Showing posts with label Grand Prix. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grand Prix. Show all posts

24 January 2023

Davide Valsecchi - racing driver and TV presenter

Double GP2 champion’s track career ended in frustration

Valsecchi was tipped by many for a career in Formula One
Valsecchi was tipped by many for
a career in Formula One
Davide Valsecchi, now a TV commentator but in his racing days rated as one of the best drivers never to be given a chance in Formula One, was born on this day in 1987 in Eupilio, a small town in the lake district of northern Italy.

Valsecchi was twice a champion in GP2, the category just below F1, but despite stints as a test driver and reserve driver for Lotus on the main Grand Prix circuit was never given a chance to compete at the top level. 

Frustrated because he thought he deserved an opportunity, Valsecchi quit the sport but soon forged a career in television coverage of F1, first as an analyst and then as a commentator, becoming a popular figure with viewers for his excitable style.

He also co-presents the Italian version of the hit British car show, Top Gear.

Valsecchi made his debut in the Formula Renault and Formula 3 classes as young as 16, making his Formula 3 debut the same year, although it was not until 2007, having stepped up to Formula Renault 3500, that he celebrated his first race victory.

That came at the Nürburgring in Germany, where he won the second of the two rounds on the same weekend. The other was won by a future four-times F1 world champion, Sebastian Vettel.  

Valsecchi pictured in a Team Lotus Renault in practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix
Valsecchi pictured in a Team Lotus Renault
in practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix. 
He won races in Monza and Shanghai for the Italian team, Durango, as he moved up to GP2 the following year. 

His breakthrough came after joining iSport International, a British team, for the 2009–10 GP2 Asia Series, which he won, with three races to spare, after achieving three wins and two second places in the first five races of the season.  In the main GP2 series in 2010, victory in the final race of the season enabled him to take eighth in the drivers' championship, his best performance so far.

Valsecchi could not improve on that eighth pace in 2011 but the following season, when 2011 GP2 champion Romain Grosjean stepped up to F1 with Lotus, it was to Valsecchi that Grosjean’s DAMS team turned for a replacement.

He did not let them down, establishing an early championship lead by winning three out of the four races held across two weekends in Bahrain and producing a strong end to the campaign, winning at Monza in his home round of the series to see off rival Luiz Razia and take the title by a 22-point margin.

Valsecchi is noted for his exuberant presenting style
Valsecchi is noted for his
exuberant presenting style
It was the biggest moment of Valsecchi’s career, enabling him to join a list of previous GP2 champions that included Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Timo Glock, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado and Grosjean, all of whom graduated to F1. 

Having already done some test driving for Lotus at the end of the 2011 season, Valsecchi was hopeful his career would now follow a similar trajectory.  Those hopes rose still more after the conclusion of the GP2 series, when he topped the standings in the F1 Young Driver test. The following March, he and Grosjean shared duties for Lotus at the preseason test sessions in Barcelona.

Yet as the 2013 season proper unfolded, he was unable to displace Grosjean as the number two Lotus driver despite his Swiss-born rival’s erratic form. Later, when No 1 Kimi Räikkönen had to drop out to undergo back surgery, instead of promoting Grosjean and giving Valsecchi the second car, Lotus turned instead to Heikki Kovalainen, telling Valsecchi he was too inexperienced.

Having made his feelings clear on the snub, Valsecchi was not offered anything in 2014 and his F1 career was effectively over before it had begun. 

It was not the end of his association with the sport, however. After landing a job as a race analyst with Sky Sport Italia for their F1 coverage, he was invited to provide colour commentary in 2017 for the international feed of the newly-formed FIA Formula 2 Championship.

His enthusiastic and passionate commentary style immediately gained him a following and today he fronts Sky Sport Italia F1 coverage alongside co-presenter Federica Masolin.

Since 2016, he has hosted Top Gear Italia on the Sky Uno channel, teaming up with Sky Sport Italia’s Moto GP commentator Guido Meda and Joe Bastianich, an American restaurateur who was previously a judge on the Italian version of Masterchef.

A view across Lake Pusiano taken from the  upper slopes of Monte Cornizzolo
A view across Lake Pusiano taken from the 
upper slopes of Monte Cornizzolo
Travel tip:

Eupilio, where Valsecchi was born and still lives, lies on the slopes of Monte Cornizzolo, between the small Segrino and Pusiano lakes of Lombardy, about midway between Como to the west and Lecco to the east. It is a municipality that has existed since 1927, when the villages of Penzano, Carella and Mariaga were merged to form one place.  The name is thought to have its origins in Historia naturalis, the study of natural history by Pliny the Elder written in around 77AD, in which he described a ‘Eupilis Lacus’, taken to be the stretch of water today known as Lake Pusiano, which the area overlooks. The calming peace of the lake is said to influence the slow, rarefied pace of life in the villages around it.  Eupilio has only 2,600 residents yet has five churches built between the 13th and 16th centuries. The area is thought to have been inhabited since approximately 3000BC. Situated about 18km (11 miles) east of Como and 14km (9 miles) west of Lecco, the landscape to the south is the northern edge of the gently hilly Brianza region, while to the north, beyond Lake Segrino, are the first steep slopes of the Pre-Alps.  It is an area popular with walkers.

The Duomo at Monza, home of the fabled Iron Crown
The Duomo at Monza, home
of the fabled Iron Crown
Travel tip:

The city of Monza is famous for its Grand Prix motor racing circuit, where Valsecchio numbered two important victories in his career. The city is also home to the Iron Crown of Lombardy - the Corona Ferrea - a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend, was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross and was found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century and is kept in a chapel in the 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, the city’s cathedral. When Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy in 1805, he was crowned in the Duomo in Milan and the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza before the ceremony. During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head. 

Also on this day:

41: The assassination of Roman emperor Caligula

1444: The birth of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan

1705: The birth of castrato opera star Farinelli

1916: The birth of actor and writer Arnaldo Foà

1947: The birth of footballer Giorgio Chinaglia


1 July 2022

Achille Varzi - racing driver

Death on track led to mandatory wearing of crash helmets

Varzi was never seen as a driver who was reckless at the wheel
Varzi was never seen as a driver
who was reckless at the wheel
Italian motor racing fans were in mourning on this day in 1948 when it was announced that Achille Varzi, whose rivalry with fellow driver Tazio Nuvolari made frequent headlines during the 1930s, had been killed in an accident while practising for the Swiss Grand Prix.

Although the sun was shining, an earlier downpour had left parts of the Bremgarten circuit outside Berne very wet and Varzi’s Alfa Romeo 158 was travelling at 110mph when he arrived at a corner that was both wet and oily.

The car spun several times and appeared to be coming to a stop but then flipped over. The helmetless Varzi was crushed beneath the car and died from his injuries at the age of 43.

His death was especially shocking because he was regarded as one of the more cautious drivers. Since beginning his career on two wheels in his teens he had suffered only one major accident, in stark contrast to Nuvolari, whose daredevil tactics led him to have several serious crashes.

Whether Varzi would have survived with better protection is unknown, but his death did prompt motor racing’s governing body, the FIA, to make the wearing of crash helmets by drivers mandatory rather than optional, a ruling many thought was long overdue.

The fearless Nuvolari won 24 Grands Prix but in spite of his more conservative style Varzi still won 17 of his own and his rivalry with Nuvolari has drawn comparisons with that of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost half a century later.

Varzi at the wheel of his Bugatti T51 after winning his duel with rival Tazio Nuvolari at Monaco in 1933
Varzi at the wheel of his Bugatti T51 after winning
his duel with rival Tazio Nuvolari at Monaco in 1933
They were seen as contenders for the crown of Italy’s greatest driver, often competing against each other in Italy’s two great endurance races, the Mille Miglia, which Nuvolari won twice to Varzi’s once, and the Targa Florio, which both won twice each.

Born in 1904 in Galliate, a small town just outside the city of Novara in Piedmont, Varzi was the son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer.

Like Nuvolari, he began his career racing motorcycles, having the financial wherewithal to acquire some of the best machines of the day, such as those made by Garelli, Moto Guzzi and Sunbeam. 

He switched to cars in 1928, at first driving Type 35 Bugattis alongside Nuvolari, although he soon decided to go it alone, again taking advantage of his family’s wealth to buy himself a P2 Alfa Romeo, which was a superior car. He chalked up so many race wins in 1929 that Nuvolari felt he needed a P2 of his own. 

With a shrewd business brain in addition to his talent behind the wheel, Varzi would not hesitate to switch his allegiance if he felt it would be to his advantage and managed to drive for each major marque during their most successful periods: Alfa Romeo in the late 1920s and mid-’30s, Bugatti in the early 1930s, Auto-Union in the mid-1930s after Adolf Hitler began investing in German motorsport, and Maserati in the immediate pre-war years.

There were numerous races that came down to a straight fight between him and Nuvolari, one example of which was the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix, when the two Italians fought a duel along the narrow streets of the principality that the lead changed on almost every lap until Varzi ultimately broke away to win.

Varzi's car rounds a bend in the 1930 Targo Florio, the endurance race in Sicily, which he won
Varzi's car rounds a bend in the 1930 Targo Florio,
the endurance race in Sicily, which he won
Varzi’s peak was 1934, when he drove his P3 Alfa Romeo to victory in the prestigious Coppa Ciano as well as both the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, and the Grands Prix of Tripoli, Penya Rhin and Nice.

He would have undoubtedly won more had he not begun what would prove to be a disastrous affair with Ilse Pietsch, the wife of one of his teammates at the Auto Union team, which he joined in 1935.

Apart from the tensions this caused in the Auto Union stable, the relationship had terrible consequences for Varzi’s career. It turned out Ilse Pietsch was addicted to the opioid morphine, a potent painkiller that can induce feelings of intense joy and euphoria when taken in large quantities.

She persuaded Varzi, by then in his early 30s, to sample it himself and he too soon became addicted. His performances suffered as well as his health. By then driving for Maserati, he won the inaugural San Remo Grand Prix in 1937 but little more was seen of him after that and it was not until the Second World War curtailed normal life that he was able to beat his addiction.

No longer with Pietsch, he went back to his former partner, Norma, and they were married. When motor racing resumed, he found success again, driving the Alfa 158. He won races in Argentina, where he decided he would retire once his track career had ended. 

A popular figure in Argentina, his name would live on in the Scuderia Achille Varzi, which was set up after his death to enable Juan Manuel Fangio and other Argentine drivers to compete in Europe.

After his death, Varzi’s body was returned to Galliate, his coffin placed on the chassis of a racing car inside the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. His  funeral attracted 15,000 people to the large Piazza Vittorio Veneto at the front of the church.

The skyline of Novara is dominated by the 121m dome of the Basilica of San Gaudenzio
The skyline of Novara is dominated by the 121m
dome of the Basilica of San Gaudenzio
Travel tip:

With a population of more than 100,000, Novara is the second largest city in the Piedmont region after Turin. Founded by the Romans, it became an important crossroads for commercial traffic along the routes from Milan to Turin and from Genoa to Switzerland. It was later ruled by the Visconti and Sforza families. In the 18th century it was ruled by the House of Savoy. In 1849, the defeat of the Sardinian army by the Austrian army at the Battle of Novara led to the abdication of Charles Albert of Sardinia and is seen as the beginning of the Italian unification movement.  Among the fine old buildings in Novara, which include the Basilica of San Gaudenzio, with its tower-dome designed by Alessandro Antonelli, who also designed Turin's landmark Mole Antonelliana, and the Broletto, a collection of buildings showing four distinct architectural styles, is the Novara Pyramid, which is also called the Ossuary of Bicocca, which was built to hold the ashes of fallen soldiers after the Battle of Novara.

The impressive Sforzesco Castle is one of the main features of the historically strategic town of Galliate
The impressive Sforzesco Castle is one of the main features
of the historically strategic town of Galliate
Travel tip:

Galliate, where Varzi was born, is notable for the Sforzesco Castle, which stands on the town’s central square, the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, opposite the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.  Originally built in the 10th century, the castle was rebuilt by Barbarossa in 1168, again by Filippo Maria Visconti in 1413, and by the Sforza family of Milan in the late 15th century. The castle’s exterior retains its Renaissance architectural features, such as the grand entrance tower, the curtain wall and the garden.  The castle passed from the Sforza family to Luchino del Maino and was eventually divided and sold to private individuals. The Galliate municipality took over and subsequently restored a part of the castle.  Today, it houses the civic library, the Angelo Bozzola Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Achille Varzi Museum, dedicated to the driver.

Also on this day:

1464: The birth of noblewoman Clara Gonzaga

1586: The birth of musician Claudio Saracini

1878: The birth of career burglar Gino Meneghetti

1888: The birth of abstract painter Alberto Magnelli


15 September 2018

Ettore Bugatti - car designer

Name that became a trademark for luxury and high performance

Ettore Bugatti launched the company in 1909 after attending the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan
Ettore Bugatti launched the company in 1909 after
attending the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan
The car designer and manufacturer Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan on this day in 1881.

The company Bugatti launched in 1909 became associated with luxury and exclusivity while also enjoying considerable success in motor racing.  When the glamorous Principality of Monaco launched its famous Grand Prix in 1929, the inaugural race was won by a Bugatti.

Although Bugatti cars were manufactured for the most part in a factory in Alsace, on the border of France and Germany, their stylish designs reflected the company’s Italian heritage and Bugatti cars are seen as part of Italy’s traditional success in producing desirable high-performance cars.

The story of Bugatti as a purely family business ended in 1956, and the company closed altogether in 1963.  The name did not die, however, and Bugatti cars are currently produced by Volkswagen.

Ettore came from an artistic family in Milan. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a successful designer of Italian Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry, while his paternal grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, had been an architect and sculptor.  His younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, became well known for his animal sculpture.

Ettore - full name Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti - displayed both artistic talent and an interest in motor vehicles at a young age. He attended the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in his home city before becoming apprenticed to the bicycle manufacturer Prinetti and Stucchi, where at the age of 17 he successfully attached an engine to a tricycle.

A Type 35 Bugatti, the car that brought the company many race successes, including its first Grand Prix
A Type 35 Bugatti, the car that brought the company
many race successes, including its first Grand Prix
With financial support from his father, he began to produce prototype cars, the second of which won a prize at the Milan Trade Fair in 1901. Bugatti's design also caught the eye of the wealthy Baron de Dietrich, who offered him an opportunity to design cars at his factory in Niederbronn, a town then in Germany but now in the Alsace region of northeastern France.

Bugatti produced his first racing car in 1903, but fell out with De Dietrich over his attention to racing cars over production models and moved to work for the French manufacturer Emil Mathis in Strasbourg, although again it was a short-lived relationship. By 1907 he was working for the Deutz engine company in Cologne.

He went alone for the first time in 1909, buying a disused dyeworks in Molsheim, abou 25km (16 miles) west of Strasbourg, where with the financial backing of the Spanish racing driver Pierre De Vizcaya and a bank loan, he began work to produce 10 cars and five aeroplane engines.

Bugatti produced his first so-called ‘pur sang’ (thoroughbred) Bugattis - a term he invented himself - with the Type 10/13 in 1910, a car in which his factory driver, Ernest Friederich, came second in the French Grand Prix at the first attempt in 1911.

Ettore Bugatti (right) and his son Jean discuss race tactics
Ettore Bugatti (right) and his son Jean discuss race tactics
The company’s reputation for producing some of the fastest, most luxurious, and technologically advanced road cars of their day soon spread. Among the clients who purchased a Bugatti car was the celebrated French fighter pilot Roland Garros.

Bugatti branched more into aircraft engines during the First World War but returned to cars once peace resumed and between the wars Bugatti cars enjoyed notable success on the track.

The 1924 Type 35 brought the marque its first Grand Prix victory in Lyon, while Bugattis swept to victory in the Targa Florio, the road race in Sicily, for five years in a row from 1925 to 1929.

Between 1921 and 1939 Bugattis won more than 30 major races, including the French Grand Prix six times and the Monaco Grand Prix four times, culminating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice, in 1937 and 1939, with the Type 57, driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Pierre Veyron, whose name has since been immortalised in the most famous of modern Bugattis.

The Bugatti Veyron is regarded by experts as one of the best cars ever produced for looks and performance
The Bugatti Veyron is regarded by experts as one of
the best cars ever produced for looks and performance
On the production side, the company enjoyed huge success through the 1920s but suffered in the financial crash of the 1930s, which was a disaster for the first of the Bugatti Royales, the luxury 12.7 litre open-top limousine, of which only three were sold after the market disappeared.

Tragedy struck when Ettore Bugatti's son, Jean Bugatti, was killed in 1939 at the age of 30 while testing a Type 57 near the Molsheim factory. After that, the company's fortunes began to decline.  A strike in 1936 hit the company hard and the Second World War saw the factory in Molsheim transferred to a German owner by compulsory purchase.

The Molsheim plant was given back to Bugatti after the war but lack of funds meant the company could never return to its pre-war prosperity. Ettore, by then living in Paris, suffered pneumonia followed by a stroke and died in 1947 at the age of 65.

Married twice, he fathered two daughters and two sons, the youngest of whom, Roland Bugatti, took over the running of the company in 1951 but was unable to save it, production coming to an end in 1956, the closure of the company following in 1963.

The company name was revived 24 years later, however, when the Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli bought the rights to the Bugatti trademark and began manufacturing cars at Campogalliano, near Modena.

It was subsequently acquired by Volkswagen in 1998, with the help of whose expertise the Bugatti name has again come to symbolise luxury and high performance. The Bugatti Veyron, of which production began in 2005 at a refurbished Molsheim plant, has propelled it back to the top of the tree in the limited production exclusive sports car market, earning the title ‘greatest car of the past 20 years’ in a poll conducted by the UK magazine Top Gear that attracted more than 100,000 entries.

The Palazzo Brera is home to the Accademia di Belle Arti
The Palazzo Brera is home to the Accademia di Belle Arti
Travel tip:

The Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, sometimes shortened to Accademia di Brera, is a state-run tertiary public academy of fine arts in Via Brera in Milan, in a building it shares with the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan's main public museum for art. The academy was founded in 1776 by Maria Theresa of Austria and shared its premises with other cultural and scientific institutions, including an astronomical observatory, botanical garden, school of philosophy and law, laboratories for physics and chemistry, and a library. The main building, the Palazzo Brera, was built in about 1615 to designs by Francesco Maria Richini.

The first Targa Florio in 1906 was won by Alessandro Cagno, driving an Turin-based Itala car
The first Targa Florio in 1906 was won by Alessandro
Cagno, driving an Turin-based Itala car
Travel tip:

The Targa Florio was an open road endurance car race held in the mountains of Sicily near the island's capital of Palermo between 1906 and 1977, when it was discontinued due to safety concerns. Conceived by the wealthy pioneer race driver Vincenzo Florio, it was for a time the oldest surviving sports car racing event in the world. While early races were eventually extended to a whole tour of the island, covering a distance of 975km (606 miles), it was in time shortened to a circuit of just 72km (45 miles). The race started and finished at the village of Cerda, 45km (28 miles) southeast of Palermo.

More reading:

Enzo Ferrari and the automobile world's most famous name

The insult that fired the Lamborghini-Ferrari rivalry

How Battista 'Pinin' Farina changed the way cars looked

Also on this day:

1616: Europe's first free public school opens in Frascati, near Rome

1904: The birth of Umberto di Savoia, the last king of Italy


20 July 2018

Giovanna Amati - racing driver

Kidnap survivor who drove in Formula One

Giovanna Amati survived a 75-day kidnap ordeal when she was 18 years old
Giovanna Amati survived a 75-day kidnap
ordeal when she was 18 years old
Racing driver Giovanna Amati, the last female to have been entered for a Formula One Grand Prix, was born on this day in 1959 in Rome.

The story of Amati’s signing for the Brabham F1 team in 1992 was all the more remarkable for the fact that 14 years earlier, as an 18-year-old girl, she had been kidnapped by a ransom gang and held for 75 days in a wooden cage.

Kidnaps happened with alarming frequency in Italy in 1970s, a period marked by social unrest and acts of violence committed by political extremists, often referred to as the Years of Lead. Young people with rich parents were often the targets and Amati, whose father Giovanni was a wealthy industrialist who owned a chain of cinemas, fitted the bill.

She was snatched outside the family’s villa in Rome in February 1978 and held first in a house only a short distance away and then at a secret location, where she was physically abused and threatened with having her ear cut off while her captors negotiated with her 72-year-old father.

Critics accused Brabham of hiring  Amati as a publicity stunt
Critics accused Brabham of hiring
Amati as a publicity stunt
Eventually, Giovanni is said to have paid 800 million lira (about $933,000 dollars), for her release, having raised the money through a combination of box office receipts from the Star Wars movie playing at his cinemas, and from the sale of some of his 42-year-old former actress wife’s jewellery.

Seven of the kidnappers were arrested but the ringleader, a gangster from Marseille called Jean Daniel Nieto, evaded the police and got away. He was caught later after contacting Amati, with whom he had allegedly become infatuated, and agreeing to meet her on the fashionable Via Vittorio Veneto in the centre of Rome.

Amati, who has dismissed as untrue newspaper stories at the time that she and Nieto had become romantically involved, returned to normal life and the love of driving she had developed as an eight-year-old, when her father allowed her to drive a tractor on the family estate.

She bought a Honda motorcycle when she was 15 and was inspired to race cars by her friend, the dashing young Roman racing driver Elio de Angelis, with whom she attended a motor racing school.

She first raced professionally in the Formula Abarth series - effectively Formula Four - before graduating to Formula Three. She won some races in both yet it still came as something of bombshell when she was contacted by the then-Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone in January 1992 and offered a drive in Formula One.

Giovanna Amati failed to qualify in any of the three Grand Prix she entered
Giovanna Amati failed to qualify in each of
the three Grand Prix she entered
With only weeks to raise the budget she needed to take up the offer, Amati feared she would have to turn down the chance of a lifetime. But at the 11th hour her dream was made possible by an unlikely benefactor, the prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, who had been a friend of her father, by then passed away.

Sadly, her excursion into F1 was not a success.  She failed to qualify for the first three races of the season, in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil, and was promptly sacked, to be replaced by Damon Hill, amid suspicions that, at a time when the Brabham team was desperately in need of exposure and cash, hiring a driver who happened to be an attractive, photogenic young woman was all a publicity stunt.

It was not the end of Amati’s career. She competed in sports and touring cars for a number of years with some success but by the end of the 1990s she was more often sitting alongside TV commentary teams than in the cockpit of a car.  Her compatriot, Lella Lombardi, who started 12 World Championship races between 1974 and 1976, remains in the last female to race in a Formula One Grand Prix.

The Vallelunga autodrome was the home of the Rome Grand Prix between 1925 and 1991
The Vallelunga autodrome was the home of the Rome
Grand Prix between 1925 and 1991
Travel tip:

Racing drivers in Rome have never had their own home Formula One event but a Rome Grand Prix took place at the Vallelunga circuit between 1925 and 1991. The Vallelunga track is near the town of Campagnano, about 32km (20 miles) north of Rome. It still hosts race meetings and is used by various F1 teams for testing. The city did almost get its first F1 World Championship event in 2013, when plans had been put forward for a street circuit in the EUR district of the city. The idea was eventually abandoned through lack of support and amid fears that it would undermine the supremacy of Monza, home of the Italian Grand Prix, as Italy’s number one racing circuit.

Monza's striking Duomo is one of a number of attractive architectural features in the city
Monza's striking Duomo is one of a number of
attractive architectural features in the city
Travel tip:

Monza, which has hosted the Italian Grand Prix every year since 1950, is situated about 15km (9 miles) north of Milan.  Because so many visitors are interested in little more than cars, Monza’s many notable architectural attractions tend to be under-appreciated. These include the Gothic Duomo, with its white-and-green banded facade, which contains the Corona Ferrea (Iron Crown), which according to legend features one of the nails from the Crucifixion. The crown is on show in the chapel dedicated to the Lombard queen Theodolinda.  The adjoining Museo e Tesoro del Duomo contains one of the greatest collections of religious art in Europe.

More reading:

How Lella Lombardi became the only female racing driver to win a point in a Formula One GP

Maria Teresa de Filippis - the first woman to start a Formula One world championship event

Elio de Angelis - the last of the 'gentleman racers'

Also on this day:

1890: The birth of 20th century still life 'master' Giorgio Morandi

1937: The death of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi


26 March 2018

Lella Lombardi - racing driver

Only woman to win points in Formula One

Lella Lombardi is one of only two women to start a world championship race in the history of F1
Lella Lombardi is one of only two women to start
a world championship race in the history of F1
Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi, the only female driver to finish in a points position in a Formula One world championship motor race, was born on this day in 1941 in Frugarolo, near Alessandria in Piedmont.

She finished out of the points in 11 of the 12 world championship rounds which she started between 1974 and 1976 but finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, a race marred by the tragic deaths of five spectators after the car being driven by the German driver Rolf Stommelen went out of control and somersaulted over a barrier into the crowd.

His was the eighth car to crash in the first 25 of the 75 laps and the race was halted four laps later when it became known there had been fatalities. At that moment, Lombardi’s March-Ford was in sixth position, albeit two laps between race leader Jochen Mass.

The points were awarded on the basis of positions when the race was stopped. In normal circumstances, a sixth-place finish would have been worth one point but because less than three-quarters of the race had been completed the points were halved, thus Lombardi was awarded half a point.

Her next best performance was to finish seventh in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring later in the same season.

Lella Lombardi at the wheel of the March 751 in which she finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix
Lella Lombardi at the wheel of the March 751 in which she
finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix
Lombardi was one of only two women to qualify for Formula One races in the history of the sport, the other being her fellow Italian, Maria Teresa de Filippis, who participated in the late 1950s.

Little detail is known about the origins of Lombardi’s fascination with cars and speed, although it is thought she learned to drive in order to help her father, a butcher, with deliveries. The family did not own a car.

A friend is said to have introduced her to racing, inviting her to be co-driver in rally events. She drove Alfa Romeo and BMW sports cars in club events and graduated to Formula Monza when she raised enough money to buy her own car, which she maintained herself.

Over the next decade, she raced in Formula Monza, Formula 3, Formula 850 and Formula 5000, winning the Formula Monza title in 1970, having been runner-up in the Formula 3 championship in 1968 behind her compatriot, Franco Bernabei.

She entered an F1 race - the British Grand Prix - for the first time in 1974 in an ageing Brabham but failed to qualify. That winter, however, she met Italian nobleman Count Vittorio Zanon, a well known motor racing enthusiast, and he paid for her to race in the 1975 season in a March 741 previously driven by the Italian driver Vittorio Brambilla.

Lombardi at the wheel
Lombardi at the wheel
At the opening race of the season, in South Africa, she became the first woman to qualify for a Grand Prix since De Filippis 17 years earlier. At the next race she had a new 751 with sponsorship from the Lavazza coffee company, with which Count Zanon's wife was associated. This was the car she races in Spain.

Although she was a standard bearer for women behind the wheel, Lombardi never had the car to be really competitive in F1 and decided at the end of the 1976 season to refocus on the sports car classes in which she had enjoyed success previously.

Her best season was in 1979 when she won the Six Hours of Pergusa and the Six Hours of Vallelunga. She also competed four times at the 24 hours of Le Mans, for which her co-driver in 1980 was Mark Thatcher, son of the British prime minister Margaret.

Lombardi continued to compete until the late 1980s, when she began to struggle with her health.  She gave up driving and formed Lombardi Autosport, a touring car team running Alfas, but it was not long afterwards that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she died in 1992 at the age of only 50.

The church of San Felice in Frugarolo
The church of San Felice in Frugarolo
Travel tip:

Lombardi’s home village of Frugarolo, which has a population of just under 2,000, is little more than 10km (6 miles) southeast of Alessandria, in the direction of Genoa.  It has a Romanesque church, the parish church of San Felice, which has an incongruously new bell tower because the original collapsed.

Hotels in Alessandria by

Travel tip:

The historic city of Alessandria became part of French territory after the army of Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800.  It was ruled by the Kingdom of Sardinia for many years and is notable for the Cittadella di Alessandria, a star-shaped fort and citadel built in the 18th century, which today it is one of the best preserved fortifications of that era.

16 November 2017

Tazio Nuvolari – racing driver

Man from Mantua seen as greatest of all time

Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as
Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari, the driver many regard as the greatest in the history not only of Italian motor racing but perhaps of motorsport in general, was born on this day in 1892 in Castel d’Ario, a small town in Lombardy, about 15km (9 miles) east of the historic city of Mantua.

Known for his extraordinary daring as well as for his skill behind the wheel, Nuvolari was the dominant driver of the inter-war years, winning no fewer than 72 major races including 24 Grands Prix.  He was nicknamed Il Mantovano Volante - the Flying Mantuan.

From the start of his career in the 1920s, Nuvolari won more than 150 races all told and would have clocked up more had the Second World War not put motor racing in hibernation.  As it happens, Nuvolari’s last big victory came on September 3, 1939, the day the conflict began, in the Belgrade Grand Prix.

His popularity was such that when he died in 1953 from a stroke, aged only 60, his funeral in his adopted home city of Mantua attracted at least 25,000 people and possibly as many as 55,000 – more than the city’s recorded population.

His coffin was placed on a car chassis pushed by legendary drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio, at the head of a mile-long procession.

Today, his name lives on as the name of a motor racing channel on Italian subscription television.

Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in  which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in
which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Nuvolari was not only a brilliant driver but one who willingly risked his life on the track in order to satisfy his lust for victory.

The performances that have gone down in Italian motor racing folklore include his incredible performance against his rival Achille Varzi in the Mille Miglia endurance event of 1930.

A significant distance behind Varzi as the race entered its night-time phase between Perugia and Bologna, Nuvolari took the strategic decision to switch off his headlights despite reaching speeds of more than 150kph (93mph).

Unable to see Nuvolari in his mirrors, Varzi was fooled into thinking he had the race sewn up and eased back on the throttle only for Nuvolari to appear alongside him with three kilometres remaining, at which point he switched his lights on, gave Varzi a cheery wave and accelerated ahead.

More than once, after serious accidents, he defied doctors’ orders to get behind the wheel again while still heavily bandaged, returning to action within days when he was supposed to rest for at least a month.

How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
His greatest performance, after which he was hailed as a national hero, came in the 1935 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, which had been set up by the Nazi propaganda machine as an opportunity to demonstrate the might of both the German drivers and their Mercedes and Auto Union cars.

Nuvolari had tried to join the Auto Union team only to be rebuffed and was obliged to tackle the race in an outdated and underpowered Alfa Romeo for Enzo Ferrari’s team, an arrangement brokered by none other than Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

It looked a hopeless cause.  Nuvolari had a poor start and lost more time through a refuelling delay, yet managed somehow to battle through the field to be second by the start of the final lap, on which he caught and passed the German Manfred von Brauchitsch to claim what some still believe to be the greatest motor racing triumph of all time.

The eight cars immediately in Nuvolari’s wake were all German.  As the Nazi hierarchy fumed, Mussolini seized the chance to score a propaganda success of his own.  As it happened, Nuvolari eventually got his wish to drive for Auto Union and his last three big wins – in the Italian and British Grands Prix of 1938 and the Belgrade event in 1939 – were under their flag.

A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the  French Grand Prix in 1932
A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the
French Grand Prix in 1932
Nuvolari’s daring was evident from a young age.  As a boy, he designed a parachute made from various pieces of material he had gathered up around the family home and decided to test it by jumping off the roof of the house.  He suffered serious injuries but survived to tell the tale.

In the First World War, despite his tender years, he persuaded the Italian army to take him on as an ambulance driver only to be deemed too dangerous behind the wheel to be entrusted with wounded personnel.

After the Second World War, Nuvolari did return to racing but his health began to decline in his 50s. He began to develop breathing problems attributed to years of breathing in dangerous fumes and suffered the first of his two strokes in 1952.

Dubbed "the greatest driver of the past, present and future" by Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the company which shares his name, in addition to his Grands Prix successes, Nuvolari also won five Coppa Cianos, two Mille Miglias, two Targa Florios, two RAC Tourist Trophies, a Le Mans 24-hour race, and the European Grand Prix Championship.

The son of a farmer, Arturo Nuvolari, Tazio had grown up with speed.  His father and brother, Giuseppe, both enjoyed success on two wheels. Indeed, Giuseppe was a multiple winner of the Italian national motorcycling championship.

Nuvolari was married to Carolina Perina, with whom he had two sons, Giorgio and Alberto, both of whom sadly died before they had reached the age of 20.

Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Travel tip:

Mantua has scarcely altered in size since the 12th century thanks to the decision taken to surround it on three sides by artificial lakes as a defence system. The lakes are fed by the Mincio river, which descends from Lake Garda, and it is largely as a result of the restrictions on expansion imposed by their presence that the city’s population has remained unchanged at around 48,000 for several centuries.  The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the 2017 European Capital of Gastronomy, famous for its pumpkin ravioli (Tortelli di zucca alla Mantovana), its pike in tangy parsley and caper sauce (Luccio in salsa) and its pasta with sardines (Bigoli con le sardelle alla Mantovana).

The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
Travel tip:

The life of Tazio Nuvolari is commemorated in several ways around Mantua and Castel d’Ario.  He is buried in the family tomb in the Cimitero Degli Angeli, on the road from Mantua to Cremona, and his home on Via Giulia Romano how houses a museum dedicated to his achievements.  In Castel d'Ario there is a bronze statue of Nuvolari reclining against the bonnet of a Bugatti racing car in an open space behind the town hall as well as a square named after him.

28 July 2017

Luigi Musso - racing driver

Wealthy Roman who found expectations hard to bear

Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car
Musso at the wheel of his Ferrari Formula One car

Luigi Musso, who for a period of his life was Italy’s top racing driver, was born on this day in 1924 in Rome.

Musso competed six times for the world drivers’ championship, three times for Maserati and three times for Ferrari. His finished third in the 1957 season, driving for Ferrari.

His solitary Formula One Grand Prix victory came in 1956 in Argentina, although he had to content himself with a half-share of the points after being forced to hand over his car to Juan Fangio, the local hero and Ferrari team leader, after 29 of the 98 laps, when Fangio’s car failed.

Sadly, two years later he was killed in an accident at the French Grand Prix in Reims, which his girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi, blamed on the ferocity of his rivalry with his fellow Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins.

Born into a wealthy Roman family – his father was a diplomat – Musso grew up in a luxurious palazzo off the Via Veneto. He acquired his love of cars from his brothers, who were also racing drivers.

Luigi Musso was the wealthy son of a Roman diplomat
Luigi Musso was the wealthy son
of a Roman diplomat
He began to compete in 1950 in a car he bought himself, a 750cc Giannini sports car. He made an inauspicious start, his first race ending when he left the track and collided with a statue of the national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi.

But he soon began to enjoy success racing sports cars and his talent was noted by Maserati, for whom he dominated the 1953 national 2000cc sports car championship. More success the following year, when he placed highly in the two big endurance road races, the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, as well as winning several smaller events, saw him named reserve driver for Maserati’s Formula One team. In that capacity he finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

He moved to Ferrari in 1956, a season which began with his handover to Fangio in Buenos Aires and was interrupted by a major crash in Germany, in which Musso was lucky to escape with only a broken arm.

When he returned for the Italian Grand Prix, the last race on the calendar, he found himself facing a repeat of the first, when his team asked him to surrender his car to Fangio.  This time, risking his Ferrari career, he refused, taking a gamble that almost paid off.  In the lead with four laps remaining, he suffered a puncture and then steering problems and was forced to quit, leaving Stirling Moss, in a Maserati, to win.

The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
The pit lane at the Argentine Grand Prix of 1956, in which
Musso, whose car is No 12, gained his only F1 win
Musso was embarrassed. Yet far from attracting ignominy he endeared himself to the Monza crowd, who appreciated his daring.  Come the 1957 season he was firmly in the spotlight, the Italian press loving the new rivalry between Musso and his fellow Italian, Eugenio Castellotti.

When Castellotti suffered fatal injuries in a crash while testing, Italian motor racing fans looked to Musso more than ever to deliver success.

Yet he found the weight of expectation hard to bear.  He was now the best Italian driver, built up by the press as the heir to Alberto Ascari, the winner of back-to-back Formula One world titles in 1952 and 1953 but who had himself been killed in an accident in 1955.  The pressure on Musso to win races became intense.

There were rumours of debts, the result of a gambling habit that saw him lose large sums in the casinos. His personal life was in turmoil, too, after leaving his wife and two children for Fiamma, a beautiful blonde. And then there was the growing animosity between Musso and his Ferrari teammates, Hawthorn and Collins, two close friends who had a deal to pool their prize money and share it, from which Musso was excluded.

Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
Musso's girlfriend, Fiamma Breschi
It all came to a head in the French Grand Prix at Reims in July. Musso was second on the grid behind Hawthorn, having matched his best-ever performance in practice. The race was the most lucrative on the calendar and Musso was determined to win.

Hawthorn made a flying start and began to pull away from the field.  Musso felt he had no option but to chase hard.  He took more and more risks until, on the 10th lap, he took one too many.  Attempting to take a corner at 150mph, he was unable to keep the car on the track and one of the wheels clipped the edge of a ditch, sending it somersaulting into the air.

Musso was thrown from the car but suffered severe head injuries.  He was taken to hospital but died later that evening.

Breschi later recalled that after spending several hours at the hospital, doctors told her she should return to her hotel to rest. In the car park of the hotel she says she saw Hawthorn and Collins laughing and joking, playing football with a tin can, and hated them from that point onwards.

The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
The Excelsior Hotel is a landmark on the Via Veneto
Travel tip:

The Via Vittorio Veneto, colloquially known as Via Veneto, is one of the most elegant and expensive streets in Rome. The street is named after the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918), a decisive Italian victory of the First World War. Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita was mostly centered on the Via Veneto area. Its bars and restaurants attracted Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg, Anna Magnani, Gary Cooper and Orson Welles as well as writers Tennessee Williams and Jean Cocteau and the designer Coco Chanel.

Monza Cathedral with its marble facade
Monza Cathedral with its marble facade 
Travel tip:

Although widely known for its Formula One track, Monza has other attractions that tend to be overlooked. There is an elegant and stylish historical centre, in which the cathedral, which originated in the sixth century and was rebuilt in the 14th, featuring a marble façade in Romanesque style with some Gothic adornments, and a bell tower added in 1606, stands out.  Another feature is the vast Parco di Monza, at 688 hectares one of the largest enclosed parks in Italy, which contains the Royal Villa, built between 1771 and 1780 for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.