Enzo Ferrari: Il Commendatore and his Racing History

Enzo Ferrari: Il Commendatore and his Racing History

Much is known about the great man, but part of his allure is the mystery which surrounded his life. A man whose life was dedicated almost entirely to the pursuit of speed and the intermingling of art and science. Enzo Ferrari not only glamorized motor racing in his home country, but made it something more than a mere science fair or a pastime for the wealthy—he turned it into a passion that millions the world across could relate to.

Though Ferrari did not come from a family grounded in motorsports, by the time he was ten he had been bitten by the racing bug. His father, Alfredo, whose blacksmith shop built roofs and bridges for the state railways, took the young Enzo and his brother Alfredo Jr. to a race at the Circuit di Bologna. There, he witnessed Vincenzo Lancia duel fiercely with Felice Nazarro, who won the action-packed race. Hooked by the unique form of excitement than only motor racing offers, the young Ferrari was torn between his attraction to motorsport and his burgeoning ambition to become a famous singer.

Throughout his teens, Ferrari was dealt with several serious blows. His father died from the Spanish flu when Ferrari was just seventeen. The teenager had a rough, near-fatal brush with the disease himself, and this illness led to his honorable discharge him from the Italian Armed Services, with which he was involved at the time. This shook the family financially, and forced the young man to abandon his dreams of becoming an opera singer to search for work.

A young Ferrari sits astride his new source of joy.

After months of near-starvation and a failed attempt to get hired with Fiat, his persistence paid off and he landed a respectable job with Lancia, which was converting war surplus into automobiles at the time. There, he would act as a test driver and a delivery driver; delivering the chassis to the various coachmakers. On these long hauls, he would eventually befriend a man named Ugo Sivocci.

The two young drivers had motorsport pumping through their veins, and through shared levels of ambition and determination, they became inseparable. Sivocci taught Ferrari a good deal about the finer points of racing, and the two would eventually compete alongside one another. Throughout their travels, strange stories emerged—one of which involved the two on a trip to a race in Southern Italy. On the way, they were caught in a snowstorm and Ferrari fended off a pack of ravenous wolves with his sidearm!

In 1919, Ferrari was working as a test driver for Construzioni Mecchaniche Nazionali, the company which helped him get his racing start. His formal debut at the 1919 Parma-Poggio de Berceto hillclimb resulted in a fourth-place finish in the three-liter class while driving a 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder CMN 15/20. Later that year, his attempt at the Targa Florio with Sivocci alongside was good enough to interest Alfa Romeo in his talents as a driver, and shortly thereafter, he began working with them.

For the following year, Alfa would provide Ferrari a car for the Targa Florio: a 6-liter, 4-cylinder Alfa Romeo Tipo 40/60, in which he finished a spectacular second. For the following year, Ferrari would become an official Alfa driver and won a hard-fought fifth in the Targa Florio in May, and finished second at Mugello that July. Within a short timespan, the young Ferrari was building a respectable racing resume.

Ferrari’s steed for the 1920 Targa Florio.

Spurred on by his success, he then won the Circuito del Savio in 1923, and his reputation grew. The father of the well-renowned WW1 fighter pilot Francesco Baracca was taken by the young, enthusiastic, and cocksure Ferrari and suggested he use the emblem which once decorated his son’s planes—hence the beginning of the cavalino rampante adorning Ferrari’s machinery.

Baracca and the origin of the iconic emblem.

Ferrari’s most cherished race—the 1924 Coppa Acerbo—was won in an Alfa R.L. Here, the talented young man solidified his status as an up-and-coming driver after beating the Mercedes driven by heroes Bonmartini and Masetti. Now well-regarded, Ferrari’s future looked bright. However ambitious the young man was, though, his human side would prevent him from reaching the very top.

Ferrari’s success at local and mid-level racing  led to an invitation to compete in the French Grand Prix that year. Though the reports of the event are vague, it seems that he suffered a crisis of confidence and shirked the challenge. Perhaps it was a display of youthful wisdom; Ferrari may have been wise enough to recognize his own limitations, and instead turned his attentions to developing a first-rate racing team. From then on, he continued racing successfully at the local level, and an concurrently began developing his own company.

In 1925, Ferrari started the what would eventually become the Corsa Cliente. By providing technical support to the rich gentlemen drivers racing Alfa-Romeos, he found a consistent stream of income to further fund his own efforts. It helped kickstart a serious racing program, but without some top-notch talent, he was still a big fish in a small pond.

Nuvolari and the Alfa Bimoto, which sports the famous yellow shield

His luck improved in 1929, when Ferrari befriended the well-heeled Caniano brothers—Augusto and Alredo—who were heirs to a textile fortune. With their patronage, Ferrari formally began the Scuderia Ferrari. He then enlisted a number of capable gentleman drivers using mostly Alfa Romeos, but also hired the remarkable talents of Giuseppe Campari and Tazio Nuvolari. With those two in his squad, Ferrari’s team was becoming a force to be reckoned with. The Scuderia would eventually become the racing arm of the company. Though they raced Alfas, they were adorned with the iconic yellow badge.

Though his businesses were booming, Ferrari was not completely done with his duties at the wheel. He moonlighted as a driver for years while his businesses grew; his final race took place at the Circuito Tre Province on August 9th, 1931, where he finished second to Tazio Nuvolari, a virtuoso driver whom he would form a close, brotherly relationship in years to come. Around this time, Ferrari’s son Dino was born, and begin a responsible father, he focused all his efforts on growing the Scuderia into something monumental.

Ferrari poses with son Dino.

More money came from his connections with Pirelli, for whom Ferrari would provide their customers with technical support. It was this connection that would keep Ferrari’s team afloat when Alfa decided to pull their efforts from motor racing in 1933; Pirelli persuaded Alfa to provide the struggling team with six P3 cars, the talented engineer Luigi Bazzi, and test driver Attilio Mannoni.

However, this change did not suit the headstrong Ferrari, who was insistent on his own way. After Alfa returned to racing in the 1.5-liter voiturette formula, he found himself stationed under Alfa’s sporting director, Wilfredo Ricart, and promptly left the team to start his own outfit. With the provision that he wouldn’t use the Ferrari namesake for four years, he split with Alfa and made it his unwritten aim to beat the company that helped him start. His group, Auto-Avio Construzioni S.p.A., set up shop in Modena, in the stable where the Scuderia Ferrari originally was.

The 125S in action.

The Ferrari 125S was powered by a 1.5-liter V12 and made its debut at the Piacenza Circuit on May 11th, 1947, driven by Franco Cortese. It won its next race—the Rome Grand Prix—two weeks later at the Terme di Caracalla Circuit. It started out successfully, although it would be another four years until its next Grand Prix victory at the 1951 British Grand Prix. From there on, Ferrari would rise meteorically, largely thanks to competent drivers and a cold, pragmatic business sense matched with a colossal drive to succeed.

Ferrari’s star driver at the time, Rene Dreyfus, remarking on Ferrari’s temperament said, “it was more than an enthusiast’s love, but one tempered by the practical realization that this was a good way to build a nice, profitable empire.” Despite the way he was passionately compelled to win, he was “not openly affectionate” with his drivers.

Derek Bell learned of Ferrari’s brusque nature in the late 1960s, when the Briton was still under contract as Ferrari’s test driver. Given an opportunity to try the new Ford GT40, Bell, as politely as anyone, asked to be temporarily released from his contract to try the new American monster. Within minutes, the Briton received a Telex from Il Commendatore which read, “You will honor your contract. – Ferrari.”

Ferrari sharing a laugh with his favorite, Gilles Villeneuve.

However, he also had a warm, paternalistic side which certain drivers could bring out of him. Typically, he respected the hard-chargers, and preferred those that drove with skill and observable bravery over the shrewd calculators.  His favorite driver was Gilles Villeneuve, whom he referred to admiringly as the “High Prince of Destruction.” But before Gilles, the man who mesmerized Ferrari was the gifted Tazio Nuvolari.

Nuvolari’s four-wheel drift would allow him to corner at a remarkable speed through a shorter, shallower line through the corner. By steering in early and coaxing the rear end to rotate gracefully around on a slightly wider arc, Nuvolari was able to shock Ferrari, who was no slouch himself. Once, after an exasperated ride with Nuvolari, Ferrari recalled the event with amazement: “Each time, I seemed to be climbing into a roller coaster and coming through the downhill with that sort-of dazed feeling we all know.” Though a cruel taskmaster, there’s no denying that Ferrari held the same sort of reverence for the top drivers as any passionate fan.

Nuvolari’s distinctive style caught the attention of the discerning Ferrari. Photo credit: Pinterest.

With incredible success attained in his decade behind the wheel and his company gaining incredible recognition in a short span of time, Ferrari’s future looked promising. As demonstrated through his formative years, finding the means to put a team together was as arduous task, and Ferrari would have to sell even more cars to support his passion without the support of a major manufacturer. With an inimitable aura surrounding his road cars—which would soon transcend the realm of simple luxury items—and the racing programs which spawned them, Ferrari became a household name worldwide. Only could this sort clamor could be attained by a man who would passionately admit, “I have, in fact, no interest in life outside of racing cars.”

Photo credit: Auto Evolution.





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