Some of the greatest names in motor racing have driven for Ferrari, but only one man can claim to have been the first, and that same individual was also the one who scored Ferrari’s inaugural victory. His name was Franco Cortese.
As the Company prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, his moment in the sun has invariably come around again. That Cortese is not as celebrated as the likes of Alberto Ascari, Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins, Phil Hill or John Surtees – to name just a few of the big personalities from the earlier chapters of Ferrari’s history – is partly down to the fact that he was involved as the Company was taking its first faltering steps, but also that he is generally regarded as a talented “gentleman” driver in the pre and post-war era.
That is a misnomer. Oh, to have a competition CV as distinguished as his! Not least because Cortese, born in Oggebbio, Piedmont, in 1903, raced a remarkable variety of cars in a career that spanned four decades, from 1926 until 1958.
This included participation in the very first Mille Miglia, in 1927, driving an Itala. He would go on to finish the gruelling road race 14 times overall, establishing a record that has never been beaten (including a 1940 drive for BMW, whose victory that year was one of only three non-Italian wins in the original Mille Miglia’s 24 editions).
In those formative motorsport years, Cortese raced countless Alfa Romeos, including a second place finish in the 1932 24 Hours of Le Mans, and co-drove with the great Tazio Nuvolari and Louis Chiron in the French endurance classic the following year.
He also crossed paths with Enzo Ferrari in the 1930s, when the Scuderia Ferrari team managed Alfa Romeo’s competition efforts. The team won the 1935 Mille Miglia; Cortese and Francesco Severi finished eighth that year in the second of the team’s three glorious Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B “Pescara” cars.
Along with fellow drivers Giovanni Lurani and Luigi Villoresi, Cortese founded Scuderia Ambrosiana in 1937, named in honour of Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, and with a blue/black logo that paid homage to the city’s Internazionale football team. There were many successes, primarily with the Maserati 6CM, until war intervened.
As ever, fate played its hand. Ferrari had manufactured machine tools in Maranello during the war and, amongst others, had given Cortese a licence to sell them. But it was Cortese’s triumph over Ascari and Piero Taruffi in the one-off Sehab Almaz Bey Trophy in Cairo in 1947 that reminded Ferrari of his driving talents.
On 5 December 1946, he sent him a letter outlining his ambitions for the following year, and followed this up with a contract on 7 April 1947, three weeks after the 125 S made its debut. Two cars duly appeared at a race meeting in Piacenza on 11 May.
Cortese was in 01C, Nino Farina in 02C. When Farina complained about the car, and Enzo refused to switch him into a 125 S chassis, Farina failed to turn up for the start. Cortese did, and was leading comfortably until the fuel pump broke. A promising failure, Enzo Ferrari famously noted.
The next race was more auspicious. When Cortese lined up for the Rome Grand Prix, on the streets around the Terme di Caracalla on 25 May, he couldn’t possibly have known how significant his drive was about to become. He completed 40 laps – 137.6km – and averaged 88.5km/h to score Ferrari’s first competitive victory.
Three more wins would follow in quick succession. By the end of his first year, Ferrari could reflect on 17 cars entered in 14 races, yielding seven overall or class wins and four second place finishes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Cortese, meanwhile, continued to race, and to win, including a brilliant victory in the 1951 Targa Florio. He also won the Italian 2.0-litre sports car championship in a Ferrari 500 TR. He passed away in 1986, aged 83.