The roar of an engine, a vivid flash of scarlet, triumph and defeat, tears of joy and of despair – for the founder of Ferrari this was all that mattered. “Racing was his life, he lived for racing,” recalls Piero Ferrari of his father, Enzo, l’Ingegnere, the Engineer, as he is still called with reverence.
Enzo’s Scuderia has been competing in Formula One since its inception in 1950 and on Sunday at Mugello they reach a remarkable milestone with their 1,000th F1 race, in the Tuscan Grand Prix. Enzo’s passion created the most famous marque in racing, a behemoth, globally recognised and supported, yet one in which his personal involvement still remains ingrained.
Enzo’s only surviving son, Piero, is vice-chairman of the company. Now 75, he pauses to reflect on why the team his father created has enjoyed such longevity. “All the values that Enzo put into the company, they have remained consistently,” he says. “His heritage remains, he would be proud of that.
“The size of the company now is very different, it would be difficult for him to imagine, but the DNA of Ferrari from my father’s time is still there, every employee is proud to work for Ferrari.”
Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari at the company’s factory in Maranello in 1956. ‘There were other competitions, after all he won many Le Mans, but F1 was the top competition then, as it is today.’ Photograph: Thomas D McAvoy/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
Before the second world war, Enzo had run Alfa Romeo’s racing operation, but by 1947 he was in charge of his own team, fielding the Tipo 125. In 1950, when the F1 world championship was inaugurated, Enzo started the longest-running chapter in the sport’s history, entering a car clad in the traditional Italian rosso corsa – racing red – that would become synonymous with his team.
F1 consumed him. “It was important to him because it was his wish to compete at the top level in motor racing,” says Piero. “There were other competitions, after all he won many Le Mans, but F1 was the top competition then, as it is today. It was the highest benchmark against which to measure his performance.”
Enzo did not compete in the first F1 race, at Silverstone, unhappy with the participation money, but Ferrari were there at round two at Monaco. A year later the Argentinian José Froilán González secured the Scuderia’s first win. Beating dominant Alfas reduced Enzo to tears.
Just how important it was to him throughout his life is clear. “A racing car is like a child to me,” he said. “Your child is an extension of yourself, you take it school and when it does well in its studies, when it comes first in its class you are proud. The same thing happens for a constructor when he turns forged materials into living engineering, into a harmony of sound.”
These were words not spoken lightly. The death of his 24-year-old son Dino in 1956, from muscular dystrophy, left Enzo devastated.
Yet he raced on and everything at Ferrari still revolved around il Commendatore right up until his death in 1988, aged 90. “It was very important, the F1 department was Enzo,” says Piero. “He was very involved, even in the last few days of his life he was still watching F1 a week before he died.”
Piero worked for the team in the 70s and 80s. He knows the standards his father expected. “He was very demanding,” he says. “At Ferrari it is like you are the emergency department of a hospital. You can be home but you have to be available, somebody could call you day or night, that was the life. My father never had a vacation, his life was his office in Maranello, his office in Modena.”
Reaching 1,000 races is an achievement worth celebrating but for Piero this has also been a journey characterised by the intimate, the personal. “We had lovely and sad moments,” he says. “The best memory I have is when he was sitting on a Sunday watching the race on TV and no one could comment, but I was sitting behind him and sometimes he would ask me: ‘What do you think of that car?’ That was good, watching the races with him.”
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc steers his car during the second practice session for the Grand Prix of Tuscany. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP
During these 999 races Ferrari have won 16 constructors’ championships. The prancing horse on its yellow background Enzo had created to honour the Italian fighter pilot of the first world war, Francesco Baracca, who flew with the horse emblem, adorns the trophy across the decades. The Scuderia has 15 drivers’ titles, 238 race wins, 228 poles and 772 podium places. Nine drivers have taken the title in 66 different models, but these numbers are a cold expression of a story that was always fired by the passion that has touched so many.
It has been one of both magnificent cars (and some shockers), and pedalling them a procession of mighty drivers. Piero defines his father’s favourites across eras: Tazio Nuvolari from the pre-war days with Alfa Romeo; Alberto Ascari, who delivered Ferrari’s first title in 1952; and then Niki Lauda in the 70s, despite their relationship ending fractiously. They are joined by a veritable hall of fame: Juan Manuel Fangio, Peter Collins, Alain Prost, Clay Regazzoni, Jon Surtees, Michael Schumacher, Nigel Mansell, Jody Scheckter, Mike Hawthorn and, among many others, Gilles Villeneuve.
Ferrari could be ruthless and blunt in hiring and firing, presenting an authoritarian mystique behind the dark glasses and dim lighting of his office and in pitting his drivers against one another to extract more from them. But equally he was enthusiastic and encouraging when he found talent. It has been reported that privately Enzo ascribed the bulk of any success to his car, his engines, but Piero denies this was the case. “Car performance is what you need for a winning car, but not any driver can be a winner, so the contribution of the driver was essential,” he says.
Enzo went against advice in taking on Villeneuve. He was proved right and the pair became close. Enzo was devastated by his death in an accident in qualifying at the Belgian GP in 1982. “His death has deprived us of a great champion, one that I loved very much,” he wrote. “I look back and see the faces of my loved ones, and among them I see him.”Then there were the cars. The mighty Tipo 500, Ascari’s championship-winning ride in 1952 and 1953, during which he won seven consecutive races, a record that stood until Sebastian Vettel broke it in 2013. There was the 246 Dino, the engine named for his son, when Hawthorn took the title in 1958 and the first V6-engined F1 car. The 70s boasted the 312T, a car that had developed from the 312B3, which Lauda had told a horrified Piero to inform his father was “a piece of shit”, illustrating that the Ferrari story has been far from plain sailing. Lauda took the 312T to two titles, in 1975 and 1977.
In the modern era perhaps a defining piece of engineering is the F2004, which helped Schumacher secure 13, and Ferrari 15, of the 18 races that year.
The team have not taken the drivers’ title since Kimi Räikkönen in 2007 and this season they will not do so and the Scuderia is going through another difficult period. Piero is confident their current travails will be overcome. “I speak with the team principal, Mattia Binotto, and the engineers,” he says. “I am confident. We have had difficult moments in the past and we came back. Ferrari will come back I have no doubt of that.”
There will almost certainly, then, be no celebratory victory for Ferrari to mark their 1,000th outing. Yet the team remain Enzo’s dream personified and Piero states definitively that F1 is the point of Ferrari’s existence. In at Formula One’s beginning, his team will stay through thick and thin.
“I hope there will be another 1,000 to come,” he says. “I will not be there to see it but I hope my grandchildren will. There has never been the question of do we race next year or not? Never. We are competing in F1 we have always been there. It is not a question. It is a fact. We are in F1 and we will continue.”