Cars

THE BIRTH OF THE LEGEND

THE BIRTH OF THE LEGEND

One hundred years ago, Enzo Ferrari signed a driver's contract with Alfa Romeo. He would go on to win a number of important races but, above all, would establish a relationship with the marque that lasted twenty years and saw him become director of the Alfa-Corse department... whilst still dreaming of setting up his own car company
Words

Vincenzo Borgomeo

One hundred years ago, Enzo Ferrari signed a racing driver's contract with Alfa Romeo. And one hundred years ago, the seed of what would later go on to become Ferrari was sown.  It is very likely that if il Commendatore (as Enzo Ferrari would become known) hadn't begun racing for Alfa, he would never have gone on to found the Scuderia Ferrari racing team. And Maranello's iconic car manufacturer would never have existed. But history is not built on 'ifs'.

Enzo's first experience with Alfa Romeo came in 1920 when, after a brief period of driving for Isotta Fraschini, he debuted for the marque in Sicily's famously tough Targa Florio road race.

Victory was immediate: Enzo came first in his category, and second overall. "With the prize money and everything else,” he said, “I earned 12,000 lire. But, for me, the key thing was that my inclusion on the Alfa Romeo team became official that day." He was right, and from that moment on, his life changed forever. He scored a number of major wins, and from April 1924 to May 1928 won all the races he took part in.

Ferrari and mechanic Michele Corso during the 1920 Targa Florio, Enzo's first race with Alfa Romeo
Ferrari and mechanic Michele Corso during the 1920 Targa Florio, Enzo's first race with Alfa Romeo

Enzo Ferrari was good at what he did. He had joined the unbeatable Alfa very early on, his first-ever race being the year before, in the 1919 Parma-Berceto event when he finished fourth in the 3000 category, eleventh overall.

For him, races were everything: personal satisfaction, a means of release, the desire to assert himself. "I don't think I did badly as a driver," he often said. It was a fair comment. For a rookie driver at that time, winning nine out of 39 races wasn't at all a poor result.

And it mustn't be forgotten that in those pioneering days motor racing was a truly daredevil profession. Just getting to the finish line alive was quite an achievement: resources were very limited, there was a constant risk of being killed even in the most trivial of accidents, and competition was already extremely fierce.

Enzo's second race was the 1919 edition of the Targa Florio, once again behind the wheel of a CMN car. But the adventure got off to a bad start. On the morning of his departure he, almost comically, got stuck in the hotel lift for nearly two hours, throwing into disarray his travel plans. The actual race didn't go well either: by the time he arrived at the finish line the spectators - and above all the official timekeepers - had already gone home. The only person waiting for him was a lone carabinieri officer, who, brandishing a big alarm clock, registered the times and order of arrival of the stragglers. That young officer in the dust-covered uniform placed Enzo Ferrari as 'ninth'.

Enzo Ferrari at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo RL at the start of the 1923 Targa Florio
Enzo Ferrari at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo RL at the start of the 1923 Targa Florio

Yet the following year saw the young racer achieve a truly incredible turnaround: coming second place overall in that very same, famously exhausting, Targa Florio. The world of motorsport was shocked by the arrival of this unknown new talent. Alfa Romeo immediately snapped him up, with that contract being signed in October 1920. Enzo Ferrari soon became a roaring success in the world of road racing, so much so that, at the age of just 26, Alfa decided to debut him in what was the F1 of the time, the International GP.

It was 1924, and the precise events are still shrouded in mystery. Enzo  was due in Lyon for the French Grand Prix to where Alfa Romeo delivered one of its unbeatable P2s for him to drive; the other three were for Giuseppe Campari, Luis Wagner and Antonio Ascari, each of whom were already racing legends. Enzo Ferrari, however, only raced in the tests, then suddenly returned to Italy and did not participate in that French GP. Why? Nobody knows. To this day, racing fans still refer to this episode as "the mystery of Lyon".

Whatever really happened in Lyon, it didn't stop the young Ferrari. Indeed, it turned out to be the beginning of the legend, not the end. His collaboration with Alfa Romeo lasted some twenty years, and saw him work his way up from test driver to driver, commercial partner, and finally director of the Alfa-Corse department.

Eventually an historic day arrived when, on 14 July 1951, driver Froilan Gonzales nudged the front wheels of his Ferrari ahead of those of the Alfa to win the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was a victory that no Ferrari fan has ever forgotten, and which marked the dawn of a new era for the house of Maranello.

For Enzo, defeating an Alfa Romeo marque that had been so important in his racing life, it was with an understandable mix of regret and nostalgia that he said of that win:  "I feel like I've killed my own mother."

The Ferrari legend was born.

Ferrari