The commonplace miracle:
that so many common miracles take place.
The usual miracles:
invisible dogs barking
in the dead of night.
One of many miracles:
a small and airy cloud
is able to upstage the massive moon. >
A run-of-the-mill miracle:
winds mild to moderate
turning gusty in storms.
~Miracle Fair – Wislawa Szymborska~
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
Unceremoniously plucked out of winter hibernation, the fledgling Maserati 250F was wilting beneath the blazing South American sunshine. Three times an engine had expired, and for three consecutive nights the mechanics had exchanged their soft beds for a stifling workshop, attempting to persuade the recalcitrant power train to return to the land of the living. By race day only one engine was still in operating order. It was a miracle that Juan Manuel Fangio was even able to start the 1954 Argentine Grand Prix.
Just getting two new cars to Argentina had been a miracle. Shakedown at Modena in late November was followed by a series of low-key tests during December fine-tuning engine and brakes. Then a collision with a sports-car in pit lane destroyed their chassis, along with any ability to continue testing. Only by postponing Christmas morning festivities were the vehicles ready to be shipped to Argentina the following day.
This dearth of testing meant many of the car’s shortcomings were only now being exposed during the hectic activities of a race weekend. Handling was the first issue to be addressed. The over-stiff chassis favoured the straightforward act of traversing the shortest distance between two points rather than the geometric contortions demanded in negotiating corners.
Relegating two cross-bracing tubes to the scrap heap serendipitously allowed the body of the car to pirouette around its suspension, which persuaded the whole of the car to go in the direction the driver indicated. Fortunately, it was an old fashioned ladder frame rather than a cutting edge space-frame, else the whole convoluted web of metal would have collapsed with a discordant clang around Fangio’s ears.
Maserati 250F Formula One cars under construction inside the Maserati factory in Modena. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)
The newfound ability to circumnavigate corners meant nothing without a functioning power-train. The drawback of locating the dry sump oil reservoir close to the engine had lurked undetected during the chilly Italian winter. Now the souring ambient temperature was causing frothing of the essential lubricating liquid. Engine reliability fell precipitously as oil temperature increased.
Despite removing the front grill to maximise the coolant effect of air at speed, this was not enough. When Fangio’s engine failed yet again on Saturday morning, Maserati chief mechanic Guerrino Bertocchi had a burst of inspiration of what might fix his lubricating issues: castor oil.
Made from castor beans, castor oil doesn’t blend with mineral-based oils and fuels. Similar to trying to mix oil and water, the polar molecule of castor oil with a hydrophilic and hydrophobic end is unable to disperse itself through the non-polar liquid of mineral oils.
This polar attribute of castor oil makes it particularly useful when a consistent covering of lubricant is required. The hydrophilic (water-loving) tails of each molecule attach to the metal surfaces, leaving the protruding hydrophobic (water-hating) head jutting out and filling the gap. An added advantage is that the hotter the metal becomes, the more securely the oil’s main constituent, ricinoleic acid, will bind to it. This binding can cause problems over time, sticky residue coating the exposed surfaces, but Fangio’s engine only had to survive to see the end of the race.
Needing sixty half-liter bottles, Bertocchii foraged the shelves of every pharmacy in Buenos Aires. He also risked the inconvenient visceral side-effects of the oil’s original medicinal purpose by taste-testing each bottle to ensure it was fresh. By the early hours of Sunday morning, he had Fangio’s rebuilt engine reinstated in its chassis, out on the track, gently running it in.
During Sunday morning the unrelenting sunshine was slowly replaced with ominous towering thunderclouds. One hour into the race, just as the oil temperature on Fangio’s 250F was approaching critical levels, the rain began. Intermittent at first, it shortly became monsoonal, flooding the track inches deep with water.
Fangio was saved by the drop in temperature cooling his oil and engine, as well as his superb skills in slippery conditions giving him an edge over his competitors in their faster, but less agile machinery. Maserati aided by hand cutting a set of wet weather tyres, ably assisted by the Pirelli technical representative. In the chaos, five mechanics changed the tyres and shoved Fangio’s 250F back into the fray, instead of three as legislated by the regulations.
Ferrari immediately protested. Expecting Maserati would be hit with a time penalty they instructed their drivers to drive accordingly and thereby reduce their risk of crashing in the inclement conditions. The time penalty never came. Maserati was fined for their misdemeanour, but the race result would stand. This combination of commonplace miracles resulted in Fangio winning his first Formula One race on home soil, and the Maserati 250 F winning on its inaugural outing.
A little over five years before, Fangio’s first Grand Prix win had also been driving a Maserati in Argentina. He was 37 years old. Like the car he was driving, a Maserati 4CLT, the war had interrupted his racing. The car had been upgraded, a tubular chassis, courtesy of the engineering genius of Gilco, added strength unencumbered by mass. Fangio himself needed no upgrading. Despite being the age that most drivers today start thinking of retirement, his career was about to accelerate.
The year was 1949. The setting, Mar del Plata, a seaside town in Argentina. The euphoric holiday mood and picturesque view rivaled that jewel in the racing calendar, Monaco. With the start-finish line abutting the beach, the cars would proceed to navigate a series of gentle curves alternating with tight hairpin bends, traversing up and over the hill behind the town. There was even a tunnel passing under the Hotel Bella Vista.
Competitors about to start at the top of the circuit. Photo: Autosprint – Courtesy of Alessandro Silva
Gigi Villoresi was on pole, but Fangio was right beside him. Next to them were Nino Farina and Alberto Ascari. Three of the four were proven winners. Fangio was still an unknown…at least in Europe. Villoresi was the favourite. Starting on pole in each of the previous three races, he had not converted any of them into a win.
Despite his favoured position, the race did not start well for Villoresi. By the end of the first lap, he was in the penultimate position, his work for the day cut out for him as he fought to regain his rightful place among the pacesetters at the front. The roar of the crowd as the cars made their way around the circuit heralded the identity of the leader even before he appeared…Fangio!
For the first five laps, Fangio would maintain a small advantage, while Villoresi would fight his way through the field to fourth. This would turn into third when Farina in the lone Ferrari retired with engine difficulties on lap eight. Villoresi set the fastest lap of the race on lap eleven. When Ascari was forced into the pits with mechanical problems on lap 16, Villoresi would capture second place but was still separated from the leader by a gulf of 30 seconds.
Suddenly Fangio brought his car to a stop by the side of the track and, watched by his ardent but alarmed supporters, ripped a loose piece of exhaust pipe from his car, and re-joined the race. He was still in the lead, but this unofficial “pit-stop” had allowed Villoresi to close the gap between them. The throng of excited spectators advancing on the track to catch of glimpse of the hometown driver reduced the road available for racing by almost half. Fangio was fast on the straights and defensive on the corners, thereby giving Villoresi no chance to slip past.
The race was Fangio’s to lose when on lap 23 Villoresi was forced to retire. Ascari had once again caught the two front runners, but after pitting twice more, he was also out of the race on Lap 27 with a cracked engine block. Fangio carefully maneuvered his car around the remaining ten laps to take the chequered flag for his first Grand Prix win, over a lap ahead of B. Bira in second.
Wining in Argentina was presumed to be beginner’s luck. Fangio then launched his European career with victory at San Remo, which he followed up with taking first place at Pau, Perpignan, Marseilles, and Albi. This was not just luck. This was dominance. Fangio would return home to Argentina to a hero’s welcome and a state reception.
In 1950 and 1951 Fangio raced for Alfa Romeo, winning the championship for the Italian marque in his second season. 1952 was a challenging year, a crash at Monza driving a Maserati in a non-championship race resulting in a fractured cervical spine and minimal racing for the remainder of the year. 1953 he was back in a Maserati and runner up to Ascari in the championship. In 1954 Fangio had signed to drive for Mercedes Benz, but their car was not yet ready. Maserati would get his expert services for the 250F’s first two races.
The 1954 Argentina Grand Prix was a turning point for the Maserati factory as a whole. Their initial aim with the new formula had been to make a car suitable for the well-healed privateer…easy to set up and reasonably reliable if driven circumspectly. They weren’t racing for love. They were racing for money. While the racing team were busy at the track, the management team were employed with government meetings and negotiations.
Aided in part by Fangio’s miraculous win at home, Maserati returned to Italy with a sizeable contract to supply machine tools to the Argentine government. With this massive boost in ready cash, they made the decision to continue to run an official works team – Officine Alfieri Maserati. They would lack Fangio…he would give them another win at Spa but was already signed to drive for Mercedes when they returned to post-war racing at the French Grand Prix.
Juan Manuel Fangio going through La Source hairpin, on the way to victory in the 1954 Grand Prix of Belgium in Spa-Francorchamps. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)
Due to its intended low-key prospects, the Maserati 250F was a relatively simple car. Gioacchino Colombo was headhunted from Alfa Romeo at the end of 1952 to help them prepare for the new Formula coming in 1954. As Alfa Romeo didn’t have the funds to field a car for the upcoming season, he was probably looking for someone that needed his now renowned skills in engine design.
Colombo began by improving the Formula Two A6G engine, increasing the bore from 72 to 76.2mm which in turn enabled the addition of bigger valves, twin plugs and in turn higher revs. This car would win the last race of the 1953 season, Fangio coming out on top when Ascari spun his Ferrari forcing his teammate Farina to take to the grass to avoid him. This was Maserati’s first Grand Prix win.
Colombo had a significant role in the design of the engine of the 250F, which was even more over-square than its predecessor, its dimensions 84 x 75mm. By the end of the year, it had been tested in a Formula Two chassis on track, but Colombo had already departed…the role of Managing Director not as much to his liking as that of Technical Director. Giulio Alfieri arrived in August from Innocenti. He would oversee the ongoing evolution of the 250F and the development of its chassis.
Before Colin Chapman, it was Gilberto Colombo (no relation to Gioacchino Colombo) who was obsessed with lightness. His father fabricated stainless steel tubes and used them to make bicycle frames, aircraft parts, and furniture. In 1946 the younger Colombo had diverted his engineering interests from those of his father. He would focus on ultra-light car frames. Starting with the 125, Gilco would build all the Ferrari chassis until 1955.
Gilberto’s first chassis would be the 1947 upgrade of the Maserati 4CL…called the “Milan”. The hollow tubes would be put to double use, the free space inside them being utilized as a storage tank for the oil. When this essential lubrication refused to be contained in the web of steel, the tank was reinstated to its original position, but the tubular framework remained. This would be the 4CLT or 4CL San Remo. Gilco would also manufacture the frame of the Maserati 250F.
Castor oil wasn’t a long-term solution for Maserati’s oil problems during 1954. Denis Jenkinson wrote that, “All season the Maserati works cars had been suffering from oiling problems of one sort or another, for the factory did not seem capable of taking the matter of oil very seriously, especially in the way it was transmitted about the car. Oil pipe union, pipe runs, pipe joints and so on were all lacking detailed design and preparation and the engineers seemed to be completely oblivious to the effects of high-frequency engine vibrations on rigidly mounted oil pipes. It was a feature of the 1954 season that the Maserati pits could be easily identified by the pools of oil lying on the ground, and it became a reflex action for Maserati mechanics to start moping up oil as soon as one of their cars stopped at the pits during practice, for if it was not all over the engine, or on the floor of the cockpit, then it was all over the tail.”
Over the next three years Fangio racked up multiple victories and, along with them, three more world championship titles…two for Mercedes Benz and one in the Lancia D50 that government assistance had allowed Ferrari to rescue as their own car had been uncompetitive.
For the 1956 Italian Grand Prix, Maserati had bought a significant upgrade, The chassis lengthened, the engine angled, the driver shifted slightly to the right…all of which meant that the driveshaft passed at an angle under the driver’s left knee…and the driver sat 20 centimeters closer to the ground. Despite the theoretical advantages of reducing the drag, the car did not handle as well as its predecessor and was not raced by the factory team again.
The upgrade for 1957 resulted in a lightweight, small-gauge frame…more triangulated and closer to a true spaceframe than its predecessor. It had bigger brakes, a lower and sleeker body, higher cockpit sides and a sloping fuel tank to improve its aerodynamics. Fangio was back at Maserati, the place where his European career had kicked off in 1949. He was now 46, but by the time the paddock got to the Nürburgring Fangio had won three of the four previous races, and had almost double the points of Luigi Musso in second place in the championship.
Unlike the race in Argentina almost four years before, this time the Maserati 250F would be held at ransom by rubber, not oil. Their Pirelli tyres were wearing out too fast, while Ferrari was running the more durable Englebert which could easily maintain adequate grip for the whole race distance. Maserati would instead try to win the race on strategy, starting Fangio on a light fuel load and plan to pit mid-race for new rubber and more fuel.
The mechanics practised until they could change Fangio’s rear tyres in under thirty seconds. But practising is not the same as racing when hearts gallop, hands shake, and a wheel nut falls and rolls under the car. Fumbling under the vehicle for the essential metallic object, the seconds ticked past…52 seconds in all…
Fangio’s half-minute lead was long gone. He was now the hound…chasing the scarlet Ferrari foxes ahead of him. At first, it seemed that it was an unobtainable aim. For three laps Fangio made no inroads to the duo in front. At the end of Lap 14, the gap was still 48 seconds. Then it started dropping…32 seconds…25 seconds…20 seconds. The Ferrari’s were still going very fast – an immensely respectable 9:30…but Fangio was going ever more quickly …9:23…9:17…and the two red cars were looming ever bigger in his sights.
Juan Manuel Fangio in the ‘ditch’ of the famous Karussel in his Maserati 250F with part of the huge crowd looking on during this, his greatest race. (Photo by Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images)
Early in the penultimate lap, Fangio passed Collins. Now there was only one Ferrari to go. Fangio remembered, “On the straight, with trees beside and in front of us, and a cliff to our left, Mike went right to take an ideal line when he came to the bend. That was my chance. I hurled the car into the inside of the bend. I think I must have put two wheels on the grass verge because otherwise the two of us wouldn’t have made it through. Mike did a double-take when he saw me where he didn’t expect me, and he lost the fine edge of his driving for a moment. Well, that’s the way it goes. You should never let the other guy have the inside of your bend.”
Fangio would cross the line 3.6 seconds ahead of Hawthorn. Later Fangio said, “I made such demands on myself that I couldn’t sleep for two nights afterwards. I had never driven as I drove then, but I also knew I’d never be able to go so fast again – ever.” It would be both his and Maserati’s last Grand Prix win. Fangio had also wrapped up his final World Championship title.
Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, quipped that “God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.” Racing, at its most basic, is not the battle between the individual competitors, or the sometimes even fiercer contest to eclipse your teammate. It is the fight between the multitude of surfaces both inside and outside of the vehicle. If the vehicle is slowed too much, it becomes noncompetitive. If it doesn’t get slowed enough, it can end up against crushed flat against an immovable object.
The sticky rubber at the four corners of the car holds it tightly to the road. The tires squeal in protest as the brakes squeeze those same wheels. The first gives more speed, the second less…but less speed is needed if corners are to be circumnavigated safely. The firing of the fuel results in the rapid movement of the pistons inside the cylinder block. For this to occur, the oil needs to stay where it is required and not stray elsewhere. Each explosion of fuel and air propels the car forward. Water and oil on the road negate the essential grip of rubber on the road…especially unfortunate if the oil emerges from the inside workings of the car itself.
“Good handling, powerful brakes and competitive power provided the keys to the 250Fs’ success, Giulio Alfieri explained in an interview with Doug Nye for Motorsport Magazine. “Our car handled well due to contributory reasons: one, front suspension geometry, not special, but good — unequal-length wishbones and coil-springs; two, De Dion rear suspension very soft with transverse leaf-spring; three, our Pirelli tyres, very good; four, this first space-frame chassis was very poor in torsional stiffness, in the wet lateral force was low, tyre friction poor and so our lack of chassis stiffness did not punish us, instead it made our car perfect for the rain — very pleasant, very special… very lucky!”