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The Grand Prix of Syracuse

Syracuse was the greatest of the Greek colonies in Sicily and increased in wealth and power to the point that it actually defeated mighty Athens in a naval battle in 413 BC. Impressive Greco-Roman remains and much art and architecture, built up over centuries, earned Syracuse a listing as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005.

There were 15 starters and pole position was taken by world champion Juan Manuel Fangio in a Ferrari

In modern times, Syracuse has a claim to motor racing fame: it hosted 16 Grand Prix races between 1951 and 1967 (it was not held in 1962) on a 5.5 kilometre circuit on public roads just west of the city.

The World Championship, launched in 1950, was based on the results of the already established Grand Prix races of six countries including Italy, which already had Monza, so although the Syracuse race was run under Grand Prix/Formula One regulations, it did not count towards the World Championship. However, as the race was normally held in April, it was usually well attended since it served as a testing ground for the year’s world championship races. I attended both the 1956 and 1957 races.

In the early years after World War II, until 1951, Formula 1 racing was dominated by Alfa Romeo’s legendary Tipo 158 powered by a 1,479cc supercharged straight-eight engine developing 350bhp at 9,000rpm, originally designed in 1939 and hidden in a cheese factory during the war years.

From 1952 to the end of the 1950s, Ferrari, Mercedes, Maserati and finally Cooper reigned supreme. Mercedes, dominant in the pre-war years, returned to racing in 1954 with their iconic, streamlined W196 but withdrew from racing in 1955 following the terrible accident involving one of their 300 SLR sports cars at the Le Mans 24 Hours that killed 87 spectators. Also present in Formula 1 races in the 1950s were the French Gordini and Talbot and the British BRM, Connaught, HWM and Cooper.

The 1955 Syracuse GP was won by Tony Brooks driving a Connaught, a noteworthy result because although other British drivers like Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss had been making a name for themselves, they drove non-British cars, and this was the first win in a major race by a British car/driver combination since 1924.

In the 1956 season Connaught, hoping to build on their 1955 success, entered two cars for the Syracuse GP driven by Desmond Titterington and Piero Scotti but neither car finished, one retiring with ignition trouble and the other with gearbox problems.

There were 15 starters and pole position was taken by world champion Juan Manuel Fangio in a Ferrari, followed by Eugenio Castellotti (Ferrari), Jean Behra (Maserati), Luigi Musso (Ferrari), Luigi Villoresi (Maserati), Peter Collins (Ferrari), Robert Manzon (Gordini) and Titterington (Connaught).

Behra’s Maserati was a new, experimental model being tried out. In practice, it proved fast enough to get a place on the starting grid ahead of the Ferraris of Musso and Collins, and in the first laps only a few metres separated Behra and the Ferraris.

Castellotti registered the fastest lap, and then Fangio. In the seventh lap Behra recorded a fastest time of 2m01.1s, to which Fangio responded with a time of 1m59.9s. Sadly, this exciting start to the 80-lap, 440-kilometre race fizzled out when after 10 laps the Maserati retired with lubrication problems.

With Behra’s retirement, the race became a triumphal procession of the four Ferraris in the lead, and they would no doubt have taken the first four places if Castellotti had not also retired after hitting a retaining wall and breaking his steering linkage.

Seven cars finished, in the following order: 1. Fangio 2. Musso 3. Collins 4. Villoresi 5. Gerino Gerini (Maserati) 6. Manzon 7. Luigi Piotti (Maserati).

After the race, Fangio called for his young team-mate Castellotti to come to the winners’ podium and gave him a hug of encouragement, to the delight of the onlookers. Then Villoresi was also summoned, and the crowd went wild because ‘Gigi’ held a special place in their affection as the winner in 1951 of the first Syracuse GP, to which he remained faithful, also taking part that year although his aging Maserati was no match for the Ferraris.

Fangio was absent from the 1957 Syracuse GP, as was the promising Castellotti, who sadly lost his life in a testing accident in Modena. Nevertheless, there was a star-studded entry of 19 cars: two Ferraris (Peter Collins, Luigi Musso), no fewer than eight Maseratis (Jean Behra, Piero Taruffi, Harry Schell, Francisco (‘Paco’) Godia, Luigi Piotti, Hans Herrmann, Bruce Halford, Giorgio Scarlatti), four Connaughts (Ivor Bueb, Peter Walker, Les Leston, Jack Fairman), three Cooper-Climaxes (Jack Brabham, George Wicken, Bill Whitehouse), and two Vanwalls (Tony Brooks, Stirling Moss).

There were many retirements, with only seven cars qualifying as finishers. Of the Maseratis, Scarlatti remained on the starting grid and only Taruffi made it to the finish.

Of the Connaughts, Leston crashed in practice and did not start, Fairman retired with a failed fuel pump after 35 laps and Peter Walker spun out on lap 64 and could not restart. Brooks’s Vanwall broke a water pipe after 34 laps.

The Vanwall was active in Formula 1 from 1954 to 1960. Its creator, Tony Vandervell was one of the initial backers of the BRM project but was disillusioned by its lack of progress and went his own way. His company produced bearings under the trade name Thin Wall and the name Vanwall was coined from Vandervell and Thin Wall.

Its 2,490cc engine, unusually built up from four Norton motorcycle engines side by side, developed a respectable 285bhp at 7,600rpm. In 1956, with a new chassis designed by Colin Chapman and a highly aerodynamic body designed by Frank Costin, the Vanwall was usually the fastest on the straights and became a force to be reckoned with. In 1957, driven by Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, it began winning races.

Moss’s Vanwall was third on the starting grid with a time of 1m56.3s, close to Musso’s 1m55.9s and Collins’ pole position time of 1m.55.5s.

In the early stages Moss battled mightily with the Ferraris and also took the lead but was unable to maintain the pace and finished third, three laps behind Collins, who won at an average speed of 167.7km/h.

Musso came a close second in a demonstration of the Ferraris’ superiority and fourth was Taruffi’s Maserati (three laps behind), fifth Bueb’s Connaught (five laps), sixth Brabham’s Cooper-Climax (10 laps) and seventh Wicken’s Cooper (19 laps).

The rear-engined Cooper was the car that started the switch in Formula One to rear engines, a layout viewed with reserve by designers at the time in view of the difficulties experienced by the rear-engined Auto Unions of the 1930s. The Cooper was clearly more manageable than the bigger front-engined cars, and represented a triumph of handling over sheer power but initially its two-litre engine was not powerful enough.

Today steering wheels are much smaller, drivers sit low inside rather than on the car, cocooned in a cockpit that is actually a survival cell

However only two years later, in 1959, equipped with a more powerful 2,495cc engine also by Coventry-Climax that developed 240bhp at 6,750 rpm, the nimble Cooper carried Jack Brabham to the first of his three World Championships.

In the 1950s drivers sat high on their cars wearing short-sleeved shirts, with head and even shoulders protruding above the car’s body and with a large, stiff wooden steering wheel in front of their chest. Roll hoops were rare, as most drivers reasoned they preferred to be thrown clear in an accident.

In those times drivers knew death was probable if they crashed at speed. In recent times, however, drivers have survived crashes at speeds up to 300 km/h with relatively minor injuries, thanks to the very great advances in driver safety since the 1980s.

Today steering wheels are much smaller, drivers sit low inside, rather than on the car, cocooned in a cockpit that is actually a survival cell, designed to withstand and absorb severe side and rear impacts. Protective racing suits are worn and cars are fitted with switches that, on impact, automatically shut off fuel pumps and ignition and trigger fire extinguishers discharging into the cockpit and onto the engine.

In those years, the atmosphere in motor racing was more relaxed and many things were much easier and more informal. The accompanying photos show that in many places on the Syracuse circuit spectators stood behind a wall only a metre or so high, with the cars roaring past a few feet away, which was potentially dangerous but made for exciting viewing.

Unlike today, the drivers were easily approachable. After the race Australian Jack Brabham, then relatively unknown, was standing on his own in the paddock. I suspected he might be feeling a little lost in the Italian-speaking environment so I walked up to him and greeted him in English. We chatted for some minutes and I got his autograph. Little did I imagine that only two years later he would become World Champion.

Autographs from Ivor Bueb, already successful in sports car racing, Jack Fairman and Les Leston were obtained with equal ease.

My companions and I knew in the evening after the race the drivers habitually went for dinner at Ristorante Orologio in Syracuse and in 1956 we booked a table there. On arriving, we were totally thrilled to find our table was just a few feet away from the one occupied by Fangio, Musso, Castellotti and other drivers.

We looked at them in awe and unabashedly listened in to their conversation, a perfect end to a racing enthusiast’s day.

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