Martin Buckley Backfire
‘Gifts were handed out by local beauty queens, in a bizarre reminder that Italy is one of the last bastions of anti-pc culture’
All the best press trips happen in Italy, so if you are going to alight on this gravy train (which I don’t often do), an offer from Maserati to join the Gran Premio Nuvolari is not to be sniffed at. The conventional format of these things is that you find yourself at a foreign airport with various faces you vaguely recognise. From there you are whisked off to a glamorous locale, wined, dined and schmoozed, before getting to grips with the vehicle in question. The general equation is that the more dreary the car, the better the junket and associated gift – or “bribe”, as dear old Mike Mccarthy used to call it. The Nuvolari trip was different altogether: no bribe, and surprisingly hard work – albeit the sort of ‘work’ that most people would pay money to do.
It was also a chance to get some time in the latest Maserati Ghibli, which to somebody who drives 50/60-year-old cars daily felt spectacularly fast and capable. The trouble is, in the same way that Hillman Minx-driving Cyril Posthumous thought the 1971 Morris Marina a ‘lovely car’, I don’t have anything to benchmark it against. What I can tell you is that it is nothing like as pretty as the 2003 Quattroporte (see p206): that’s a car I can see myself owning.
Starting and finishing in Mantua, near Nuvolari’s birthplace, the Gran Premio is not a jolly but a serious regularity. Entrants ranged from the exotic (Pegaso) to the prosaic (Fiat 125), with ’50s British cars much in evidence. As usual, a Fiat Balilla won, making the point that the skill is in working the clocks and doing your homework with the roadbook rather than going quickly.
That said, we were given every encouragement to do so by the crowds, and even local traffic cops urged us on. You simply cannot picture anything like this happening in the UK: being given near-official sanction to drive like an arse between historic towns and villages through everyday traffic, then being greeted in said locations like heroes, with gifts of local produce. In one case, these were handed out by semi-naked beauty queens, in a bizarre reminder that Italy is one of the last bastions of anti-pc culture.
Despite a huge entry list that added to the slightly Wacky Races feel, we always seemed to be among the same group, my enduring image being of a Verona-registered BMW CSL that looked sensational in my rear-view mirror.
Maserati was the sponsor, and we were in a team of press cars that included the new Levante SUV – the less said about that the better – driven by a writer called Alberto, who piloted it with a lack of fear that only comes with youth. Then again, unlike Alberto, I was not under pressure to write a blog update every half an hour for the insatiable appetite of a website editor in Milan.
I know what a regularity is, but didn’t grasp at first that I was meant to be competing. It was the end of day two before it dawned on us, having by then been given a telling-off by the co-driver of a Porsche 356. I just sat back, did what I was told, tried to enjoy myself on the fabulous roads between the timed sections and hoped nobody would recognise me at the gala dinner in Rimini.
Luckily they didn’t; but I did sit next to a Mr Paulo Zegna of the fabric dynasty, who remembered doing the ‘L’ cloth for the Lancia Gamma. I was amused to learn later that, although he only did half a day of the event, the suave Mr Z came higher in the results than I did. We came last, with maximum penalties. The shame of it.
My humiliation wasn’t over. Struggling to get my case into the locker on the plane, I got a mild rollicking from a 55-year-old man wearing the clothes of a 25-year old. Apparently, I was ‘bashing his hats’. It was a situation worthy of Larry David, but I couldn’t summon a response worthy of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Only on the M4, back in the embrace of my Merc 300TE, did it dawn on me that I’d been rebuked by the lead singer of a late-’80s, three-hit-wonder pop group, the identity of which I’ll leave you to work out.
From top: winning 1939 Fiat 508C of Giovanni Moceri and Daniele Bonetti; Buckley and his Ghibli were at the other end of the leaderboard