa Romeo saw some immediate dividends with Tazio Nuvolari's victory in the Mille Miglia. (note: The Mille Miglia was designed as a way to promote and improve Italian motor car design and reliability. The race provided a test of almost 1000 grueling miles of good, bad, and indifferent roads. The route traveled east to Vicenza, south along the Adriatic to Pescara, west to Rome and then northwest to Brescia. It was the province of Italian drivers for most of its history. Traditionally the first cars, the amateurs, would leave Brescia at 9 p.m. at 1-minute intervals and return 16-24 hours later. Due to the amount of entrants, the works teams would often depart the next morning. Each car would have its starting time painted on the car, which would allow spectators some indication of their relative placement. Nuvolari's victory was the first in which the event had been completed at an average speed in excess of 100kph.) However, lasting Grand Prix success for the operation did not come quickly.

Despite Ferrari's entrance into the field and Nuvolari's win, Bugatti still dominated the season. And the impressive eight-cylinder Maserati's remained a distant second, managing a couple of wins.

Bugatti and Alfa Romeo battle for the lead
For 1931, as Formula Libre continued, the only stipulation imposed on organisers of Grand Prix events was that the race be run over a minimum period of 10 hours. That resulted in a two man team for each car and the rule was adopted for the French, Italian and Belgian races. Bugatti fielded the T51 while Alfa Romeo unveiled their twin-engined Type A Monoposto. Bugatti won four of the six Grand Prix, with Alfa scoring at the Italian Monza. At this time the German Grand Prix, staged at the N�rburgring, was run under sportscar rules. It was won by Rudolf Carracciola in a Mercedes SSK. Carracciola also made the news by winning the Mille Miglia, for this was the first time the prestigious event had been won by anyone other than an Italian.

Alfa Romeo hoped for great things in 1932 when they introduced their P3. The car was the talk of the tracks throughout the season. And since Daimler-Benz withdrew from racing at the end of 1931, their top driver, Carracciola, joined Alfa. He scored his first Alfa win at the N�rburgring, while Nuvolari delivered the goods at Monaco, Monza and Reims. Bugatti had to be content with a single win, delivered by Chiron in the Czech Grand Prix.

Throughout the 1933 season the top finishes were again shared between the top three Italian teams. And At Monte Carlo, a journalist by the name of Charles Faroux, made an unusual suggestion. His idea was that drivers should line up on the grid in positions based on their practise times, rather than by ballot. This is now the accepted procedure for most forms of motor sport, but back then it was considered quite a novelty. 1933 was the last year in which races were run under 'Formula Libre' rules. For the next five years control over engine capacity would be re-established.

German Dominance
In 1934 the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) announced a new formula, one that temporarily ended Italian dominance. The formula limited the car minus driver, fuel and oil to 750kg without restricting engine size. The race length of a Grand Prix was a minimum 500 kilometer.

Mercedes, Porsche and German engineering
Hitler's Germany sponsored two teams to compete under this new formula, Mercedes and Auto Union. Both teams built brand new cars that were the fastest race cars yet built. Mercedes' chief designer, Dr. Hans Nibel, designed a car around a conventional layout but incorporating some of the latest development in racing technology.

Auto Union, an amalgamation of four firms - Horch, Audi, Wanderer and DKW - chose a more radical concept for their Type A Grand Prix car. Designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the mid-engined car placed the driver lower and further towards the front. It had a V16 4.4-litre supercharged engine that ran on special fuels mixed to a very secret formula. The German cars were beginning to gain their stride. The German cars dominated Grand Prix Racing, and except for remarkable victories by great drivers such as Chiron and Nuvolari, the Italian and French cars had to console themselves with the 1.5-liter voiturette class.

The Greatest Victory of all time - Italy vs Germany

The 1935 German Grand Prix
Before an estimated crowd of 300,000 fanatical German fans, Nazi officials and Adolf Hitler, the German Grand Prix of 1935 was held. Germany's Mercedes team consisted of Fagioli, von Brauchitsch and Caracciola, while Auto Union had Stuck, Rosemeyer, and Varzi.
Tazio Nuvolari had wanted to drive for Auto Union but the seat went to his bitter rival. Nuvolari instead drove a modified Alfa P.3 but suffered from a 50-100 bhp handicap compared to the German cars. At the start of the race Caracciola surged into the lead followed by Nuvolari who had made a great start. Rosemeyer and Fagioli soon passed the under-powered Alfa. The race developed into a battle between the two German stars Caracciola and Rosemeyer, and Nuvolari was all but forgotten. By the 10th lap, Nuvolari had forced himself back into the lead. A round of pitstops ensued and Nuvolari found himself relegated to sixth place. Driving like a man possessed he passed first Fagioli, then Rosemeyer and Caracciola, and finally Stuck. Going into the last lap he was still 30 seconds behind the leader von Brauchitsch and all seemed lost, yet never did Nuvolari slow down. Von Brauchitsch, aware of Nuvolari's progress through the ranks from his pit crew, drove his car at the limit and in so doing destroyed his tires. One tire let go a half lap from the finish and Nuvolari streaked to victory. "At first there was deathly silence," MotorSport reported, "and then the innate sportsmanship of the Germans triumphed over their astonishment. Nuvolari was given a wonderful reception." This admiration for a great champion was not shared by the representatives of the Third Reich. Korpsf�hrer H�hnlein angrily tore up his victory speech as Nuvolari was crowned victor. The Italian flag was hoisted after much searching, and to add salt to the Nazi's wound, Nuvolari produced a record of the Italian anthem that he had brought with him for good luck. The Korpsf�hrer was not amused, as the Italians defeated the Germans at the height of German racing dominance.

The fall and rise of Mercedes
1936 was the year of the Auto Union Type C driven by Bernd Rosemeyer. The engine had been enlarged again to 6006cc and produced an astounding 520 bhp. Astounding not so much for its size to horsepower ration, but the fact that they were able to fit an engine of this size and power into a 750kg formula car. Rosemeyer won German, Italian and Swiss Grand Prix along with the Eifelrennen and the Coppa Acerbo. Mercedes in fact withdrew from racing in order to develop their counter-attack. Their independent racing department established in 1935 and under the direction of 30-year-old engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut was given a fresh infusion of the best Mercedes engineers and ordered to develop a brand new car. Mercedes did not disappoint.

In 1937, Mercedes created a W125 along with a reworked W25, both of them producing nearly 600 bhp, top speeds reaching 200mph and wheel spin in every gear. The performance of the W125 was unmatched by any other manufacturer, in fact it would not be until the Can-Am cars of the late 1960s that another race car would equal the horsepower of the 1937 Mercedes Grand Prix car.

The Avusrennen that year was run on a modified circuit. Reputedly at the suggestion of Adolf Hitler, the North Curve was rebuilt and steeply banked allowing for much higher speeds. The German cars ran with special streamlined bodies. Hermann Lang's victory driving a Mercedes at an average speed of 162.61 mph was not bested for thirty years, when A.J. Foyt averaged 164.173, while winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1967. As a final exclamation point to these great machines, on January 28, Rudolf Caracciola set a new class record in a 12-cylinder car with special enclosed streamlined body. It set a top speed of 436.9 km/h during a one-kilometer run in one direction with a flying start. This is the highest speed ever driven on an ordinary road.

The Second World War
In 1938, the AIACR instituted a new formula which limited engine size to 3 liters supercharged or 4.5 liters unsupercharged. Mercedes and Auto Union answered this new challenge without pause and continued their dominance. Alfa Romeo abandoned the formula and concentrated on the 1.5-litre voiturette class for their entry in the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1939. Unbeknownst to Alfa, Mercedes secretly prepared two 1.5-litre W165 cars for Herman Lang and Caracciola and promptly finished 1-2. Only the outbreak of the Second World War would stop the German juggernaut. The cars of this era have rightly been considered some of the greatest racing cars ever produced by man.

To be continued . . . Ferrari fields a car of their own and Nuvolari exits racing in dramatic fashion . . . .

Three Part Series
1 - 2 - 3

Parts of the preceding article have been reproduced from the following web sites: The Story of the Grand Prix, and Grand Prix History.


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