Some time ago, inaugurating the new section of our site dedicated to cars and engines, we wrote an article on the greatest Ferrari drivers, starting with Alberto Ascari up to Michael Schumacher, on whom some encouraging news arrived in those days about his health after the terrible accident he suffered on skis.
We had chosen to start with Ferrari because undoubtedly the car manufacturer from Maranello has represented for many years the main (if not, at times, even the only) winning symbol of Italy on motor racing tracks.
We had promised ourselves, however, to give space even more specifically to the Italian drivers, whether they had raced for Ferrari or had driven the cars of other teams.
And since we have had a good number of great Formula 1 drivers, and often unjustly forgotten, let’s retrace the careers and deeds of five of them, chosen from among the most important, winning and, unfortunately, sometimes unlucky.
1. Nino Farina
The 1950s were very important years for Italian motoring, marked by great victories and also great griefs.
The first generation of champions who had fought in the epic pre-war challenges, led by Tazio Nuvolari who died of a stroke in 1953, had given way to a group of new drivers, partly grown up in those same races – from the Mille Miglia to the first Grands Prix – and partly emerged after the end of the conflict.
At the inauguration of the Formula 1 World Championship, in 1950, a well-trained patrol of Italian drivers appeared. For Alfa Romeo ran Giuseppe Farina, Luigi Fagioli, Piero Taruffi, and Consalvo Sanesi, to which we must add the Argentine, but the son of Italians, Juan Manuel Fangio, perhaps the most talented driver of all time.
For Maserati there was Franco Rol, for Achille Varzi there was Nello Pagani, for Milan there were Felice Bonetto and Franco Comotti while Clemente Biondetti was racing on his own. Finally, obviously, Ferrari was also at the starting line with Luigi Villoresi, Alberto Ascari, and Dorino Serafini.
A Bright Career
The championship was won by Nino Farina, a pilot who was already 44 years old and with solid experience behind him. At the Mille Miglia he had finished second in ’36, in ’37, and in ’40, before the Second World War blocked everything, however, he was distinguished in all the races available at the time.
He had a long and fruitful relationship with Alfa, which was strengthened right from his debut in the World Championship thanks to the conquest, at Silverstone, of the pole position, the Grand Prix, and the fastest lap of the race.
He then also won in Switzerland and Italy, becoming the first World Champion in the category, just three points ahead of teammate Fangio, who won the same number of Grand Prix races but was forced to retire more often (a fate that also affected him in the last race, in Monza, the decisive one).
Farina also raced in the following six seasons, ending his career in Formula 1 at the age of fifty, taking a few more victories, and touching the title again in 1952, when, having moved to Ferrari also for the withdrawal of Alfa, he finished behind the absolute ruler of those years, Alberto Ascari, of whom we will speak shortly.
A champion with the vice of cigars and women
His driving style was brash and brash, the expression of an equally brazen character that was also shown by the magazines of the time, which emphasized his passion for beautiful women and the habit of running with a Cuban cigar in his mouth.
Those were other times, in short, in which the personal charm of the driver far exceeded the technology of cars, and in which one really risked one’s life at every race.
A life that Farina would have lost shortly after retiring from racing. In June 1966, not yet 60, he took a corner near Aiguebelle in France at too high speed on his way to the Reims Grand Prix, crashing off the road and dying in his Ford Cortina Lotus.
2. Alberto Ascari
We had the opportunity to speak extensively about Alberto Ascari when we listed the greatest Ferrari drivers, but today we can also underline some of his character traits and his path even outside the Maranello team.
Born in Milan in 1918, being a son of art he had already made his debut in the Thirties driving mainly motorcycles, so much so that in ’38 he had already been signed by Bianchi, then decided two years later to switch to four wheels, making his debut in 1940 in the One thousand miles.
He spent the war repairing military vehicles and refueling the Italian army in North Africa with petrol, but in 1947 – thanks above all to the insistence of Gigi Villoresi, friend and business partner as well as his future teammate in Formula 1 – he decided to return at racing by accepting a contract with Maserati.
Already at the end of the decade, he was considered the main antagonist of Nino Farina, a more experienced and mature driver, and when the World Championship started in 1950 he had already signed for Ferrari, a company in strong growth even if for the moment far from the strength of the Alfa Romeo, which with its Alfa 158 was dominating open-wheel racing.
The Two-time World Champion Who Gave the Lancia Hope
It was thus only from 1951 that the Milanese driver began to approach the Alfisti, first by winning the Grand Prix at the Nürburgring and in Monza, then conquering a title in 1952 that has something legendary about it.
Facilitated by the withdrawal of Alfa Romeo and the injury to Fangio, who did not compete in any race in the World Championship, Ascari won all the races in which he participated except that of Indianapolis (in which he was however the only non-American driver and was forced to retire ), by having a record registered.
The following year Fangio returned – albeit for Maserati and not for Alfa, which still did not participate – and tried to do battle, but Ascari triumphed in four of the first six GPs of the season and put the victory in his pocket, confirming also what was the typical driving style that saw him immediately take the lead in the first laps, imposing a high pace on the race, only to manage the accumulated advantage.
In 1954, now satisfied with the successes with Ferrari, he signed for Lancia, which was almost a rookie in the racing sector: he immediately won the Mille Miglia, while as regards Formula 1 he was initially loaned to Maserati, with the which, however, was the victim of two breakages that led him to retire.
The Tragic End
He was then loaned – while Lancia was fine-tuning its car – to Ferrari itself, but even here, despite fighting for the top position at Monza, he was forced to retire. Finally, he made his debut with the same Lancia, finally ready, in the last GP of the season, recording the fastest lap but also here not reaching the finish line.
Finally, in 1955 everything seemed finally ready to get Ascari back to fight for the title, also considering that in some extra-championship races Lancia had performed very well.
The season, however, immediately proved unfortunate, first in Monaco, with a terrible off the road due to an oil stain that led the car to sink into the sea, then with the accident that cost the driver his life.
Four days after Monte Carlo, in fact, Ascari decided to join Villoresi and other friends in Monza, where they were testing a new Ferrari, the same car that Ascari asked to try and which, overturning, ended up crushing him on the third lap of the track, obtaining the death on the spot.
Lancia decided, immediately after that death, to sell all its equipment to Ferrari and retire from racing.
3. Riccardo Patrese
After the glories of the 1950s, lean years came for the Italian fans. The stables of our peninsula were gradually reduced, until only Maserati and Ferrari remained in the race, with the former relegated in any case to supporting positions; above all, there was a lack of tricolor drivers who could fight for the title.
After 1960 the only Italian who came close to the top of the final standings was Lorenzo Bandini, who in ’64 came fourth behind three British riders, so much so that many consoled themselves by cheering for Clay Regazzoni, an Italian-speaking Swiss, second to the ’74 World Championship, or for the Italian-American Mario Andretti, third in 1977 and World Champion in 1978.
Something began to change in the early 1980s, when three young Italian drivers began to emerge in the final standings, Elio De Angelis, Riccardo Patrese, and Michele Alboreto, with the first who in 1980 managed to get on the podium at Interlagos and the second did the same in Long Beach.
But let’s start with Patrese, who, a few years older, had made his debut before the others in Formula 1: from Padua, born in 1954, Patrese arrived in the top category in 1977, at just twenty-three, after an excellent path that he had from karts. brought to Formula 3, where he had graduated as European champion.
The Style and the Beginnings
Gifted with a strong temperament, he had a very aggressive and brash drive, which attracted him sympathies among the fans but also dislikes among his colleagues.
A few years ago, in this regard, the video, recorded inside a Honda Civic, went around the world, in which you could see the astonished reactions of his wife Francesca Accordi carried by him around a circuit, without much regard for fear of her and of the promises made earlier.
He arrived in Formula 1 thanks to Shadow, an American team recently active in the category from a rib of which Arrows, the second team of Patrese himself, would later be born.
In his second season, the first results began to arrive, with a second place in Sweden and a fourth in Montreal.
After three more podiums, the first victory in a GP came in 1982 with the move to Brabham, when it seemed the right year finally arrived for the Paduan driver as he also won the important Monaco Grand Prix (in a race characterized by numerous withdrawals due to rain) and also placed second in Canada and third in the United States.
He thus found himself in a good position in the general classification in mid-season, only to run into a series of retirements that brought him back from the top. A second victory was obtained the following year in South Africa, while very unfortunate was the momentary move to Alfa Romeo in 1984 and 1985.
The fate finally began to turn only in 1989, when he was by now a veteran of the Grand Prix with more than ten years of experience behind him.
Williams, who had signed him the year before, finally found the right set-up thanks to the Renault engine and, after the unprofitable first three races, propelled the Paduan into the fight for the title with four consecutive podiums and five in six races.
The Formula 1 Veteran Who Reached the Top at the End of His Career
Unfortunately for the Italians, however, the World Championship soon proved to be a two-way race between Prost and Senna, both at McLaren Honda, with the second most successful but the first most continuous and champion at the end of the season.
Patrese tried again, however, again in 1991 and 1992, now almost forty. In the first case, he won two Grands Prix but could not keep up with Senna’s overwhelming power, finishing third behind his teammate Mansell.
The following year, with McLaren in decline and Benetton’s not yet complete growth, Williams finally had the chance to win, but all the innovations were given first to Mansell, in fact, the first driver, and Patrese went no further. the title of vice-champion of the world.
The last year before his retirement, racing with Benetton, finally saw him close in fifth place overall.
4. Elio De Angelis
Less fortunate than that of Patrese was the career of almost the same age Elio De Angelis, born in Rome in 1958 and unfortunately passed away before he could reach the milestone of thirty.
However, his path was, at least at the beginning, similar to that of the compatriot we have just finished talking about.
After having made his bones in minor competitions and having conquered the title of national Formula 3 champion in 1977, he landed in Formula 1 again thanks to Shadow, constantly looking for new talents to launch in the world motoring scene.
Already from his first year, he showed promising qualities, then moved on to Lotus in 1980 and got his first podium in Brazil, in the second race with the new team.
The Career of the Lotus Driver
The first years at the British manufacturer – with the exception of the black 1983 vintage, in which he managed to finish only two GPs – were characterized by good placings, crowned by the victory of the Austrian Grand Prix in 1982 (in a memorable photo finish with the Keke Rosberg from Finland, in a race characterized by many retirements).
From 1984, however, De Angelis seemed capable of being able to race for the top positions, given that he had matured as a driver and his car had also grown.
In fact, 1984 started very well, with the Italian driver able to immediately conquer pole position in the first test in Brazil, then finished in third place.
A Couple of Encouraging Seasons
Until halfway through the championship De Angelis continued to accumulate points, also climbing on the podium in Imola and in the two US GPs of Detroit and Dallas, but in the second part of the season, the technical superiority of McLaren emerged in an indisputable way, above all for the ability of the technicians of the Porsche to better manage the fuel restrictions imposed by regulation that season.
However, De Angelis finished third overall, even if very detached from Lauda and Prost, who fought for the title until the last lap of the last race.
The year after the start was still encouraging, with the victory at Imola, many top-five finishes, and a momentary first place in the general classification, but the overwhelming power of Prost and his McLaren was once again too clear for everyone.
The Unfortunate End
In 1986 De Angelis then changed his team to Brabham, where he also found Patrese. The machine, however, failed to engage and was not even too safe.
In fact, during a private practice session in Marseille, the rear wing of the car came off, causing the car to overturn several times, which also caught fire. The insufficient means of rescue and the late arrival of the helicopter condemned De Angelis not to save himself.
His death caused a sensation and aroused emotion, as well as promoted the drivers to threaten the FIA with a strike if the safety conditions of the tracks and testing were not immediately improved.
De Angelis, together with Michele Alboreto, of whom we will speak immediately, was at that time the best promise of Italian motoring, as had not been seen for years.
5. Michele Alboreto
The same age as De Angelis was also the other great promise of Formula 1 of those years, Michele Alboreto who was the last Italian driver to win a Formula 1 race aboard a Ferrari, and the one who came closest to a title World Champion that our fellow citizens have been missing since the time of Ascari, the driver to whom Alboreto was most often compared for his driving style.
Born in Milan in 1956, he had followed a cursus honorum similar to that of Patrese and De Angelis, passing from the minor formulas – but also running in endurance, sometimes paired with Patrese – before arriving in the main category in 1981 thanks to Tyrrell, which was not having a good time anyway.
Already in 1982, however, he began to show off, especially in the last race in Las Vegas, in a circuit suited to him that allowed him to get third place in qualifying and then overtake Prost during the race, winning the race.
The good result was then repeated also the following year, when Alboreto took his Tyrrell to win in Detroit, taking advantage of Arnoux’s retirement and a very shrewd race tactic. These good results achieved at 26 and 27 years of age allowed him to pique the interest of Ferrari.
The Ferrari Driver Who Came Closest to Bringing the Title Back to Italy
He was hired in 1984, but the first season – despite the victory with the pole in Belgium and the two-second places in Monza and the Nürburgring – was overall disappointing, with McLaren dominating and Alboreto eventually surpassed in the overall standings even by De Angelis, at the driving the Lotus.
The right year should have been 1985, however, as Ferrari seemed to be able to bridge the gap with the rival carmaker.
The start of the championship was in fact encouraging, with Alboreto winning in Canada and above all on the podium in eight of the first ten races, so much so that he became the first Italian driver to lead the overall standings since 1958.
The second part of the season also opened very well, with a victory in Germany obtained by even recovering from eighth place, but that was probably the swan song of the Italian driver and his Ferrari.
In the fifth to last round, in Monza, he only closed thirteenth and in the last four races, he always had to retire due to the introduction of a new engine that was not as reliable as the previous one, effectively leaving the green light to Prost, who went on to win the title.
The Sad End
The following three seasons, all of which faced driving a Ferrari, were disappointing mainly due to the performance problems of the single-seater, which failed to be competitive, so much so that the Maranello house often and willingly dropped to fourth place in the Constructors’ World Championship, overtaken by Williams, McLaren, and Lotus.
The farewell to Ferrari thus ended in 1988, with Alboreto forced to find a new team and to sign first for Tyrrell and then for Arrows, with cars that were not competitive at all and did not allow him to race even for the points area.
Retired in 1994 – after two colorless seasons at Scuderia Italia and Minardi -, he moved to race with covered wheels, both in the DTM championship and in other prestigious events such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It was just as he was preparing for a new edition of that race, in 2001, that he died while he was carrying out tests on his Audi due to a punctured tire and a subsequent crash with the car overturning.