Saturday, 21 April 2012


Grand Prix Career: 1938-1956

Villoresi’s elegant driving style belied his sheer speed and competitiveness

The Italian driver Luigi ‘Gigi’ Villoresi debuted for Maserati in 1938, stayed with the team until 1948, switched to Ferrari from 1949 to 1953, to Lancia in 1954-55 and retired after driving a Maserati in 1956. He only managed three wins. Posterity mentions his classic, smooth and sensitive style, and that he was Alberto Ascari’s mentor. Otherwise Villoresi is seldom mentioned or remembered. His rival contemporaries Farina and Wimille certainly are.

Two eminent journalist-commentators, Mark Hughes and Alan Henry, published their “Top Hundred Drivers” lists in 1999 and 2008 respectively. Hughes ranked Villoresi 85th while Henry does not include him in his top-hundred. Respectively they rated Luigi’s rival contemporaries Alberto Ascari 16th and 5th, Farina 41st and 59th, Wimille 9th and 43rd, Sommer 24th and 88th. 

It is my contention that Luigi Villoresi was far better than this; that he was in fact one of the fastest, most accomplished drivers, from his 1938 debut at age 29 until the end of the 1950 season, when aged 41. All Luigi lacked was the right car in these, his prime years. Farina and Wimille both drove the dominant Alfa Romeos and achieved several wins, publicity and consequent fame.

Luigi Villoresi at the end of his long career in 1956. From 1938 to 1950 he was one of the fastest and most talented of drivers, but only drove a top-rated car for one season,the 1949 Ferrari 125C. He outraced younger team-mate Alberto Ascari, scoring a first and two seconds to Ascari's first and a third. This was before there was a World Championship however

Modern perspective
The modern driver’s career which was comparable to Villoresi’s, at least in part, is that of Jenson Button. From 2000 until 2008, Jenson was considered a talented, refined, sensitive driver, soft on his tyres and who used minimal steering-wheel inputs. As Jenson said, he based his style on the driver he most admired, Alain Prost.

In his first nine seasons Jenson scored just one win, in 2006 for Honda. Had Button’s 2009 Brawn-Mercedes not been a top-rated machine, enabling Button to win the Drivers Championship, it is doubtful that he’d have been considered one of the top drivers. Now or in posterity. Just talented, but not a real winner. Perhaps like Villoresi, Button would have been ranked in the eighties on some pundit’s ‘top-hundred drivers’ list, and not even featured on others?

Grand Prix career beginnings
As with many great drivers, Villoresi showed talent early on. After debut-retiring his 1.5 litre voiturette Maserati (a then-Formula Two equivalent) in the 1938 Tripoli Grand Prix, Luigi was promoted to drive the supercharged, 3.0 litre, Maserati 8CTF grand prix machine for three events at season’s end. As reserve driver at Pescara, Luigi took over from the unwell Trossi on lap five. From ninth place he drove superbly to reach and run second to Caracciola’s winning Mercedes-Benz by lap 10 of 16 and set fastest lap. This against three-car teams from Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union, led by Caracciola and Nuvolari. Carburetion trouble then caused his Maserati’s retirement. At Monza and Donington Villoresi was unable to shine, the fast-but-fragile 8CTF again retired each time.

During 1940 two events were staged for the 1.5 litre Voiturette class cars at Tripoli and Palermo, Italy not having yet entered the War. This was to have been the grand prix formula anyway, had the War not ended racing in the rest of Europe. The lithe, four cylinder Maserati 4CLs were no match for the big-budget, eight-cylinder Alfa Romeo 158 ‘Alfettas’. However at Tripoli’s very high-speed, palm-lined, Mellaha desert oasis venue, Maserati team-leader Luigi Villoresi really shone, for he was on a mission. His brother Emilio had recently crashed fatally at Monza testing an Alfetta. The reasons for the crash and the insurance situation were never clarified by team manager Enzo Ferrari. A furious Luigi was determined to try and beat the Milano team. At this last-ever Tripoli race, after an outstanding third place in qualifying, ahead of two of the Alfas, Villoresi actually led from a blistering start for the first two laps. Inevitably Farina’s Alfa Romeo 158 overtook, but with great determination Luigi hung on to the Alfa’s tail and went ahead again on laps 8 and 9! Although the Maserati could not hold the Alfas, Villoresi did manage to beat two of them through sheer desire and skill. His fourth place finish must rate as one of his finest races. The Alfas did not race at Palermo in Sicily, where Luigi dominated from pole and set fastest lap. His fire and talent were obvious. Then, in his prime at age 31, the War interrupted Villoresi’s career, just as it did for other young stars, including his talented, rival contemporaries: Farina, Sommer, Wimille and Lang.

Historical misperceptions
Always mentioned for his elegant, smooth, classic driving style, few commentators and historians recognised Villoresi’s sheer, competitive speed. This was due to his not being in the top-rated car-team for the seasons 1938-1940 and 1946-48 when he drove for Maserati, and in 1950 when Ferrari too were outclassed by the Alfa Romeos. World War Two negated his prime years and crash injuries late in 1950 caused a significant slowing in Luigi’s performances. Until then he had been at least as fast as Farina, Wimille, Sommer and Ascari. During 1950, driving for Ferrari against the mighty Alfa Romeos, 41-year-old Luigi was faster than all except Fangio and was on a par with the next best, young Alberto Ascari. It was also unfortunate for Luigi that he came up against two of grand prix racing’s greatest talents, Fangio and Alberto Ascari, as he was going into his forties.

Winless drivers in off-pace cars are always under-rated. As were Surtees 1960-1962, Mansell from 1980 -1984 and Button 2000 to mid-2006. So with Villoresi. For the six seasons 1938-1948 his Maseratis were off-pace; as was his Ferrari in 1950. That is seven years in uncompetitive cars. Age-wise they were his prime years, from 28 to 40.

Born in 1909 Luigi was one year younger than Wimille and three years younger than Farina and Sommer. Throughout the thirties and forties these three were to be great rivals, all very talented and fast. From 1950 to 1955 Villoresi and Farina continued their rivalry.

The 1948 Maserati 4CLT/48 was a beautifully-designed car which was next-fastest to the Alfa Romeo 158. It won two of the seven major races that year, the San Remo and the British Grands Prix,driven by friends Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari

1946 Return to Maserati
After the War, Villoresi reappeared for Maserati in 1946 aged 37. He suffered crash injuries in the first race at Geneva when a brake locked as he was overtaking Trossi’s Alfetta. Gigi started the next grand prix at Milan and, behind the dominant Alfa Romeos led the rest of the field to get a fine fourth place ahead of Sommer’s Maserati..

Staying with Maserati was unfortunate for his career, the Bologna cars being no match for the Alfettas, now run by Alfa Romeo themselves. Enzo Ferrari had departed to build his own cars.

1947 A lifelong partnership
For 1947 Gigi enticed his young friend, protege and prewar Maserati privateer, 29-year-old Alberto Ascari, back to racing. Driving the outclassed Maseratis, Villoresi managed a sixth place and one fastest lap in three appearances, Ascari a fifth and a sixth in two races. Speedwise the two friends were very close-matched.

1948 Beats Alberto Ascari
Leading the Maserati team again in 1948, Villoresi competed in all seven major races. The 4CLT/48 Maserati was however about 1.7 % slower than the Alfa 158, the same as the Toyota and Honda performances in 2007 compared with the front-runners, McLaren-Mercedes. In the absence of the Alfas at Monaco Gigi led convincingly until gearbox trouble slowed him to finish fifth. At San Remo he had a great battle with Ascari and Farina, taking second place right behind Alberto. Against the Alfas he then took a fine third place at the Bremgarten. At Reims Gigi was again running third to two Alfettas until mechanical trouble intervened. He put up another great performance in the Italian GP at Monza, where he outqualified and outraced Ascari to a fine second place finish behind Wimille’s Alfa. In the absence of the Alfa Romeos Luigi took a fine win with fastest lap in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, again outpacing Ascari. In the season’s finale, the Monza Grand Prix, Villoresi managed to pass and lead the fourth of the Alfetta for 30 laps. Inevitably however he could not maintain this pace and the Maserati four expired. Against so talented a 30-year-old team-mate as Ascari, these excellent performances proved Villoresi’s stature at the very top. 

Luigi Villoresi winning the 1948 British Grand Prix at Silverstone in a Maserati 4CLT/48

1949 Joins Ferrari!
For 1949 the two friends joined the new Ferrari team. It had taken some persuasion from Alberto, for Luigi still had little time for Enzo. The Alfa Romeos having retired from racing for the year, the new 125C Ferrari and the Maserati 4CLT/48 were equally-matched and threatened by the unsupercharged, fuel-efficient Talbot-Lagos T26C. The main adversaries were Ascari and Villoresi for Modena, Farina, Fangio and Bira for Bologna and Rosier, Etancelin and Chiron for Paris. At Spa Villoresi finished second, chasing Rosier’s non-stop, winning Talbot-Lago with Ascari third. At Switzerland’s scenic Bremgarten circuit he placed second behind Ascari, while at Zandvoort Alberto retired and Luigi won. For the Italian GP at Monza, they had the new longer-wheelbase, more neutral-handling and far faster, twin-stage supercharged, four-cam 125C2 model. The friends took the first two grid slots with equal times, over two seconds ahead of Farina’s Maserati. Ascari took the lead from the start and won convincingly. Villoresi ran second until gear-change trouble caused retirement before half distance. In equal cars again, the 40-year-old just about matched his brilliant 31-year-old protege.

1950 Outpaced by the Alfa Romeos, yet again
For 1950 the Ferraris faced the returned Alfettas, now led by Fangio and Farina. The Ferraris were totally outclassed as Alfa Romeo dominated every event, taking the first three places almost each time. Although the 125C2 Ferrari performed at the same level relative to the best car as did the Spyker-Ferrari in 2007, Gigi really went well again. At Monaco he outqualified Ascari, ran second to Fangio early on, when a spin dropped him to eighth. Then according to The Motor “Villoresi from his eighth place slammed his Ferrari round the circuit with a dash and passion which was staggering.” He climbed back to second place until mechanical trouble struck on lap 63 of 100. In the Swiss GP he again outqualified Ascari, but both retired after getting in amongst the Alfas. At Spa Luigi again got ahead of Fagioli’s Alfa for a while, but could only manage a sixth place finish after suffering plug troubles. This was to be the last time Villoresi was a competitive front-runner. In a rainy non-championship event at Geneva he crashed on oil and suffered injuries that caused him to miss the season’s finale at Monza.

1951-53 Injury-slowed
Reappearing for Ferrari 1951, the recuperating 42-year-old Luigi was way off-pace. He competed in all seven championship events and through sheer racing finesse and experience managed three thirds and two fourths for Ferrari against the Alfa Romeos. He was significantly outpaced by young team-mates Ascari and Gonzalez.

Early in 1952 Luigi suffered injuries from a road accident that kept him out of F1 for the first five of the seven races. In the last two, the Dutch and Italian grands prix, he managed two third places. Although continuing to drive for Ferrari in 1953, he was now only a fourth team driver, behind Ascari, Farina and Hawthorn. Luigi scored two seconds and a third place. Largely by virtue of the dominant Ferrari Type 500, partly through his vast experience.

1954-56 Maserati and Lancia
Thanks to Ascari, Villoresi was taken on by the new Lancia Team. They only appeared at the 1954 season-finale in Barcelona. For three races in mid-season Luigi and Alberto were released to drive for Maserati, who had lost Fangio to Mercedes-Benz. In the outclassed 250F Luigi managed a fifth at Reims, but retired at Spa and Monza. Starting on the Lancia’s debut in Barcelona from a good fifth place grid position, he retired on the first lap with transmission trouble. Team-mate Ascari led for ten laps until his clutch packed up.

In 1955 the Lancia team competed in just the first three events. In Buenos Aires Villoresi retired early, but at Monte Carlo he managed to finish fifth. The company gave up racing, due to their financial troubles and following Ascari’s fatal crash while casually testing a friend’s sports-racing Ferrari at Monza during a lunch-hour.

Villoresi’s last season, 1956, saw him start in just four races driving a Maserati 250F to a fifth and a sixth place. After yet another sports-racing car crash at year-end, Gigi was eventually persuaded by his family to retire. He was 47.

In a grand prix career spanning 18 years, Gigi managed just three wins, six seconds and seven thirds in major grand prix races. These results do not do justice to his ability. Like Sommer, Manzon, Surtees, Amon, Trulli and many others throughout grand prix racing history, Villoresi was only once, 1949, in a top-rate car while in his prime. Had he driven for Alfa Romeo in the years 1940 to 1950 he could have done at least as well as Farina, whom he certainly matched for speed and surpassed for smoothness and style. To close-match and sometimes beat Ascari when they were in same-team Maserati and Ferrari cars from 1947 to1950, is proof of Villoresi’s ability.

This essay is dedicated to my good friend and colleague, Michael Preston. One of the most widely-read enthusiasts on all aspects of cars, racing and the personalities, Mike is always ready to research obscure facts, proofread, contribute to and correct any of my historical work. His deep interest in cars and racing started as a pre-teenager, during the forties in Cape Town. His broad-based, personal library collection on motoring is most impressive.

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic information as ever Patrick, and always appreciative of all attempts to look at the facts objectively; I love F1 and several other sports as 'the stopwatch does not lie', but when it's as complicated as F1 it's wonderful your info and breakdown helps analyse what that stopwatch is telling us! Brilliant ;-0)