The first of NSR’S GP Greats is the charismatic Eugenio Castellotti
was a wealthy man, a lawyer who wished his son to take up the same profession, but from childhood Eugenio thought only of motor racing. Taught to drive by the family’s chauffeur, he first raced in 1951, not long after his father’s death.
This was not in some minor event, but the Giro di Sicilia, and Castellotti – just 20 – drove his own, black, Ferrari. From the outset he was overly brave: “After going off the road six times, I had to retire – I had no racing experience…”
Eugenio’s second race was even more exalted, the Mille Miglia, and the following year he scored his first win, at Syracuse, then finished second in the Monaco Grand Prix, uniquely run in 1952 for sports cars.
There followed, though, a huge accident at Vila Real. “I was leading,” Castellotti related, “but missed a gear going into a corner, and hit a tree. I was lying in the road, but couldn’t get up – my leg and pelvis were broken – and I thought I’d had it. Then two lads carried me to the side of the track, and cars went over where I’d been lying…” Five weeks later, he raced again.
In 1953, now driving a Lancia, Eugenio won the first of three Italian Mountain Championships, and when the company announced its plan to enter F1 Alberto Ascari, long his idol, recommended that Lancia sign him.
It was a dream realised, but the radical D50 was way behind schedule, and Castellotti’s F1 debut did not come until 1955, an accident in Argentina being followed by second place at Monaco – where Ascari took his celebrated plunge into the harbour.
Four days later Castellotti was at Monza, testing a Ferrari sports car, and telephoned his mentor, suggesting he come out to the track. Ascari – resting after the shunt – agreed, and once there unexpectedly asked for a run in the car. On his third lap he crashed at the corner now named for him.
Distraught, Gianni Lancia at once suspended his company’s racing activities, but Castellotti implored him to make a car available for the next race, Spa.
In one sense, at least, Formula 1 in 1955 was much like today: if you didn’t have a Mercedes, you didn’t have a prayer. Invariably Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss were out on their own, but at Spa Castellotti was on a mission, and beat Fangio to pole position. It was a staggering performance, but unsettling to those who watched, not least Denis Jenkinson. “You saw what he’d taken out of himself,” Jenks told me, “and couldn’t help but fear for him in the race…”
Next day the Mercs predictably disappeared, leaving Castellotti to fight for third with the hardest of hard men, Giuseppe Farina: in the pits there was some relief when the Lancia’s transmission failed.
Soon afterwards the company’s racing department was handed over to Ferrari, who extended Eugenio’s sports car contract to include Formula 1. Over the next 18 months he was invariably a front runner, although never a winner, but in sports cars there were several victories, notably in Italy’s blue riband event, the Mille Miglia.
Given that Castellotti never shed his impetuosity, and that in 1956 most of the 1000 miles were run in torrential rain, few would have bet on him to finish, let alone win, but he drove beautifully, averaging 85mph for eleven and a half hours, trouncing team mates Collins, Musso and Fangio.
By now Eugenio was a hero in his homeland, and in other ways, too, his life was changing. “He was,” Moss said, “everyone’s idea of a racing driver – dramatic good looks, like a bullfighter or something.” Rob Walker was succinct: “Castellotti made the girls gnaw at the back of their hands…”
Rich, charismatic, always elegant, Eugenio indeed never lacked for female companionship, but when he met Delia Scala everything changed. A leading actress, she was famous in her own right, and swiftly they were anointed as Italy’s gilded couple.
The 1957 season started well, with victory in the Buenos Aires 1000 Kms, and Castellotti was shortly due to cross the Atlantic again for the Sebring 12 Hours, which he had won the year before. In the meantime he was with his fiancée, then appearing in a play in Florence. On March 14 Eugenio got an unwelcome call from Ferrari, demanding that he return immediately to Modena. Testing at the city’s track, Jean Behra’s Maserati had just set the lap record, and it was vital that a Ferrari should beat it.
Quite why this should have mattered so much was unclear, but some – including Villoresi – suggested that Enzo acted as he did after accepting a lunchtime wager at Modena’s Biella Club.
Whatever, Castellotti did as bidden, arriving at the track in late afternoon. Out
EUGENIO CASTELLOTTI La Dolce Vita
he went in a Lancia-ferrari, and within a few minutes he was receiving the Last Rites. After going out of control at the S-bend after the pit straight, the car had somersaulted to destruction against a stone grandstand. Behra, watching, insisted it had been a gearbox problem, that Castellotti had arrived at the corner in neutral.
Delia Scala, informed of the tragedy early that evening, somehow kept faith with theatrical tradition, and ‘went on’, as ever.
The Modena autodromo is long gone, but, now a leafy park dedicated to Enzo Ferrari, its soul abides, with sundry pathways named for drivers down the ages. There are memorials, too, including one for the man they called ‘Il Bello’.
As I stood by it, I thought of something Peter Ustinov once told me: “Peter Collins was a friend, and he told me the most terrifying story about the Commendatore. Peter was with him at Maranello when the phone rang. Ferrari said, ‘Pronto! Ferrari!’ Then he went pale. ‘Non e possibile… Castellotti morto...’ A pause. ‘E la macchina?’”
When I mentioned this to Phil Hill, he responded with a knowing smile: “We all knew who we were working for…”
Formula 1 drive with Ferrari and relationship with Delia Scala made Castellotti a star