In this year of Ferrari F1 V8s and Michael Schumacher retiring, I thought I'd look back half a century to 1956, the year in which the greatest driver of that time - Juan Manuel Fangio also raced a Ferrari V8.
Unlike Schumacher's relationship with the Scuderia, Fangio's was troubled and unhappy, more or less forced on the maestro because of Mercedes Benz's withdrawal at the end of the previous season. He had enjoyed one and a half seasons of almost complete dominance with the German team, who in those days actually built their own cars and engines! He was beaten only once in a Grand Epreuve - by team-mate Stirling Moss in the 1955 British GP and Sir Stirling is not sure to this day whether Fangio let him win or maybe was ordered to do so by Mercedes.
The only team which showed a flash of competitiveness was Lancia with their D50s debuting in 1954 and driven by reigning world champion Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi, both nicked from Ferrari. The heart was torn out of the team in 1955 when Ascari was killed at Monza when giving Eugenio Castellotti's works Ferrari 750 Monza a run. Lancia subsequently went bust and was acquired by industrialist and financier Carlo Pesenti, before eventually ending up in the Fiat Group along with Ferrari.
Meanwhile, Scuderia Ferrari had been going through one of their periodic low spells following great success in the F2 based world championship years of 1952 and 1953. The tipo 625, derived from the all-conquering 500 was obsolescent and the 553 Squalo and 555 Supersqualo were uncompetitive and bad cars, no match even for the Maserati 250F let alone the Lancia and Mercedes W196.
Enzo Ferrari lobbied Gianni Lancia and in July 1955 was handed the entire Lancia racing hardware together with the services of Vittorio Jano, ex Alfa Corse and designer of the D50. Gianni Agnelli of Fiat (at the time not the owners of Ferrari) agreed to sponsor Ferrari for the glory of Italy.
The Lancia D50 was a highly innovative car, lightweight and compact, its V8 a fully stressed member with the front suspension bolted directly to it. Pannier tanks slung between the wheels provided a low polar moment of inertia and minimised changes in handling as the fuel was used. Ferrari modifications for the tipo's first race under their ownership were limited to slapping on Prancing Horses and changing from Pirelli to Englebert tyres.
The Lancias first appeared under new ownership at the 1955 Italian GP at Monza but the Engleberts all failed on the high-speed banking and the cars were withdrawn. Fangio won for Mercedes but Moss's and Kling's cars failed and Ferrari were left with the small consolation of third place for Castelloti in a 555. The German team withdrew from the sport at the end of 1955, ironically leaving (Italian) Maserati as Ferrari's only effective opposition!
In addition to Fangio's services for 1956 Ferrari had secured those of Luigi Musso and Englishmen Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, a formidable array of talent which was supplemented at some races. Fangio and Musso shared a D50 to win the Argentine GP, the cars were then extensively modified and almost all of the innovative features abandoned, which made them more practical and easier to drive. The D50A's first win came in the Belgian GP driven by Peter Collins after Fangio had retired with transmission failure whilst leading.
Collins won the next GP too in France, Fangio finishing fourth after being sprayed by alcohol fuel, a temporary repair being effected by means of a pair of grips on the pipe! Fangio was by now furious with the standard of preparation of his car and demanded a personal mechanic before he would drive for Ferrari again. You have to admit he had a point and the fact that five cars were entered in France can't have helped.
Fangio won the British GP, despite severe skin inflammation from the incident in France. Collins retired as he did at the German GP at the Nürburgring, a race Fangio won with ease. Six D50As were entered for the final Grand Epreuve, the Italian GP where the world title would be decided between Fangio, Collins and Jean Behra. Wolfgang von Trips crashed in practice and despite a warning from Enzo Ferrari to take it easy Castelloti and Musso tore off into the distance in the race, quickly destroying their Englebert tyres; de Portago also retired with tyre failure, despite driving more carefully.
The race was between Fangio, Collins and Moss in a Maserati 250F until Fangio came into the pits with broken steering. It is part of motor racing folklore that Collins then came in and offered his car to Fangio, thus forfeiting his own title hopes, but the claim does not bear close scrutiny. It was theoretically possible that he could win the title, but he would have had to win the race and take fastest lap (for which an extra point was awarded in those days) to do so. By the time Collins handed over to Fangio, Behra had retired and Moss was leading and had just taken fastest lap, therefore it was unlikely that Collins would have made it. Nevertheless it was a magnificent and respectful sporting gesture, one which the Argentinian was grateful to accept and which ensured his fourth championship.
Fangio left Ferrari for 1957, his experience clearly an unhappy one. He later counselled Stirling Moss never ever to sign for Ferrari; one suspects that there just wasn't room in the Scuderia Ferrari of the day for a superstar driver of such iron will. He rejoined Maserati to take his fifth and last title, a record which lasted until 2003 when Schumacher took his sixth, in an era where Schumacher's iron will was an essential ingredient in the Scuderia's success.
Peter Collins stayed at Ferrari but tragically was killed in the 1958
German GP, never realising his huge potential.
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