Formula 1’s first world champion:

Rose tinted spectacles

“In the golden days of F1 every Grand Prix was a classic, with 20 changes of lead and a photo finish. Dashing drivers would climb from beautiful, sponsor-free cars, light a cigarette and regale the world’s press with quick-witted quips” (Keith Collantine). I love the picture this conjures up, and the further back in Grand Prix history we go, the more rose-tinted the spectacles become.

The names of Fangio, Ascari, Hawthorn and Moss all trip of the lips of every true F1 fan when discussing the very beginnings of Formula 1, but there is a name I never heard in my early F1 education and it is particularly strange because he is credited with winning the first FIA Formula 1 world drivers championship. Maybe this was because he was a ‘here today gone tomorrow type character’, or possibly he ‘lucked in’ to win a title when those much better around him failed to deliver.

Nope. None of that is true. Guiseppe ‘Nino’ Farina born in 1906 had nearly 25 years in motor racing and was still employed by a works F1 team when he retired at the age of 55. The nickname ‘Nino’ is Italian and means “God is gracious” and the reason for this label will become apparent.

A family with a motoring pedigree

Farina was born into a fairly wealthy family and his father Giovanni had bodywork shop in Turin at the height of its industrial car making prowess. His uncle Battista founded the Pininfarina which became the world-renowned styling company,  designing what most consider to be world’s sleekest and most beautiful sports cars  – including the most exclusive and expensive ever Ferrari model, the 250 GT California.

Given all this Guiseppe Farina was destined to be involved with motor cars, yet after teenage excursions as the navigator for uncle Pinin in race events, he stayed dedicated to his studies graduating from the University of Turin as Doctor of law. He enlisted with the military as an officer and it wasn’t until he was 26 that he entered his first professional motor sport event.

His motor sport debut in the Aosta-Gran San Bernardino hill climb 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. His old Alfa was a write-off but this didn’t scare him off.

On the contrary, cutting short his career as a cavalry officer, Farina started to concentrate on motor racing full-time from 1933 onward. He first raced Maseratis and Alfas for Gino Rovere and his Scuderia Subalpina (an independent team) before catching Enzo’s eye and signing with Scuderia Ferrari in 1936. Ferrari were just finding their way in motor sport and were far from the iconic marque they are today

The hard man evolves

It was at Ferrari Nino quickly learned his craft from legendary team-mate Tazio Nuvolari whose immense natural ability impressed Farina and he analysed Nuvolari for a whole year before moving to the works Alfa Romeo team. He had developed a driving presence among his rivals that was fearless and brutal, yet he had a seemingly relaxed, straight-armed demeanour that was held in high regard. His fingertip corrections of the wheel passed on his commands to the car which appeared to dance underneath him.

It all looked so beautiful and Nino attracted admirers among spectators and drivers alike with Fangio and Moss copying his technique a decade and more later. It was a sight completely different to the clenched, workmanlike stance of German heroes like Rosemeyer who almost gripped their steering wheels to their chests. The dazzling Farina by comparison instantly became Italy’s most successful driver winning the Italian Championships of 1937, 1938 and 1939 for the works Alfa Romeo team.

Yet even though Farina had a deft touch he was known by his teams to have a tendency to punish his cars. Perhaps it was a lack of mechanical sympathy or understanding that also caused him to push them beyond the point of no return and have far more than his share of accidents, which he tended to blame on bad luck or fragile machinery – never himself. The fact he consistently survived these incidents led Farina to believe it was not due to good luck but in fact his deep belief in God. After every accident he would give prayers of thanks to the Virgin Mary.

The big time and relentless aggression

Farina’s revered style found its opposite in the merciless aggression that he used to attack his opponents. Back markers would often be intimidated while fights for position were often threatening and would end in vivid acrimony. The worst examples of Nino’s disregard for others are the casualties of Marcel Lehoux (Deauville, 1936) and Hans Hugo Hartmann (Tripoli, 1938) who were directly involved in ferocious battles and ultimate collisions with Farina and they both paid the ultimate price.

The ultra aggressive Farina went on to take his first major race win, at the 1940 Tripolo Grand Prix in Libya, but sadly for him he was just reaching his peak as a driver at the outbreak of World War II, and it would be six years before he would win another major race. Yet Nino was not merely some kind of relentless competitive animal, he was a highly complex character, well-mannered, charming and gracious on most occasions, yet he could also be arrogant and aloof. He was accused of being unsentimental and a snob who disapproved of those members of his profession who did not have the right social pedigree. This should have put him at odds with Fangio, who came from a most humble background in Argentina. Yet when Fangio was nearly killed in the 1952 Italian Grand Prix, the first person to visit his hospital bedside was the race winner Farina, who presented his fallen comrade with the victory wreath.

Infatuated with the big Grand Prix races, Farina entered the premier post-war events in a privately owned Maserati and he won a number of them including the glittering Monaco Grand Prix in 1948. When the newly formed FIA announced the inaugural World Championship for 1950, Farina secured a drive alongside Juan Manuel Fangio and countryman Luigi Fagioli at the all dominant Alfa Romeo team. The self-styled ‘Great Farina’, as he referred to himself, took 3 wins from the 7 races of the season, securing himself the first ever World Championship. It was the pinnacle of his career and he was 50 years of age.

Twilight years

The Great Farina was outshone in 1951 as Fangio won the title and he finished a distant 4th. It was also apparent that the old order of Alfa dominance was in terminal decline. Farina made the astute move in 1952 to the new force that Ferrari was now becoming. He teamed up with two veterans, Piero Taruffi and Luigi Villoresi, and the latter’s talented young friend and pupil Alberto Ascari. The Great Farina was confident with the best car and limited competition from team mates either too old or too young to trouble him – this would be for him a winning year.

unfortunately, 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. His aggravation was further enlarged by various blow-outs with Enzo Ferrari, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Although the number of runner-up results meant Farina was second in the World Championship, ahead of Swiss GP winner Taruffi, but Ascari’s total domination had been a bitter blow to Farina’s self-image.

In 1953 Farina was the centre point of a terrible accident that in a way had been just a matter of time coming. The race was Argentine GP and thanks to General Perón allowing all of his ‘children’ into the event, the drivers were forced to do the race like an old-school rally stage, hordes of people lining the circuit. Inevitably, fate struck when 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. Seven fans were killed and many more seriously injured. It was said of Farina that as a good Catholic he dutifully went to confession but in his heart found that his victims only had themselves to blame.

The rest of the season was much better for Nino, he appeared to have accepted that Ascari – and not just Fangio – was faster than he was and began to harness his vast experience into a less win-or-bust approach to the race. This served him well in the string of podium 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.

Swift decline

In 1954 it all went badly wrong for Farina. During practising for a 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 and Nino was severely burned before he was able to escape the inferno. It took him much of the year to recover.

One uncredited commentator has written, “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 all became just too much to bear”. Farina quit.

Like all great competitors retirement did not sit well with him and he tried to make a comeback. At Indy the 500 in 1957 he had a shared drive in a Kurtis-Offenhauser car. It was crashed by his co-driver Keith Andrews in practive – with fatal consequences. The young American’s death really sent the message home to Farina. It was time to quit – this time for good.

Ultimate retirement

His wounds healed, Farina now concentrated on his successful Alfa Romeo and Jaguar dealerships. He 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 and “God’s graciousness” (Nino) had finally run its course.

So despite the immortal accolade of being the first FIA drivers’ champion, Farina is remembered mostly for something less fanciful than his eipc inaugural World Championship title. His fearsome and ruthless driving and countless examples unsportsmanlike conduct made him the centre of attention throughout his career for all the wrong reason.

Fangio remarked that “because of the crazy way Farina drove only the Holy Virgin was capable of keeping him on the track, and we all thought one day she would get tired of helping him.” Even Enzo Ferrari (not always noted for his compassion) feared for Farina’s future. He described him as “a man of steel, inside and out. But I could never help feeling apprehensive about him. He was like a highly strung thoroughbred, capable of committing the most astonishing follies. As a consequence he was a regular inmate of the hospital wards.”

F1 is what F1 has always been…

..and in some ways this is  very true, but we reminisce, pull up the old black and white footage and revere the days of yesteryear. Many criticise Michael Schumacher whose ‘win at all costs’ attitude caused many controversial moments that affected a number of F1 seasons.  Yes and one of those was so severe that he was removed completely from the F1 records for racing in 1997. We have today Grosjean, who is portrayed as the current ‘crashmeister’ and reckless, dangerous new kid on the block. Yet when compared to Guiseppe ‘Nino’ Firina – he is an absolute angel.

The golden days clearly weren’t always so golden. Farina’s gentleman reputation was more to do with his upbringing and his family’s social standing and though he was completely charming outside the car – a more ruthless, aggressive and brutal driver in motor sport’s premier racing events – there probably has never been.

Sources: GrandPrix.com, forix.com, wikipedia, kolobus.fi, formula1.com.

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6 responses to “Formula 1’s first world champion:

  1. This is awesome! We know so little of so many drivers of the past. And it’s excellent getting a bit more info about the personalities, controversies, driving style, etc.

    What would be fantastic when doing such features, is to try find out how drivers were perceived as that time. Take Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. Many regard Alonso as the best, Lewis the fastest, and Vettel completing the trio. In my opinion Vettel is 3rd in ranking, but in 30 years, people will look at the championships, the stats, the numbers. Very few will remember what drivers’ abilities, especially in lesser cars. Most will be talking about Vettel and few about Newey, just like many talk about Schuey, but very few about Ferrari’s wealth, Rory Byrne and teh Bridgestone tyres. And how many know of Gille Villeneuve, Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson, they’re probably not even in their top 30. Anyway, I digressed!

    • The problem is that we live in the digital media age with news stations 24/7. The research I did for that piece was a lot more extensive than just the sources quoted. Back in the mid 20th century, most news and comment was in print and of course the more words and column inches increased the cost. So direct quotes are very limited as the writer wanted to spend most of the time creating the angle for the story and it is simply the case that a lot of stuff was just not reported. Try and find race reports for the Italian national championships 1937-39 – almost imporssible and very incomplete. This leads to a kind of styalised writing I’ve tried to avoid where there are lots of facts and little comment and feel. I hope I portrayed what is the commonly accepted view of Farina – a gentleman, charming out of the car – and probably the most brutal and lacking in conscience of all Grand Prix competitors every to have driven a car.

      • I think it’s an excellent article and I take your point about how much is reported. I guess maybe from 70s onwards reporting becomes a bit more frequent and for the drivers of the past 30 years we can probably gauge more who was regarded highly at that time rather than right now looking at the stats only.

        • You made me realise I had missed several paragraphs from the Farina story – I have just updated it – and I think some of them give quite a bit more of what you were looking for – I shouldn’t be publishing at 01:30am I guess. Sorry

    • Mr. Stewart – “don’t impress er me much” I’m afraid. Bit full of his own importance.
      Nino was from my understanding – the very worst as well as the first…………………….F1 champion

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