The window beside me is down and some of the warm Italian slipstream is rushing into the car. The tunnel, boring its way deep through the hillside, is amplifying every glorious note from the two high-mounted exhaust pipes behind me and five little red lights burn in the top of the steering wheel as the wailing cacophony hammers out of the tunnel and the Scuderia changes gear with a BANG! as it bursts into the bright spring light of the Adriatic coast. I’m slightly deaf in my left ear for the next few miles.
I have to strain my neck to see it over the central reservation but, lapping the beaches over to my left, the sea is a rich, sparkling turquoise, while perhaps 40 miles away in front of me the brooding snow-capped mountains of the Gran Sasso loom like some impenetrable fortress. And between the sea and the mountains lies the longest Grand Prix circuit ever.
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It’s not a name whispered today in reverential tones like Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps or Le Mans but, in times past, Pescara was a place drivers revered and respected. ‘Those road circuits were bloody dangerous and nasty, all of them. And Pescara was the worst.’ That was ‘Black’ Jack Brabham’s opinion, but Tony Brooks had a different view. ‘Fantastic,’ he said. ‘A real race circuit. To me, Grand Prix racing is road racing and anything less than that is nothing like as rewarding.’ Today, nearly 50 years after the last race was held on Pescara’s awesome 16 miles, we’re going to try and find its route. And why have we chosen a Ferrari 430 Scuderia? Well, apart from the unbridled joy of driving a Ferrari in Italy, the marque is inextricably linked to Pescara. The first race here, on the July 13, 1924, was won by none other than Enzo Ferrari. He and his riding mechanic, Eugenio Siena, were in an Alfa Romeo RL, concluding a straight hat-trick of victories and the most successful run of Enzo’s driving career. ‘Here I was to make my name as a driver,’ he later recalled. By completing ten laps at an average of nearly 65mph he not only won the Coppa Acerbo (pronounced ‘Achairbo’), as the race was then known, but for his efforts he also receieved 5000 lire, the King’s medal and the title of Cavaliere.
Over the following years the Prancing Horse shield saw many victories at Pescara, both on the sides of Alfas as part of the Scuderia Ferrari and then on the noses of cars bearing Ferrari’s name. The last Ferrari win in 1961 was also the last race at Pescara, thus neatly completing the circle begun by Enzo 37 years earlier.
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT Gus Gregory and I are going to find in 21st century Pescara. The maps I have of the circuit show a roughly triangular shape made up of two massive five-mile straights joined together on the south side by a twisty section. I also have with me the names of a couple of villages on the route, some old photographs and a description of the course in Richard Williams’ excellent book The Last Road Race. Whether we can piece this jigsaw together into one full, modern-day lap, however, remains to be seen.
Our first discoveries aren’t good. Italian road races didn’t use deserted country roads like those of Spa or Reims but roared through towns instead. As a result, in 2008 the place is heaving with traffic. Fiat 500s new and old, buses, scooters, Bravos, cyclists, 159s, lorries, Pandas, delivery vans and now one sky-blue Scuderia are all swarming down the Via Adriatica, an old Roman road that runs parallel to the seafront and which made up the main pit straight of the circuit. The Pescara pits were about three-quarters of the way down, alongside the start line as they are on most circuits, but because a lap was so long, the mechanics would push the cars back down the street so that the drivers could have a flying start in practice and not waste over ten minutes getting back round to the start without a stopwatch running.
Gus and I completely misjudge the length of the straight the first time along it and turn off far too early, taking a shortcut across the ‘infield’ up towards the first village name we have – Spoltore. It’s now a small town, but there’s still only one major road through it and all the signs point to Cappelle, the next name on our list, so we head along there on what certainly feels like a section of the circuit.
Into the village of Cappelle and the traffic is worse than ever, with commuters and lorries seemingly skirting the main congestion of Pescara itself. I wonder if they know what they’re driving on? They certainly know what the Scuderia is. There are constant incitements to blip the throttle (brake; both paddles for neutral; tinnitus for the next few minutes; smiles all round), and as soon as we stop, friendly people, young and old, come over and want to talk (regardless of my pathetic Italian), take photos and pore over it.
After Cappelle we find the second long straight (where the Mercedes and Auto Unions of the ’30s were hitting 200mph) and that leads logically back onto the endless Via Adriatica. This time we clock the five-mile crawl but still there’s no obvious right turn inland. It’s now mid-afternoon and the heat is being soaked into the heavy air. The Scuderia hasn’t been above 30mph or fourth gear for what seems like an eternity. This must be what it’s like for all those Ferraris that live in London.
We try a right, then another, but soon we’re lost in a jumble of suburban back-roads, school traffic and several sets of conflicting directions from enthusiastic locals. This is not what we’d hoped for. After the umpteenth three-point turn (stop; press the button marked ‘R’; wait for the beeps; proceed backwards, marvelling at what a long car the 430 is and how much of the view in the beautiful little carbon wing mirrors is taken up with air intake; try to avoid kerbs and parked cars; brake; right-hand paddle; listen to the quick shuffle of cogs; thank the waiting traffic and set off in another wrong direction, peering into the sun to try and catch a glimpse of Gus angrily handbraking his hire car into the next blind alley) we eventually give up.
We’ve got bits of the circuit sorted, but the first third in particular is proving a nightmare to trace. We agree that cold Peroni and warm pizza are in order before we go out again after dark when the traffic has subsided. Miraculously, we find our hotel just off the end of the pit straight and park the Scuderia in a secure underground car park that I like to imagine could have been used as a garage by one of the race teams. A final gratuitous blip of the flat-plane-crank V8 tears into the walls of the tiny enclosed space and leaves me slightly deaf again for half an hour.
As we’re checking in, Gus asks the friendly concierge if he happens to know where the old Pescara circuit goes. I can’t hear what he says, but he brings out a small street map and points to the Via Adriatica, then up Via Enzo Ferrari and then onto Via Circuito. Well, I mean, if you want to be obvious about these things…
TUESDAY, AUGUST 15, 1961, was a national holiday and the race was due to start at 9am. By 6.30am, with the sun already roasting, thousands of locals and holidaymakers were streaming up into the hills by any means available. There was a vast temporary grandstand opposite the pits, but every doorway and window of every shop and house lining the route was filled with tanned faces craning for a better view. Nearly a quarter of a million people would watch the races at Pescara, most of them for free because it was difficult enough to marshal all the sideroads and keep people from wandering close to the corners, let alone get money out of them.
‘Shortly after 9am the quiet murmur of voices up in the hills broke into a noisy chatter as hawk-like eyes saw vehicles coming along the road many kilometres away down on the lower slopes leaving Pescara,’ wrote the inimitable Denis Jenkinson in his Motor Sport report. But it was a false alarm. A cavalcade of cars carrying VIPs on an official road-closing lap was making its ponderous way around the circuit. Thus it was 9.18 by the time Bandini, Scarfiotti, Ginther, Mairesse, Zagato (yes that one), Bonnier and the other 43 drivers ran across the road, jumped into their cars and pressed starter buttons.
Gus and I have also decided that an early start is the only way to try and beat the traffic. And so by 5.45am, with the first pale shades of dawn in the sky, I’m driving down a deserted main straight of Pescara in awe of its endlessness. Looking out of the Scuderia’s windscreen, it simply disappears into the distance. Looking in the rear-view mirror across the top of the glossy black carbonfibre engine bay, the streetlights recede in perfect perspective until they meet on the horizon behind. Now it’s easier to imagine the cars thundering along here with their throttles wide for more than two minutes.
Turn right at the end and head under the wide railway bridge before turning immediately left. This brings us out onto Via Ferrari with the trains running above us on our left. A few hundred metres further on we turn right again onto Via Circuito. Between the rows of cars parked at the side of the road and up to a roundabout. Straight over, straight over again, then right at the next junction and the road starts to tilt upwards slightly, before finally releasing into the lush countryside, green grass and yellow flowers saturated with dew and tumbling over a wall that clearly still has the black and white bands that marked out the track.
Casner in a Birdcage Maserati was the first past this wall in 1961, followed closely by Richie Ginther in the factory Ferrari Dino 246 and Mairesse driving a 250 GT. Then came what Jenks describes as ‘a whole lot of heavy traffic’ as the huge grid poured into the tight second- and third-gear turns that twist up into the hills. It must have been a sight to make your nerve- endings tingle. This morning it’s just me and the Scuderia, but the 430’s doing a fine job of providing an evocative soundtrack through what is almost a tunnel of trees.
There might be debates about torque interruptions and the relative merits of DSG over a system like Ferrari’s SuperFast F1 ’box, but what is without doubt is that a flat upshift in the Scuderia is immeasurably more exciting than any seamless Nissan GT-R gearchange. The way it goes through with a BAP! so loud it rips the air, the way it sounds just like a Formula 1 shift, the way it is as fast as Schuey’s 2004 F1 shift, all combine to make it one of the truly great automotive experiences.
The blind left, right, left, right corners marked out with flashes of zebra kerbing continue, the ground rising up on the right and dropping away to a small valley filled with olive trees on the left. As the road makes its way around the hill, clinging to its side like an undulating balcony, you start to catch glimpses of the terracotta roofs of Spoltore in the distance. As the first houses appear on either side, purple wisteria dangling down and swifts darting about amongst the buildings, you start heading steeply uphill through shallower lefts and sharper right curves. Then you turn right, through a long open hairpin underneath a perfectly pink 1970s house, before heading into the older, browner, narrower heart of the town.
Bonnier arrived in Spoltore on foot in 1961, having snapped a driveshaft in his Tipo 63 Maserati. Vaccarella, however, in the sister Tipo 63, was ‘going like a rocket’ – despite being last away from the grid he was up in fifth place by the time he reached Spoltore on his third lap. Bandini, in his factory-loaned 3-litre V12 Testa Rossa, had stopped at the pits as his oil tank filler wasn’t shut properly and was leaking. He lost over three minutes and was dead last when he set off again, but he had the bit between his teeth and started gaining ground rapidly, sliding the big, front-engined machine around as though it was a little Formula Junior car. By the time the first hour was up, he had battled back to seventh. Meanwhile, Ginther and Vaccarella had been trading fastest laps (Vaccarella having lost his bootlid somewhere), Ginther eventually setting the fastest of the race and a new sports car record at a scarcely believable 9min 55.5sec.
In the middle of Spoltore the cars had to negotiate a tight uphill right in front of a tiny church, still there today. Then as you round the corner of a house with green shutters, the road rises up in front of you to a blind crest. Driving the 430 up there I can barely imagine what it must have been like to keep the throttle pinned as you came over that crest, seeing only sky in front of you but knowing you must turn left or forever hold your peace as the road swerved away downhill underneath you.
It’s much quicker between Spoltore and Cappelle, and after about a mile you reach the highest point on the circuit. There’s a rather unattractive monument to the pre-WWII ‘Coppa Acerbo’ races, but the view as you plunge down into a first-gear switchback is breathtaking. The yellow amphitheatre of flowers seems so timeless as you round the hairpin that you can almost imagine yourself in the race, caught in a gaggle of backmarkers, being overtaken by the swarm of hard-charging leaders with all the attendant ‘hooting, headlamp-flashing and fist waving’.
If you stop, get out and run your fingers over the surface of the road it’s smooth and slippery with fine dust, yet frequently badly broken near its edges as though it hasn’t been repaired in the last half-century. When Enzo raced here it would have been completely unmade and the cars would have scored deeper and deeper ruts in the surface as the race went on.
The Scuderia is incredibly light on its feet, yet it’s also very easy to drive. The steering is spookily light at times but always accurate, while the massive carbon brakes that make an audible schhh every time you press the pedal are so communicative that you can actually feel the coarse texture on the surface of the discs. Because so much of my lap is quite slow, the P Zero Corsas never get a chance to become hot and sticky, and as a result the 430’s usually unmoveable rear end is entertainingly mobile. Out of the tighter bends it’s frequently flaring up with barks of revs, one or two of the change-up lights in the steering wheel illuminating as you hold the slide out of a corner.
From the spectacular hairpin there’s a headlong tumble downhill to Cappelle. What are corners for me would have been just slight direction changes for the drivers in ’61 as they almost straight-lined anything they could. As you approach the town you can see the road ahead of you jinking down between the houses. You pass the church perched up on your left, then the track twists sharply down into a left-right corkscrew that spits you out, pointing back towards Pescara. From here you leave the hill towns and plummet back towards the other five-mile straight on a sort of ski-jump run-up to what was known as the ‘Flying Kilometre’, where before the war the race organisers awarded 200,000 lire to the driver of the fastest car.
Although the straight is now packed on either side with houses, petrol stations, shops and other concrete clutter, the kink (nothing so severe as to have required a lift) at Mulino, halfway along the straight, is still very obvious. It has a set of traffic lights winking away on it today. Then it’s arrow-straight again until you reach the district of Montesilvano, where a tight right-hander deposited the drivers back at the start of the epic five-mile start-finish straight.
BY MID-MORNING, after two hours and with half the race run, Vaccarella’s Maserati and the Ginther/Baghetti Ferrari had succumbed to the incredible pace they’d set. Bandini had come in for fuel and jumped out of the no- doubt scorching car to let Scarlatti take over. They were now in second place, but some five minutes behind Casner in the leading Birdcage.
Signor Dei of the Centro-Sud team hadn’t given up hope though, and when after a couple of laps the gap hadn’t changed, he called the big Ferrari back into the pits and put young Bandini back in. Jenkinson recalled that ‘the next lap he [Bandini] came storming round, visibly faster than Scarlatti, and the Italian crowd cheered and waved him on to greater efforts.’
Whether he would have caught the leader we will never know, because on lap 14 disaster struck Casner, who got into a slide on a fast left-hand bend, collided with the bank and rolled his Maserati. He was pinned underneath the car and, although he was pulled out alive, he was bruised, shaken and badly burned by hot oil pouring from the tank.
This left Bandini to go on and take a very popular victory in what was to be the last ever race at Pescara. It also capped a season in which Ferrari won the World Sports Car Championship, making for a very happy Commendatore Ferrari.
Pescara today may not be a beautifully preserved Mecca like the Nürburgring, and its past glories may be relatively unknown compared with the Targa Florio or Mille Miglia (which, incidentally, used to run through Pescara). But I love the fact that it’s out there lying dormant between the sea and the mountains with just enough of it recognisable between the buildings and the vegetation. I thoroughly recommend an early-morning lap of it. And if you can find a Scuderia to do it in then you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.
With thanks to LAT for the archive pictures.
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|Bore x stroke||92 x 81mm|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy, dry sumped|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cylinder, variable valve timing|
|Fuel and ignition||Electronic engine management sequential multipoint injection|
|Max power||503bhp @ 8500rpm|
|Max torque||347lb ft @ 5250rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed ‘F1-SuperFast 2’ paddleshift manual, rear-wheel drive, E-diff, F1-Trac|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Cross-drilled and vented carbon ceramic discs, 398mm front, 350mm rear, ABS, EBD|
|Wheels||19in front and rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||235/35 ZR19 front, 285/35 ZR19 rear, Pirelli P Zero Corsa|
|Top speed||198mph (claimed)|