Doug Nye: Happy 70th Ferrari – road and racing car manufacturer

09th May 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Seventy years ago this week – on May 11th, 1947 – the first Ferrari made at Maranello appeared in its public debut; a most momentous of anniversaries that we will be celebrating at this year’s Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard. Of course, that landmark first public appearance was made in a motor race – actually a round-the-houses street race run in Piacenza.  


Just in case you might be wondering, the reason why so many of these early post-war races happened to be run upon such town-centre circuits is easily explained. National road systems were still so badly disrupted by wartime damage – involving in many cases total obliteration – that race organisers had no confidence in their events’ abilities to attract paying spectators in sufficient numbers unless they were run in city suburbs or town centres, adequately served by revived public transport. Essentially, less than two full years after the end of World War 2, many extensive tracts of Italian territory were still cratered moonscapes, not long-since stopped smoking. Where re-emergent motorsport was concerned, it was all a case of sport for sport’s sake – and ticket-sales cash for our motor club’s sake. 

Ferrari’s new little 2-litre screamer with primitively-fashioned wheel-enclosing box bodywork (known by the works as the Spyder) was accompanied at Piacenza – between Milan and Bologna – by a second car, a cycle-mudguard narrow-fuselage car known by the factory as the Competizione. These brand-new V12s were to be driven not only by pre-war Tuscan veteran Franco Cortese, but also by guest star driver ‘Nino’ Farina.

The little Prancing Horse team from Maranello was being managed by Maestro Nello Ugolini – the urbane, cultured and worldly-wise manager of the Scuderia Ferrari pre-war – with technical supervision provided by another pre-war veteran Luigi Bazzi, whose own experience extended back to the early days of Alfa Romeo and the Fiat Grand Prix team before that. 

In recent months I have been working with Ferrari collector Ronald Stern and his collection manager – marque authority Nathan Beehl – to produce a book on that first racing season for the new Ferrari marque. After each race in which the works-entered cars competed, the team manager produced an internal report, which would then be bound into a ‘Libro di Corse’ volume covering all racing activity, at the end of the year. I have happy memories of one late night at Fiorano when Harvey Postlethwaite, then chief engineer (chassis) effectively smuggled me in for a look around the race ’shop (on promise of losing my vitals if I blabbed about what I had seen– so I didn’t). 

May 11th, 1947 - Piacenza, Italy - Franco Cortese in the first prototype Ferrari 125 V12 sports-racing car led at one point before retirement when the fuel pump failed.

May 11th, 1947 - Piacenza, Italy - Franco Cortese in the first prototype Ferrari 125 V12 sports-racing car led at one point before retirement when the fuel pump failed.

In one of the offices, standing in a long, long row on a sturdy shelf, were these team race-report volumes, dozen after dozen after dozen of them. And, extraordinarily, I gather that the succession of volumes is not really complete… one or two of them, in reality, having long-since gone walkabout.

Ferrari’s internal “comments on our participation” for that Piacenza debut race relate how Farina began practice in Ferrari race No 1 – the cycle-mudguard Competizione -leaving the sister No 128 – the box-bodied Spyder – to Cortese. Farina drove six practice laps in No 1 before trying four more in the enveloping-bodied No 128. His best in the Competizione was 1 minute 54.63 seconds, but in the enveloping car he did a 1:52.1.

Franco Cortese drove five laps in each car – clocking three laps at 1:53 in the cycle-mudguard machine, but 1:51s (twice) in No 128. This almost certainly inflamed the always arrogantly self-regarding Farina, who then did four more laps in the cycle-fendered Competizione. He repeated his 1:54.1 time before overshooting the Barriera Farnese corner and stoving in the new Ferrari’s front end against the straw bales. The internal report describes the damage as being “subsequently fixed”. 

On race morning, May 11th, Cortese was given the enveloping-bodied car and Farina the beaten-straight Competizione – which he bluntly refused to drive, demanding Cortese’s allocated mount instead. The internal report reads: “…so we decided to use a single car driven by Cortese”. That must have been some argument....

May 11th, 1947 - Piacenza, Italy - Franco Cortese in the first prototype Ferrari 125 V12 sports-racing car makes its public debut.

May 11th, 1947 - Piacenza, Italy - Franco Cortese in the first prototype Ferrari 125 V12 sports-racing car makes its public debut.

Cortese promptly rose to the debut-drive task with typical intelligence, running third until lap 20 when he backed-off and dropped back because he noticed his precious new V12 engine’s oil pressure falling. Rival drivers Angiolini and Barbieri collided in their Maseratis, enabling Cortese to inherit the lead. For the first time a purebred Ferrari car led a motor race. But on lap 27 his engine starved, spluttered and cut dead. The fuel pump had failed, and he was forced to retire.

The contemporary race report in ‘Auto Italiana’ declared that “…a stupid failure of the petrol pump did not weaken the conclusive performance given by Ferrari’s beautiful car…The new Ferrari driven by Cortese has proved to be excellent with regards to engine, brakes and suspension… Cortese made good use of the five speeds at his disposal and the engine never complained about the strain it was exposed to. The avant-garde Italian constructor certainly has a fantastic new product which can be counted upon…”.

Two weeks later, on May 25th, 1947, in the Primavera Romano del Motore meeting at Rome’s Baths of Caracalla circuit, Cortese drove the Ferrari again – and this time he would win – and win handsomely.

La Ferrari had arrived. To celebrate this important anniversary year for the illustrious Maranello marque, and for more on that historic first year’s racing, watch out for details of how Goodwood will celebrate this landmark – and also for this new book – ‘La Nascita’, the birth – due later this year…

Images courtesy of the Denis Jenkinson Collection

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