FERRARI: GRAND PRIX SURVIVOR
by Larry Roberts
May 07, 1999
When Michael Schumacher recently won the San Marino Grand Prix for Formula One cars at Imola, it marked the end of a long dry spell for Ferrari at that Italian track. As Schumacher took his victory lap, it seemed as though every one of the myriad of spectators was waving a huge red flag that symbolized the livery of the marquee that has come to represent the epitome of the auto maker's art and prowess. You don't need to be a racing enthusiast to recognize the name Ferrari.
And as I looked down the names of the finishing race cars, it occurred to me that they are all relative Johnnies-come-lately. McLaren, Jordan, Benetton, Stewart and the rest are among the names that have risen in Grand Prix racing in relatively recent decades and there are dozens of others that have passed into history since then. To be sure, the names of Ford, Honda, Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz are still in Formula One and have been for some years now, but their logos are only attached to the powerplants that are in the engine bays of Prost, Stewart, Williams and Jordan cars. But Ferrari engines only power Ferrari race cars, and it's been that way ever since Formula One championship racing "officially" began in 1951. Before that, there was no championship, just individual Grand Prix races.
When Enzo Ferrari started building race cars after the war, his one goal in life was to beat his ex-employer, Alfa Romeo, in Grand Prix racing. In the '30's, Scuderia Ferrari had been the semi-official racing team for the giant Alfa Romeo conglomerate. It had been personally "blessed" by Benito Mussolini, fascist dictator of Italy, who had bestowed on Ferrari the title Commendatore of the Kingdom of Italy. Ferrari was stripped of the title at war's end, but continued to use it until he died.
When he began building Formula One Grand Prix cars in 1951, Ferrari began with a clean slate, while his rival Alfa had a head start with some very potent 1.5 liter straight-eight supercharged single-seaters left over from its prewar days of racing. Ferrari countered with unsupercharged V12s of 4.5 liters which had considerable more torque than the Alfas, along with superior fuel mileage.
It would have been like a Hollywood script if the first outing of the first Ferrari Grand Prix car resulted in a thrashing of the Alfa team, but it was not to be. That supreme moment of joy took place at the British Grand Prix in 1951 when Argentine's great Jose Gonzalez beat his countryman Juan Fangio who was driving a then-invincible 158 Alfa. The Ferraris then became the cars to beat in Grand Prix racing.
Over the years, Ferrari factory drivers won Formula One races countless times and won many World Championships. In 1961 the winning Ferrari driver was Californian Phil Hill, the first American to win the Formula One driver's title.
It's been nearly 50 years since Ferrari won its first modern era Formula One race. Its ancient adversaries, - Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Gordini and the rest - have all left the fray. But the "Prancing Horse" Ferrari logo is more popular than ever and may well come away with another Manufacturer's World Championship (it was second in 1998) at the hands of factory drivers Eddie Irvin and Michael Schumacher.
After nearly half a century of continuity and success, it's little wonder that Italians consider Ferrari a national treasure.