THE CHAMPIONS / Nino Farina
The hard man
- Mattijs Diepraam
- April 7, 2006
- 1946 GP des Nations - How the great Tazio came to ignore a black flag... and get away with it, by Leif Snellman/Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas/'Uechtel'
- 1950 F1 season - The very first World Drivers Championship, by Jikku George
- Alberto Ascari - Cursed natural talent, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas/Leif Snellman
- Alfa Romeo 158 - The voiturette that became the Grand Prix car to beat, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Luigi Fagioli - The Abruzzi robber, by Leif Snellman
- Giuseppe Farina - Doctor's rough tactics, by Greg England
- Ferrari 553 & 625 - Ferrari's chassis doubts during the early 2.5-litre era, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Tazio Nuvolari - Mantua's Great Little Man, by Leif Snellman
Alfa Romeo 158
RAC Grand Prix d'Europe incorporating the British GP (May 13, 1950)
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 most successful and promising careers in motor racing were cut short – or simply cut off. The same seemed to apply to young Maserati and Alfa driver Giuseppe Farina, who probably reached the peak of his abilities in the period of his Italian championships in the late thirties. But while other pre-war greats such as Nuvolari, Caracciola or Lang never reached their old level after the war, Farina went on to become the first World Drivers Champion in 1950 – at 44 years of age. The secluded Turinese doctor of law did it through sheer devotion and determination.
It can be argued whether his world title was his greatest accomplishment – Farina himself certainly played down the importance. Some of his pre-war drives in the Alfetta showed off his brave, feisty but imperious style better than the coolheaded manner in which he took the inaugural World Championship. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that it is this post-war achievement that brought Farina’s claim to eternal fame. That’s with the benefit of hindsight, of course – it is obvious that Farina’s title is given more weight because of the Olympic stature that the championship is holding these days while in Farina’s days the championship was only beginning to receive some sort of truly international acclaim sometime into the fifties.
However, Farina holds another claim to fame which is rather less fanciful than his World Championship title – he was a fiersome and ruthless driver too. With unsportsmanlike conduct being in the centre of attention again in the past few years, Farina’s on-track character is often used as the main argument to support the claim that the ‘great past’ wasn’t all rosy and used to have its bullies too. And there is no denying it – Giuseppe Farina, born from a famous family of coachbuilders, was a forceful driver who was the typical Italian gentleman outside of the cockpit but once in it transformed into a brutal aggressor. More than often he got involved in accidents that hurt other drivers – or killed them – as he simply applied force to shove his opponents out of the way. What about backmarkers then? Well, they’d better let Il Grande Farina through as if they weren’t there…
Battle-scarred, he carried on well into the fifties and remarkably did not end his life behind the wheel. Of a racing car, that is, for he eventually died in a road-car accident in the French Alpes, some ten years after he quit motor racing for good.
As a nephew of the even more famous Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina, the founder of the world-renowned Pininfarina styling company, this wealthy law graduate from car capitol Turin was surrounded by cars from his earliest youth. On the day he was born in 1906 his father Giovanni founded Stabilimenti Farina, a bodywork shop catering to the wishes of the blooming car manufacturing industry. Already at the age of 9 Giuseppe bought and owned a twin-cylinder Temperino, and at the age of 16 he joined his uncle ‘Pinin’ as a navigator. Nicknamed ‘Nino’ – Italian shorthand for Giuseppino – the self-confident Giuseppe started studying law and political science at the University of Turin and wasn’t one to walk away from his studies as soon as the racing bug had bitten him. Instead, having bought an ageing Alfa 1500 to compete in hillclimbs in the Alpine region north of the city, Nino Farina finished what he started and went on to finally be awarded his doctor’s degree.
Mind you, by that time he was a professional racing driver, who had been roughly acquainted with the dangers of motor racing. His debut in the Aosta-Gran San Bernardino hillclimb speaks volumes for the fashion in which young Nino went about finding his limits – by going over them. While his father ended the day fourth in the final results, Nino ended up in hospital, nursing the broken bones in his body. The old Alfa was a write-off. It didn’t scare him off, though – on the contrary. Cutting short his career as a cavalry officer, Nino started to concentrate on motor racing from 1933 on, first racing Maseratis and Alfas for Gino Rovere and Scuderia Subalpina before signing with Scuderia Ferrari in 1936. He remained the fearless, brutal driver for almost the entire 25 years that spanned his racing career, only giving in at a very late stage to wisdom, cunning and the acknowledgement that he no longer was the fastest guy around.
He wasn’t held back by these inhibitions in his early career. The firm belief in his own capabilities was what propelled him to his greatness – to the point where he was the self-pronounced Great Farina. Mirroring himself to the immense natural ability of Tazio Nuvolari, his experienced team mate at Scuderia Ferrari, he allowed himself tuition from the Mantuan wizard before he continued into three extremely successful years as Italy’s best racing driver, as he took the Italian Championships of 1937, 1938 and 1939 as a works Alfa Romeo driver.
His seemingly relaxed, straight-armed style was held in high regard, with fingertip corrections passing on his commands to the car dancing away underneath him. It all looked so beautiful, and attracted admirers among drivers as well as the spectators. It was a sight completely different to the clenched, workmanlike stance of German heroes like Rosemeyer who almost held their steering wheels to their chests – and they probably needed to do so to control their treacherous beasts. In Farina’s case, his Alfas probably made it easier.
Farina’s revered style found its opposite in the merciless aggression that he used to attack his opposition. Backmarkers would often be intimidated while fights for position were often threatening to end in acrimony. The worst cases for the defense will always be the casualties of Marcel Lehoux (Deauville, 1936) and Hans Hugo Hartmann (Tripoli, 1938) who were directly involved in collisions with Farina and paid the ultimate price.
There were enough stellar drives to underline Farina’s raw courage, though, especially in his glory seasons of 1937 to 1939, first driving for Scuderia Ferrari before becoming the lead driver at the revived Alfa Corse. His win in the minor 1937 Naples GP driving the 12C-36 Grand Prix car may be considered the highlight of his pre-war career but his successes while driving the second-level Alfa 158 speak larger volumes about his ability. His dominating win in the 1939 Coppa Ciano was perhaps easy considering the quality of the field but his 7th place – and first of the voiturettes – in the 1939 Swiss GP very much stood out among his performances. His sportscar win in the 1939 Antwerp GP driving Alfa’s 412 should not be forgotten either.
Farina took one more win before war began raging all over Europe – or in fact, it had just started to rage with Germany invading Belgium and the Netherlands. Two days after Farina’s hollow victory at the Mellaha track near Tripoli the Dutch port city of Rotterdam was bombed to the ground and Germany’s occupation of the neutral Low Countries became a fact. The doctor’s motor-racing career looked like it had been nibbed in the bud – quashed like those of Lang and Caracciola.
But five years later, with Germany thoroughly defeated and Italy having swapped sides just in time, Farina suddenly found himself being part of the most professional racing outfit by far. Now 40 years old, Nino Farina began a hugely successful second part of his motor-racing career, starting off with a win in the prestigious Grand Prix des Nations at Geneva in 1946. The rest of his late-forties success didn’t come with the 158, however, as the Alfa Corse steamroller went on with Wimille, Varzi and Trossi. Instead he married Elsa Giaretto, an elegant and stylish lady running an exclusive fashion emporium in Nino’s hometown of Turin. She didn’t think much of motor racing, deeming it to be a stupid and dangerous activity, but three days after their marriage Farina flew to Argentina to race again.
There was immediate success as he drove his private Maserati 8CL to victory at Mar del Plata. Back in Europe he followed that up with a win in the Grand Prix des Nations, again, and two weeks later he also won at Monaco. It had been a highly successful spring of 1948 for Farina, who got in touch with Ferrari again later in the year. Using Ferrari’s first Grand Prix car, the 125, Farina won the Circuito di Garda in late October before giving the Temporada another visit. This resulted in victory in the Copa San Lorenza at Rosario in February 1949. The rest of the year he raced for top Maserati Scuderie Milan and Ambrosiana, and at times in his own 4CLT/48, asserting himself as one of the veterans to beat. He won the Lausanne GP and then was re-signed by Alfa Corse at exactly the right time.
Farina wasn’t quite the elder statesman in the team, with old hand Fagioli now at a sparkling 52 years of age, but he regarded himself as team leader, higher in rank than European newcomer Fangio, who still had everything to prove at his tender age of 39… In Farina’s eyes, the outcome of the inaugural World Drivers Championship merely confirmed his feelings. In the end, Farina split the race wins with Fangio but while the Argentinian won most of the other non-championship races in which Alfa Corse competed (San Remo, Geneva and Pescara, against Farina’s wins at Bari and in the International Trophy) the Italian was more consistent in the Championship events that Fangio won.
Given the superiority of the Alfetta the first World Championship was bound to go to one of the three Fs, but by the end of 1950 the car’s dominance was finally waning. Ferrari’s new 375 had already shown its mettle by winning the Penya Rhin, Syracuse and Pau GPs and was threatening to take control of Formula 1. But into 1951 the big races were still falling to the updated 159. Fangio won the Swiss GP and then Farina doubled up in the Ulster Trophy and at Spa, a month after having taken out his 4CLT/48 to win the Paris GP. At Silverstone, where González took Scuderia Ferrari’s first famous World Championship victory, the tide quickly rolled towards Maranello. The 159 didn’t win another race until Farina took the fairly insignificant Goodwood Trophy late in September. But in a remarkable swing of fortunes it also won its swansong race at Pedralbes to hold on to the World Drivers Championship, but it wasn’t the doctor who provided the recipe for victory.
By now, it had become obvious to Farina that Juan Manuel Fangio was the new king of road racing. The Great Farina had been outshone. In recognition of the new order Nino Farina was among the first to visit Fangio in hospital after the Maestro had suffered his infamous accident at Monza in 1952.
With Grand Prix racing switching to F2 for 1952, Farina looked happy to find a berth at the newly dominant Ferrari team, teaming up with two veterans, Piero Taruffi and Luigi Villoresi, and the latter’s talented young friend and pupil Alberto Ascari. That soon turned around when Farina found that Ascari was the fastest of the quartet by far while Villoresi and Taruffi also took their fair share of wins in the minor GPs. All Farina was left with were victories in the F2 events at Naples and Monza (GP Autodromo). His aggravation was further enlarged by various blow-outs with Enzo Ferrari, with whom he had a difficult relationship. And although his runner-up results elevated him to second place in the World Championship, ahead of Swiss GP winner Taruffi, Ascari’s total domination had been a bitter blow to Farina’s self-image.
He got off to an even worse start in 1953 when he was the centerpoint of the accident that was waiting to happen in the Argentine GP. With no form of crowd control whatsoever, thanks to general Perón allowing all of his ‘children’ in, the drivers were forced to do the race like an old-school rally stage, hordes of people lining the circuit. Inevitably, fate struck before the race was over. On lap 30, a young boy ran across the track while Farina was committed to a fast corner. Forced to take evasive action, he swerved into the hedge of people standing on the exit of the corner, killing seven fans on the spot and hurting many others. He went to confession as a good catholic but in his heart found that his victims only had themselves to blame.
Things turned for the better for the rest of the season. By now, he had accepted that Ascari – and not just Fangio – was faster than he was and he finally seemed to have harnessed his vast experience into a less win-or-bust approach to the race. This served him well in the string of podium finishes that gave him third in the championship. And on the one occasion that Ascari wasn’t there to claim the spoils Farina upped the ante and drove magnificently to beat Fangio and Hawthorn by over a minute.
The 1953 German GP was to be the doctor’s last Grand Prix win, as his 1954 season turned sour shortly after he became the team leader at Ferrari, Ascari having jumped ship to Gianni Lancia’s new operation. Nino did take pole in the Argentine GP and won the Syracuse GP in Ferrari’s 625 but then crashed out of the Mille Miglia after the first few miles. It later transpired that Toulo de Graffenried had been working him up at the start – the proud Farina had been an easy victim. It took him until summer to recover.
On his return to the track it all went wrong again. Practising for the Supercortemaggiore sportscar race at Monza, the transmission of his new Ferrari Mondial simply fell apart. After the propshaft broke loose and punctured a hole in the tail-mounted fuel tank Farina was showered with fuel. This promptly ignited in the summer heat. The poor doctor received some very bad burns before he was able to escape the inferno.
The final part of his quarter-century career consisted of yet more comebacks while fighting the pain of his injuries and the pain in his soul. His heroic performance in Argentina at the start of the 1955 deserves special mention, when in gruelling conditions he battled to the end to have his shared drives finish third and second respectively. Continuing to race with morphine and pain killers and suffering from lesions that would re-open under the strain of racing, he took fourth at Monaco and third at Spa, before it became just too much to bear. An Indy 500 comeback in 1956 in a Kurtis-Ferrari failed to reach fruition while his 1957 Kurtis-Offenhauser mount was crashed in practice by Keith Andrews – with fatal consequences. The young American’s death really sent the message home to Farina. It was time to quit.
His wounds healed, he now concentrated on his successful Alfa Romeo and Jaguar dealerships. Farina also played out his part as the suave Italian ex-World Champion as he remained fully involved in the Grand Prix scene until his untimely death in 1966. Driving through the Alpes on his way to the French GP at Reims his confidence for betrayed him. On a snowy road near Chambéry he was caught out by the slippery surface and slid his Lotus-Cortina into a telephone pole. It seemed that the Virgin Mary, who according to Fangio had protected Farina’s well-being all through his crash-littered career, had finally grown tired of her mission.