After the first round of Formula 1 tests with the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Netherlands, the attention of motor sport fans focuses again on the world championship for cars in the sports category which, after Sebring and the Targa Florio continues on Sunday 28th May 1961 with the Nürburgring 1000 km. The German circuit is one of the most tortuous and dangerous in the world, as it winds through the hills of Eifel, south of Cologne. The Hall of Fame, where the names of Nuvolari, Caracciola, Lang, Farina, Ascari, Fangio and other champions appear, shows that only top drivers can win at the Nürburgring. It goes without saying that this circuit also subjects the mechanical parts of the cars to terrible wear and tear. The two previous races of 1961 were dominated by Ferrari, which are favored in the very hard German race as well: their third victory would mean ensuring the world title. The crews of the manufacturer from Maranello enrolled in the 1000 Kilometers of the Nürburgring, are Trips-Gendebien (the pair that won the Targa Florio), Phil Hill-Ginther and the brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodríguez. The latter two will be driving the powerful 12-cylinder engine car while the other drivers will drive cars equipped with 6-cylinder engines assembled on the rear which, on such a difficult track full of turns and drops - although very fast - like the Nürburgring, can fully reconfirm their great qualities. The Porsches of the official team, driven by Moss-Graham Hill, Bonnier Gurney and Barth-Herrmann, the Maserati of Scuderia Serenissima (Trintignant-Maglioli and Scarfiotti-Vaccarella) and Camoradi (Gregory-Cassner) race against Ferrari. Of the cars from Stuttgart, the one assigned to the British duo is the new model with two liters displacement, to be feared for its handling and stability (but also because it’s driven by the great Stirling Moss, who’s a unique driver). As for Maserati, it’s the rear engine car which, so far, hasn’t given the expected results, but - according to what has been said - it will significantly improve compared to the previous performances of Sebring and Targa Florio. Of the seventy-six members of the Nürburgring 1000 km, there are many crews behind the wheel of big cars, including Mairesse-Baghetti on an official Scuderia Ferrari sedan, and Abate-Vaccarella on Ferrari as well, but entered by Scuderia Serenissima, that has Count Volpi di Misurata as patron.
The German fans rely on Moss-Bonnier who drive the Porsche with a four-carburetor engine. Giancarlo Baghetti, the new star of Italian motor sport, makes his debut abroad in a world-famous test. To live up to the situation, the Italian driver prepared for the 1000 Kilometers with the utmost seriousness, starting to train a week before the race. The circuit of Nürburgring is 22,810 kilometers long: it will have to be covered forty-four times, for a total distance of 1003.640 kilometers. The average speed record belongs to the pair Moss-Gurney on Maserati, with a speed of 133.200 km/h. Moss has won four editions of the 1000 Kilometers of the Nürburgring: twice on Maserati, and just as many with Aston Martin. Phil Hill, who races with the German von Trips, is forced to retire due to a dramatic accident that luckily doesn’t lead to serious consequences. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth lap Ferrari’s top driver spins in the turn, on the slippery rainy track. The car goes off track, bumps into the protective barrier and catches fire. However, the driver gets safely out of the car. Later, Hill who had previously set the record for the sports category with 9'18"4, got on Ginther-Gendebien’s car, climbing from tenth to third place. As for Moss, the British driver is forced to retire during lap 23 while he is in second position, due to a mechanical failure. Behind Gregory-Casner, the Rodríguez brothers and Hill-Trips there is the young Italian-British duo composed by Carlo Mario Abate and Colin Davis, surprisingly in fourth position. The two, driving a Ferrari GT Berlinetta, do an exemplary race, gaining position after position. It has to be noticed that Abate-Davis have a gap of approximately two minutes from the other Ferrari GT Berlinetta driven by the Milanese Baghetti and by Mairesse. The final part of the race of the two young Rodríguez brothers deserves to be mentioned. With one lap to go, the two Mexicans stopped at the pits due to a puncture. The Ferrari mechanics quickly changed the wheel and the two drivers went on track again, maintaining the second place. The race, attended by 250.000 spectators, is hampered by bad weather: rain alternates with some snowflakes in the first seven kilometers of the circuit, which is 22.810 meters long and includes 174 turns.
Then Moss is overtaken by Phil Hill. Taking advantage of a clear moment, Phil Hill, who appears in excellent shape, does some laps at a very fast pace setting a new lap record in 9'18"4; the previous one belonged to Moss, with 9'32"0. During the seventeenth lap it starts to rain heavily again, a situation where Moss, a specialist of wet races, tries to take advantage. However, the crew Hill-Trips preserve their gap, reaching to 2'30"0 in the meantime. In the middle of the race, after twenty-two laps, Phil Hill’s car (who had handed the steering wheel to Trips for a few laps) was still in first position ahead of Moss and Gregory. A few minutes later, the drivers announced that Stirling Moss stopped on the track due to a breakdown, so it looks like Phil Hill and Trips are winning the seventh edition of the Nürburgring 1000 km. However, during the twenty-fifth lap the incident, already mentioned at the beginning, involves Hill. Masten Gregory, who has rarely handed the steering wheel to Casner, takes the lead while the Rodríguez brothers manage to secure the second place. Eleven laps to the end of the race, Scuderia Ferrari assigned Ginther-Gendebien’s car (in tenth position) to Phil Hill. He threw himself into a furious chase, recovering seven positions and finishing brilliantly third. After the Nürburgring 1000 km, the car manufacturers focus on the preparation of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the great French race that is unfortunately linked to the sad memories of that June afternoon of 1955, in which occurred the most frightening catastrophe that motor sport can remember. Nevertheless, the event has never lost its popularity and it has created great interest for almost forty years. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is not only a technical and competitive first-class event; for people of northern and western France it’s the opportunity to participate in the great exhibition surrounding the race, which has nothing to do with the competition. But talking about the race, it will begin at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, 10th June 1961 and will end twenty-four hours later. Fifty-five sports and grand touring cars will line up, including eighteen rivals (eleven Ferrari, five Maserati, one Fiat-Abarth and one Osca). There are no doubts that the absolute victory of the race - also valid, and probably decisive, for the world constructors’ championship - will be at stake between the Italian cars: Ferrari and Maserati.
In fact, they are the first to start and are favored by the predictions: both the new model with rear engine, and the tested 12-cylinder triumphant model of the previous year, are perfectly developed, powerful and fast, with good grip over long distance, which is a decisive factor in a race lasting 24 Hours. Trips-Ginther is the pair to which the most recent model is assigned, while Phil Hill-Gendebien and Mairesse-Parkes (a young, promising British driver) will drive the two official 12-cylinder Scuderia Ferrari, who will also line up a new Berlinetta car, with three-litre V-shaped front engine, interesting mechanical changes and an aerodynamic bodywork specially designed by Pininfarina. It will be assigned to the young Giancarlo Baghetti and the French driver Tavano. In addition, the unofficial Ferrari racers Stirling Moss and Graham Hill, who drive a less powerful but still fearsome model, a grand touring sedan, while brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodríguez and Abate-Trintignant, are behind the wheel of three-litre sports cars. In short, such a massive participation of Scuderia Ferrari, legitimize the most optimistic predictions of their admirers. As for Maserati - traditional rival of the compatriot manufacturer - the most interesting element, but also full of unknowns, is constituted by the presence of three new cars with 12-cylinder rear engine of about 2900 cc. As it’s well known, Maserati doesn’t officially participate in races, but through private teams. The three new models were purchased by Serenissima, Camoradi and Yeoman (the latter two are American). For now we only know the formation of the crew of Count Volpi di Misurata: Vaccarella and Scarfiotti still on Maserati, and the duo Gregory-Casner, winners of the Nürburgring 1000 km on Sunday 28th May 1961. Among the non-Italian cars, the most fearsome could be the Porsche 2000 of Bonnier-Gurney and Barth-Herrmann, the Lotus 2000 of Arundell-Taylor and the Aston Martin gran turismo driven by Clark, Salvadori and Ireland. The organizers recall, among other things, that drivers are allowed to participate with any type of displacement, in order to conquer the race which is considered to be the most important and prestigious in the world. A run-up carried out - for the fastest cars - at almost 190 km/h, in the obsessive series of laps of the difficult French circuit, which at night looks fantastic, illuminated by the headlights chasing each other, one lap after the other, while the loudspeakers are constantly giving names, times, averages and the sleepy people hide in the corners vainly looking for some peace.
Le Mans is stressful for everyone, even for the spectators; and for those who have to follow the race for professional duty, it causes a powerful migraine, at least. But all of this doesn’t change anything about the technical and competitive meaning of the race, which involves the most modern sports cars and grand tourism in the world. The manufacturers, racing teams and drivers are very determined to conquer a place for eternal glory. After all, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans there is glory for everyone since, in addition to the overall ranking and the class rankings, there are two other rankings: one called the performance index, which takes into account the mileage covered in twenty-four hours in relation to the engine displacement, and the energy index, which is a ratio between the kilometers and the total fuel consumption. Logically, the absolute ranking is much more interesting above all, for which a fierce battle between Ferrari and Maserati, who both present new and extraordinarily efficient cars, is expected. The official tests didn’t confirm the predictions, bringing the six- and twelve-cylinders Ferrari to the forefront in the times ranking, as well as the new three liters Maserati with rear engine, whose times are practically equivalent. Even the Aston Martin 3000 sport was better than expected, but far from the Italian cars in terms of speed. After Le Mans, there will only be the 12 Hours of Pescara, on 15th August 1961. This means that Ferrari would only need a second place to secure the title once again, whatever the winning team may be. Therefore, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will probably be decisive for the constructors’ championship. On Sunday 11th June 1961, Ferrari triumphed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, occupying the first three places in the overall standings, respectively with Hill-Gendebien, Mairesse-Parkes and Noblet-Guichet (the latter driving a Gran Turismo sedan) after a race with practically no surprises, given the immense superiority shown by the cars from Modena. However, the success could have been even more striking without the trivial accidents that put out of action, in the final part of the race, the cars of Ginther-Trips, the Rodríguez brothers (the only entertainers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, thanks to their generous combativeness, and setters of the fastest lap at over 201 km/h) and Moss-Graham Hill, who were behind the wheel of a slower Gran Turismo car.
However, there’s nothing to do for the opposing cars: neither the new 12-cylinder Maserati (with little preparation), nor Porsche have ever managed to participate in the fight, even if a good placement of the two has awarded the regularity. Even the British Aston Martin, after a quite promising start, lost pace. From the start, at 4.00 p.m. on Saturday 10th June 1961, Ferrari took the lead: the Rodríguez brothers and Phil Hill-Gendebien alternated in the lead, followed like a shadow by the new 6-cylinder of Ginther-Trips. At dusk it begins to drizzle, and the only accidents of the race occur one after the other: the victim is a motorsport marshal (broken leg) hit by the car of the Frenchman Vinatier, who loses control of the it while cornering. The American Hansgen, who destroys his Maserati crashing against the track protections dislocated a cervical vertebra (this is the most serious accident); the Irish Mac Kay, gone the road (a fractured elbow and many bruises), the British Halford, overturned with his Cooper (superficial abrasions on the face and arms). These are dramatic hours, especially due to the intertwining of alarming news and the strange lack of official information. Only at dawn can we get precise information on the condition of the injured drivers. At midnight, after eight hours of racing, five Ferraris were in the lead, driven by Hill-Gendebien and the Rodríguez brothers. The first of the non-Italian cars, the Aston Martin of Salvadori-Maggs, is sixth with a gap of four laps; the first Maserati (Pabst-Thompson) is seventh with a gap of six laps. Subsequently Moss withdrew due to a cooling system failure, later followed by Abate-Trintignant (transmission failure) and by Baghetti-Tavano (engine failure), all of them on Ferrari Gran Turismo, and until now they all had a very regular race. At 7:00 a.m. on Sunday 11th June 1961, the Rodríguez brothers were delayed because of some problems with the electrical system and dropped to fourth position, with a gap of five laps from Hill-Gendebien. At 8:30 a.m. the Ferrari 6-cylinder Ginther-Trips abandoned the race, due to a fuel tank failure. The two Mexican brothers throw themselves in pursuit and slowly manage to return in second place just before noon. But two hours later, the damage of a water sleeve stopped Rodríguez's car for good, and the race continued wearily until the end, between splashes of rain.
A standing ovation of 200.000 spectators welcomes the arrival of Hill-Gendebien, who set the new average speed record of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with over 186 km/h, 4 km/h higher than the previous record that lasted since 1957. It should be noted that for the Belgian Olivier Gendebien this is his third victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, always driving a Ferrari: in 1958, still paired with Phil Hill, and last year with his fellow countryman Frère. As a result, Ferrari secured for 1961 the title of World Constructors’ Champion. The last championship race - the 12 Hours of Pescara – won’t change the situation in any way. Just after the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the two drivers who took turns at driving the winning car - the American Phil Hill and the Belgian Olivier Gendebien - are beaming. Of the two drivers, perhaps Phil Hill is more complete, while Gendebien is mainly a driver with a great background, in fact in Formula 1 tests he hasn’t managed to stand out yet. For this reason, for Scuderia Ferrari the Belgian is only part of the training for racing in the sports category. And this is the only concern of this skinny driver with an intelligent look, who’s related to the Belgian royal family on his mother’s side. The victory of the Ferrari of Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien in the twenty-seventh edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is impeccable and peremptory, the fourth round of the world championship for sports cars. The cars from Maranello, which also conquered the second, third and sixth place, are on their fifth success (the second consecutive) at the famous French race, which for its intensity is unmatched from a technical point of view. Ferrari dominated the opposing cars in an overwhelming way and, in a sense, it’s due to the lack of other cars’ superiority if the race was monotonous and at times even boring. The only interesting episodes were due to the combativeness of the Ferrari drivers, who didn’t hesitate to fight each other with a lively competitive attitude. Phil Hill, Gendebien, Ginther and Trips certainly didn’t hold back, although they were aware that racing for twenty-four hours would have subjected them to a hard physical and nervous test. But from the sporting point of view the real successes of the day were the two young Mexican brothers Pedro (21) and Ricardo (19) Rodríguez, who thrilled the usual large audience of Le Mans more than any other driver, with their generous brashness, driving a 12-cylinder sport Ferrari which belongs to the North American Racing Team from New York.
There wasn’t a clear competition between Scuderia Ferrari and the American team (which only uses the cars from Modena), but the two passionate youngsters didn’t respect the big names of the manufacturer from Maranello, since they immediately started to battle, alternating for a long time in the lead with the crew which then won the race, setting the fastest lap of the day. The Rodríguez brothers, stars of this edition of the classic French race, last year were third in the 24 Hours of Le Mans but, on this occasion, they showed first-class driving skills, a tactical attitude and especially an uncontrollable combativeness. They could have won, but they were delayed by a banal electrical system issue; then, back in second position after a furious chase, they were permanently blocked by a cooling system failure. It is said that Enzo Ferrari intends to offer a place in his team to the two boys: if the news is true, their behavior in the 24 Hours of Le Mans could hasten the decision of the manufacturer from Maranello. Ginther and Trips on the only rear-engine Ferrari had bad luck too, then Stirling Moss, driving a Ferrari gran turismo, which is considerably less powerful and manageable than sports cars; then the duos Baghetti-Tavano and Abate-Trintignant, both stopped by mechanical failures not attributable to drivers’ technical mistakes. Among the defeated teams, there is the honorable defense of Maserati, fourth overall with the Americans Pabst-Thompson, and the Porsche of Gregory-Holbert. Four days after the end of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a frightful disaster occurs in the late afternoon of Thursday 15th June 1961 at the circuit in Modena. A Cooper Maserati, driven by the Italian driver Giulio Cabianca, comes out the service gate (which was open at that time), which is in front of the long straight opposite to the pits, at 200 km/h and falls on Via Emilia, which at that time is congested with traffic due to workers leaving the companies to go home. The car leaves a frightening trail of dead, wounded and smashed cars which were thrown meters away. The toll of the disaster is of four dead, among them Cabianca, and one seriously injured person. The accident occurs at 6:45 p.m., while the big road is crossed by thousands of workers returning from work.
The first responders are faced with a terrible situation: the bodies of the victims, covered with blood, horribly torn, are scattered on the tarmac. The driver’s car, after hitting four cars and two mopeds, crashes into the wall of a company across the street. The driver is still stuck there. It will take a lot of time to rescue the victims and to extract them from the cars’ wreckage. In the first minutes it isn’t even possible to verify which of the bodies stained with blood and covered with dust are still alive. Ambulances are transporting everyone to the hospital. Two of the people who were run over, the fifty-five-year-old Gino Alboresi, who was traveling on Via Emilia in a small car, and a cyclist, Eugenio Stefani, a fifty-year-old worker, are already dead. A third injured, the 29-year-old bricklayer Ivo Messori, expired a few minutes later. The agony of Cabianca is heartbreaking. The Italian driver is torn by wounds throughout his entire body, with his face deformed by wounds, his pelvis and lower limbs fractured, but he still breathes. Three directors of university clinics rush to the emergency room and operate trying everything in their power to snatch him from the jaws of death. He only survives for three hours and at 10:00 p.m. he dies. Cabianca, before dying, in a moment of clarity expressed the desire to confess and receive the sacraments to Maserati’s chaplain, Don Mantovani, who assisted him. He also recognizes his 17-year-old son, who was in Modena with him and who was in the pits, about a kilometer away, when the disaster occured. When his wife arrives from Verona, a few minutes before 10:00 p.m., the Italian driver has already entered a coma: the poor woman arrives just in time to see him taking his last breath. Recreating the disaster in the first minutes was extremely difficult, given the terrible chaos that had been created along Via Emilia. Cabianca arrived in Modena in the morning, to test a Cooper Maserati that had to fly on Sunday 18th June 1961 to the Belgian Grand Prix, at Spa-Francorchamps. He had been running on track since the early afternoon, forcing the pace more and more.
At the time of the accident, after three hours of constant testing, some technicians of Castellotti, to whom the car belongs, and the engineer Piero Taruffi with some students of Centro-Sud team’s driver academy are at the circuit. Cabianca’s car is launched, a few moments before the accident, on the long straight opposite to the grandstands, the only part of the track that allows drivers to reach a speed of over 200 km/ h. However, the straight ends with a sharp ninety degree turn that forces drivers to decelerate and brake repeatedly. The car of the driver from Verona tackles the turn at 200 km/h (there are no braking marks on the track) and goes straight. The spectators who sit on the high wall of the enclosure (who are workers from car workshops and body shops that are located near the circuit and that, coming out of work, climb to watch the tests that take place almost daily) understand he wouldn’t make it. They see the driver operating the gearbox desperately; then the car shoots towards the open gate. By a tragic fate this, which is always closed, had been opened because some trucks were carrying earth and gravel inside the circuit. The racing car shoots towards the opening and goes through the sixteen meters of Via Emilia like a bullet. The first obstacle the car encounters is a Belvedere driven by the worker Gino Alboresi. The car, completely run over, is almost broken in two parts, which remain tied thanks to the bodywork, and flies through the entire Via Emilia crashing into the wall of a company. Alboresi gets thrown out of the vehicle, but by a tragic fatality he is held by his feet by a sheet and therefore, horribly thrown on the asphalt, follows the trajectory of his car, dying instantly. The two cyclists Stefani and Messori are crushed by Cabianca’s car or Alboresi’s Belvedere. The third cyclist, the eighteen-year-old bartender Franco Moro, gets run over and breaks his legs and an arm. His condition is severe, but he’s not risking his life. Cabianca’s car crashes into the walls of the Orlandi body shop. The causes of the disaster are difficult to understand. An executive of Scuderia Castellotti, to whom the car belongs, says:
"When the accident occurred, he was on the last lap of the testing day".
There are two hypotheses: a brake failure or a sudden illness hit the driver. In favor of the first one is the fact that the car didn’t slide (which would have probably happened if the driver was unconscious), but it aimed exactly at the gate. Perhaps the driver tried getting out of there to gain space, as a last-ditch attempt, braking using the gearbox. If Via Emilia had been deserted, the maneuver would have succeeded because in front of the gate there’s a wide road across the state road, where this desperate race would have ended without any damage. However, in this regard, an investigation was opened into the destroyed car, which now has been seized by the police. The tragedy overwhelms the city. During the evening, a very important City Council meeting was suspended as a sign of mourning. A large crowd gets in front of the hospital where the driver fights for his life and at the burial chambers, where the bodies of the three victims are laid, there is an incessant pilgrimage of people. Enzo Ferrari, who after the disaster immediately rushes to pay homage to the driver’s body, declared in the evening:
"You can’t judge, you have to question it first. I wouldn’t attribute the accident to one cause instead of another. Of course, there are opening in the sports facility in Modena. If there had been a guardrail on the turn, if the gate had been closed, the accident would certainly have had less tragic consequences. But they can’t be blamed if a careful investigation hasn’t been carried out".
Cabianca’s body rests next to those of the three victims of the crazy accident in the mortuary where, four years ago, the body of Eugenio Castellotti was laid. Eugenio and Cabianca were friends, and the driver from Verona had kept a very vivid memory of the great champion, so much so that he had wanted to enter the racing team named after Eugenio Castellotti. They both died on the same circuit, under the exact same circumstances, both at the end of a practice day, on the last lap, at the last corner. All of Modena followed the solemn funeral of the four victims of this disaster on the afternoon of Friday 16th June 1961, celebrated at the expense of the city. There are the greatest representatives of the world of racing, from Enzo Ferrari to all the racing teams, many drivers, technicians and athletes which are plenty in Modena. The procession, after the funeral officiated by the archbishop, reaches the outskirts, passing two hundred meters away from the place of the disaster. Then it disperses. The body of the driver Cabianca is transported to Verona, those of the three workers to the local cemeteries. The disaster leaves a trail of questions, on which now an investigation opened by the magistrates will try to shed light. Infinite hypotheses continue to be created about the causes that led to the tragic excursion of Cabianca’s car. In this regard, however, there will be a second testimony, that of the technician Ascanio Lucchi. When the Veronese driver arrived in Modena, went to Ascanio Lucchi’s workshop, who checked the 3 liters Cooper of Scuderia Castellotti.
"Cabianca looked very different from the last time I saw him. He had lost 30 pounds with a slimming treatment and looked very depressed to me. I was worried when he got on the car. I knew that he had already driven it in a race in Monza, but then a two-and-a-half-liter engine was assembled on the chassis; the current three-liter engine is much more powerful. Be careful, I told him when he was about to leave, you can’t mess around with this car... you could kill yourself. He started to run slowly, then increasingly faster. I saw that he immediately became familiar with the car. He was handling it perfectly. He started to lap stronger and went down to the minimum limit of the track: 59" and a few tenths on the lap. It was very good. At one point I thought it was time to stop and I told that to the team manager. I feared that the car, running for a long time, could wear out. He had to race in Francorchamps on Sunday. I waved the flag to signal Cabianca to stop and he nodded that he understood. The last lap began. From the pits we saw him arriving at the big turn. I didn’t hear the sound of the gear: I saw the car slide towards the gate at full speed. We immediately ran there, Cabianca’s son and I. It was atrocious. I’ve been racing for 20 years, but I’ve never seen an accident like this. The engine of the car was still running, there were 140 liters of gas in the tanks, which had remained intact; if it had exploded, an even more serious disaster would have occurred. A mechanic promptly disconnected the contacts".
Another technician of the Lucchi workshop, Mr Mazzetti, will say that Cabianca said something unusual when he spoke with him a few minutes before practice.
"Today I want to die - he told me - but he laughed, and I didn’t mind it too much. Before getting in the car for the last series of track laps he had gone to the bar to drink a glass of milk; then he slipped into the driver’s seat and left like lightning".
The circuit keeper will make similar statements. He was next to the gate, which he had opened himself to let a truck in. He saw the car coming at 200 km/h. The driver went past him like a red lightning. He didn’t hear any sound coming from the gear shift. The engine was going at full speed. Another aspect of the story is the responsibility. On Friday 16th June Scuderia Castellotti, which owned the car, instructs a lawyer to follow the story and take a position. Should the gate remain open or closed during practices? Was there a specific provision in this regard? In short, who’s responsible for the damage caused by the accident, the lives of people who were run over on the road, who had nothing to do with what happened within the circuit, because they weren’t even spectators? These are difficult questions and the answers will take a long time and may have to be given through a judgment. The Belgian Grand Prix, the third round of Formula 1 World Championship is still shocked by the terrible accident in Modena where the driver Giulio Cabianca and three other innocent people lost their lives, under such unusual and dramatic circumstances that left everybody shocked. The circuit of Spa-Francorchamps is the exact opposite of the track in Modena and yet both, like all the car tracks in the world, present dangers that cannot be predicted or prevented. The route unravels in the woods of the Ardennes, through places that have seen the martyrdom of two wars: it’s 14,100 meters long and it’s the fastest in the world among road circuits. Suffice to say that the average speed record (Brabham on a Cooper 2500) is close to 219 km/ h, just to understand how difficult and insidious it is. It would be difficult to name a nicer Grand Prix circuit. Grand Prix racing has always been an event and a kind of driving that goes beyond human capacity.
The Francorchamps circuit, with its lap speed of around 130 mph and plenty of equally fast corners, gives the Grand Prix drivers the opportunity to show their true abilities and how much more skilled they are compared to a normal driver. This time, at the beginning of practices the conditions are optimal, being warm, dry and without wind and immediately after 5:30 p.m. on Friday, 16th June 1961 the cars start from the pits for the first test lap on the circuit. At Spa, the protagonists of this annual and always tense championship are all present. The organizers register sixteen of them, but nine more must compete for the other three places available in the starting line-up: it’s a procedure introduced at the Dutch Grand Prix, but it’s not at all convincing. The sixteen elite drivers are Phil Hill and Wolfgang Von Trips on Ferrari, Gendebien, Mairesse and Bianchi for Équipe Nationale Belge, Moss for Walker, Bonnier and Gurney on Porsche, Surtees on Yeoman Aren, Trintignant for Scuderia Serenissima, Brabham and McLaren driving Cooper Works, Clark and Ireland on Lotus, Graham Hill and Brooks on B.R.M. The contenders for the other three places are Ginther on Ferrari, Allison on UDT Laystall, de Beaufort on Porsche, Jack Lewis on Cooper, Marsch and Seidel on Lotus, Bandini on Cooper and Burgess and Gregory on Camoradi. Scuderia Ferrari bring the same three cars to Belgium that were used in the previous race in Zandvoort. All three of them have 120-degree V6 engines available. The team from Maranello also paints an old car with a 60-degree V6 engine yellow, lending it to Équipe Nationale Belge to be driven by Gendebien, although the mechanics of Maranello will still take care of it. Just three days after the 24 Hours of Le Mans, two cars leave from Modena for the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix is scheduled for Sunday 18th June 1961. The technical director Carlo Chiti, the engineer Mauro Forghieri and two mechanics control one car.
Scuderia Ferrari’s sports director, Romolo Tavoni, the chief mechanic Luigi Bazzi, the secretary Franco Gozzi and another mechanic control the other one. These two teams will be joined by two trucks of Scuderia Ferrari, each with two drivers, which departed the day before and on which four cars, their respective spare parts and different material had been loaded. Arriving at their destination, the racing team with two managers, two apprentices and eight mechanics, would supervise four 156 F1, including the one painted in yellow specifically prepared for Olivier Gendebien. In Maranello there was a big debate about whether to enter or not the fourth car at the Grand Prix, strongly wanted by the Belgian Ferrari importer for advertising. The sales department had welcomed the proposal. The racing department was certainly not enthusiastic, as by managing three cars they had to do exhausting shifts. Enzo Ferrari was against it: he argued that satisfying the Belgian importer would make other importers jealous and, according to him, Gendebien was very good with Sports but wasn’t that good in open-wheel races. As is often the case, Ferrari asks Franco Gozzi for an opinion, waiting for a response in line with his thoughts:
"But let’s give him this car, so that the salespeople are happy and it will be a nice prize for Gendebien who, last Sunday, won the 24 Hours of le Mans".
Gozzi’s opinion is decisive because Ferrari, although reluctantly, consents. Although they won only one of the two previous Grand Prix of the championship, that is in Zandvoort, Ferrari were quick to convince the technicians: the Italian manufacturer has boldly climbed the rankings also in the area of Grand Prix cars, and it’s not impossible for them to secure both world titles for 1961. Équipe Nationale Belge bring two of their Emeryson-Maserati for the other two drivers, Willy Mairesse and Lucien Bianchi, to Spa while Stirling Moss will drive Walker’s Lotus-Climax, with a new slimmer bodywork, similar to the UDT-Laylotus-Climax. Walker have equipped the chassis with Colotti five-speed gearbox and modified the rear suspension in line with the official cars of 1961. This means that a top connection is used on each side of the top of the hub mount on the chassis, removing all suspension stress from the drive shafts. However, for a while, Porsche decided not to race in the Belgian Grand Prix, especially after the bad performance in Zandvoort, but later changed their mind and came to Spa with their three 1960 cars, with the old front axle with rocker and four-cylinder engine, equipped with Weber carburetor instead of the fuel injector that was recently used. Yeoman Credit offer two cars to Surtees, a normal 1961 Cooper with Mk II Climax engine, and one modified with the streamlined bodywork and the rear of the chassis modified to accommodate a Colotti gearbox, but with a Mk I Climax engine. Trintignant has two cars available, its old Cooper-Climax F2, with Colotti gearbox and modified suspensions, with short torsion bars under each suspension unit, driven by a connection from the lower transverse arms (these torsion bars are an addition to the normal Cooper springs), and a 1960 Cooper chassis with 4-cylinder Maserati engine and Colotti gearbox, which presents a new shape with a rather square-looking tail. Instead, Brabham and McLaren have two normal Cooper, with Mk II engines (McLaren had to straighten the chassis after the recent accident at Brands Hatch). In the first day of testing, which will be held on Friday 16th June 1961, Lotus’ cars aren’t present on track due to the delay of the transporter, so both Clark and Ireland have to be spectators. The two B.R.M. drivers will have a spare car to use for training, while Lewis has a brand-new Mk II Climax engine in his 1961 Cooper. Marsh drives his modified Lotus-Climax, and Gregory has Camoradi’s Cooper-Climax at his disposal. Seidel has a 1960 Lotus-Climax, while Bandini drives a new 1961 Cooper, equipped with a four-cylinder Maserati engine. Before the opening lap was completed, Cliff Allison was involved in a bad accident while approaching the Blanchimont turn, injuring his legs. As a consequence of the accident, the road is covered with oil, water, mud and grass and tests are interrupted for almost 40 minutes, the time needed to restore the track. The tests start again at 6.15 p.m., Brooks is competitive with his B.R.M. and is one of the first to set the pace, with a time of just under 4'10"0, which is a good start for a 1500 cc car not supercharged. However, Bruce McLaren, is held in the pits for a long time, due to the fixing of an oil pipe that leaks, and therefore needs to be repaired, while Moss enters and exits the pits because his engine doesn’t reach a good number of rpm on the straights.
Instead, Brabham looks quite happy and manages to bring the engine to over 8.000 rev/minute, though without approaching Brooks’ time. After a while the Ferraris start to show their times, which are below 4'10"0. An easy task for Hill, Trips and Gendebien, but not so easy for Ginther who’s still getting to know the circuit, since he has never raced before. Also Graham Hill is very fast and the B.R.M. behaves well, proving to be very stable both in the fast corners and in some points where the tarmac begins to show the signs of time, presenting bumps and ripples. The circuit of Spa-Francorchamps once was as smooth as silk, but not anymore and, although it’s still quite smooth, many years of racing and very harsh winters have left their mark on it. At a certain point, Brooks stops on the track with the engine that seems to have some issues, and his teammate Graham Hill brings him back to the pits in precarious balance above the engine of his B.R.M. Surtees tests both cars of the Yeoman Credit team, and discovers that the slight increase in power of the engine Mk II ensures more competitiveness than the changes on the car, which is now more streamlined and improved. As the training ends at 7.30 p.m. (no extra time is allowed for the delay caused by the incident which involved Allison, Gendebien and Trips), drivers begin to increase the pace and show that engine power matters more than anything else. Wolfgang von Trips, with his Ferrari, sets the best time, but it’s obvious that the drivers have just begun to set their pace. On Saturday 17th June 1961 free practice takes place from 3.00 p.m. to 5.00 p.m., and again the weather conditions are optimal. All sixteen drivers already registered immediately go on track to compete for the positions on the grid, as well as the other competitors who, however, will have to do some tests to try to be part of the list of starters of the Grand Prix. Finally the Lotus Team is complete, and the drivers have at their disposal both the 1961 car used in Zandvoort, and two new cars that are similar to the previous ones, but with small changes: the main ones are the use of very large ball joints on the front of the suspension instead of those with a rather fragile appearance of the first 1961 car, and solid U/J grooved drive shafts instead of the rubber shafts used at the beginning. All of them have a five-speed ZF gearbox and one of the new cars has carburetors. Walker assemble an air intake along the left cockpit, to try to force the air into the carburetors, while Cooper assemble vanes on the test cars to try to gain rev/engine along the fast straights.
On the last day of practice, the Ferrari were prepared to reach 10.000 laps/minute in fifth gear on the straights. On all the cars the ratio at the bridge is changed, but soon both the mechanics and the drivers realize that they are using the wrong strategy, because the engines only reach 9000 laps/minute instead of the 9500 desired. As for the drivers, Surtees continues to be very competitive with Yeoman Credit’s Cooper-Climax, equipped with Mk II engine, completely normal regarding the air intakes. Obviously the car, benefiting from a first-rate preparation, runs on track using a bike trajectory, which means tackling some the fast corners in a seemingly unorthodox way, but its lap times turn out to be the fastest among the Climax brigade, even though it isn’t fast enough to challenge Ferrari, apart from Ginther (the freckled Californian driver is still learning how to orient himself at a very high speed on this demanding track). Ireland is driving for the first time since the incident in Munich and spins constantly, while Clark’s pace doesn’t look oustanding. Chapman tested the carburetor’s air intakes, which meant many pit stops on each single lap, which naturally prevented setting fast times and, in addition, the gearbox required to be fixed. After a few laps completed in about 4'05"0, the Ferrari drivers returned to the pits, giving the mechanics the opportunity to control the fuel consumption and to fill the tanks, leaving the opportunity for the other teams to try and get closer to their times. Équipe Nationale Belge is in serious trouble after the chassis pipes break down quite badly during the tests, therefore decide to withdraw both cars. Next, the teams look for more cars for Mairesse and Bianchi, approaching Yeoman Credit, Lotus and B.R.M., which have spare cars available. To help, Chapman lets Mairesse do some laps on one of his cars, but postpones the decision to run it later, depending on the financial aspect. At 4:30 p.m. Ferrari returned to the pits, exiting from the bottom of the paddock and continuing straight towards the circuit. In a very short time, the drivers of the team from Maranello run regularly and begin to enliven the situation, as both Hill and Trips quickly approach the finish line with 4'00"00 per lap, while Gendebien drops to 4'03"0 and Ginther constantly progresses, setting a time of 4'06"01. With only fifteen minutes left, Hill and Trips show their true pace and set respectively times of 3'59"03 and 4'00"01.
The nearest British car is Surtees’ with a remarkable 04'06"0, set thanks to his notable knowledge of the circuit. The two Porsche run in little more than 4'08"0, and before the end of tests Moss changes to worn tires on his Lotus to try a last desperate attempt to compensate for what he lacks in power, managing to set a time of 04'08"02, slightly faster than Brabham. Of the qualified drivers, Gregory and Lewis are well ahead of all the others and are matching evenly, since they’ve done a number of laps together during practice. These two drivers, along with Ginther are the lucky ones who qualify for the race. Another important day for Scuderia Ferrari, which lined up four cars: the 156 F1 for the Hill-Trips-Ginther trio, and a yellow one for the Belgian driver Olivier Gendebien. The start is scheduled at 3.00 p.m. on Sunday 18th June 1961, in front of a rather large crowd. Although training has shown that the result is a foregone conclusion, after several parades the racing cars line up on the grid, with three Ferrari in the first three places. The team from Maranello, which in recent years had found itself in trouble facing the British teams, seems to have changed the situation now, as it’s also the only team to have completely renewed its cars. However, de Beaufort and Bandini, who didn’t qualify, chose to leave reducing the number of participants to twenty-one, while Marsh, Seidel and Brugess gave up paying the registration fee for the Grand Prix. This is because Équipe Nationale Belge finally manage to make deals with two private owners for the loan of cars for their drivers, putting Mairesse at the wheel of Marsh’s Lotus-Climax and Bianchi driving Seidel’s Lotus-Climax. Both cars are quickly painted with the Belgian national color: yellow. Surtees, instead, drives the standard Yeoman Credit Cooper with Mk II engine, as the modified car only has a Mk I engine. After talking to the race director, at the start the drivers behave correctly: in fact, no competitor skips the start and the whole group is really a beautiful sight as they all race towards the Eau Rouge Bridge, with Graham Hill’s B.R.M. leading the group on the hill that leads to the Burnenville Forest. Of course, the British driver doesn’t stay in the lead for long and well before the end of the first lap the four Ferrari are leading the group.
Gendebien has complete freedom to drive his Ferrari as he wishes, as he’s controlled by the Équipe Nationale Belge box, which is next to Ferrari’s, and is in second place, mixing well with the official cars. With the 60-degree V6 engine which is less powerful, the Belgian driver has little hope of beating the official cars, but still has some chance of leading in the early stages of the race. At the end of the first lap most drivers have some rivals in sight in front of them except for Clark, who slowly returns to the pits unable to engage properly the gears, and McLaren reaching the finish line long after the passage of the other competitors, with the engine turning off as soon as it overloads. Already on the second lap the four Ferrari start a triumphal parade, lapping with times of 4'04"0, with Gendebien behind. Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Olivier Gendebien increased the pace during the third lap setting a time of 04'03"0, causing Ginther to delay slightly, who still wasn’t familiar enough with the circuit to have the same pace. But even so, the American driver on the Ferrari is far ahead of the rest of the group anyway. In the meantime, Graham Hill and John Surtees are engaged in an amazing battle for the fifth place, overtaking each other again and again. Bonnier, Brabham and Gurney then arrived at the finish line, involved in a small personal fight for the seventh place. Behind them, Brooks races alone followed in the distance by Moss and Gregory, who instead precede Lewis, not far from the two drivers. Further away, Ireland, de Beaufort, Trintignant and Bandini arrive to the finish line. The two Lotus borrowed from the drivers of Équipe Nationale Belge close the group. A few minutes later Clark returns to the race while the Ferraris complete the fourth lap, but then stops once again in the pits to fix the gearbox and eventually joins the group with a gap of many laps, while McLaren no longer participates in the race, simply doing exploratory laps from time to time to see if the carburetor has improved, to finally discover that there is nothing more that could be done. Gendebien pushes as hard as he can and completes a lap in 4'01"07 but soon realizes he can’t keep up with Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, so after this small demonstration of his combative attitude he decides to slow down his pace, rather than risking breaking the engine.
Brooks returned to the pits after six laps, with his B.R.M’s Climax engine blocked; the mechanics changed the magnet, making him lose almost six laps. Soon the two borrowed Lotus cars retire: Bianchi on the seventh lap, with a broken oil pipe, and Mairesse on lap nine, due to a spark plug issue. After ten laps the two Ferrari of Wolfgang von Trips and Phil Hill continue alone in the lead, alternating position just as Hawthorn and Collins did a few years before, but this time Fangio to disturb the situation. Both have a 12-second lead over Gendebien, who instead has a five-second lead over Ginther; however the American driver begins to get familiar with the circuit and is getting closer and closer to the Belgian driver’s yellow Ferrari. In fifth place, thirty-four seconds away from the first driver, follows Graham Hill (B.R.M.), who is only a few meters ahead of Surtees (Cooper). In the previous lap the positions were reversed. Fifty-one seconds behind the leaders of the group a close trio, consisting of Gurney, Brabham and Bonnier, crosses the finish line while with a gap of sixty-three seconds from Ferrari comes a lonely Stirling Moss with a car that simply didn’t work well with his driving ability. The next contestants to cross the finish line are Gregory, who goes to the pits to check the gearbox oil level, as the pressure gauge reports problems, and Lewis, who drove alone but smoothly. The Dutch driver de Beaufort precedes the two red Cooper-Maserati of Bandini and Trintignant, engaged in a personal battle. These are followed at a distance by Jim Clark in the new Lotus. Meanwhile, Gregory returns to the race, as the mechanics discover that the problem is related to the gauge that doesn’t measure well the pressure, as it’s defective. De Beaufort then sees two red cars in the mirrors, and thinking it’s Hill and Trips lets them overtake, only to discover that in reality they are the Cooper-Maserati against which he should have raced. Ireland fails to finish the tenth lap, because a connecting rod in the engine of his Coventry-Climax breaks, and two laps later a piston breaks on Brabham’s Climax engine: the car emits a cloud of smoke and fragments fall on track as the engine breaks, forcing the Australian driver to stop on the grass in a cloud of smoke and oil, while the two Porsche overtake him.
During the thirteenth lap de Beaufort sees two more red cars in the mirrors, but this time they’re really the Ferrari that have to lap him; in the next lap, Hill and Trips also overtake the Cooper-Maserati. Now Ginther gains ground quickly against Gendebien, as he has figured out how to tackle the curves by increasing the speed. The American driver gained several seconds on Gendebien, getting closer and behind his teammates, in order not to disturb them but enough to keep the scene clear, with Scuderia Ferrari in compact formation. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth lap, the American driver gains more and more ground and a few laps later he sets a time of 3'59"08, the fastest of the entire race. On lap 24, Ginther is right behind Hill and Trips, and matches the driving skills of his teammates. By now, the three drivers of Scuderia Ferrari are so far ahead of anyone else that there is no point in rushing unnecessarily; the three long and thin red cars, with a truly extraordinary sound, perform a beautiful parade as they go up the steep hill towards Burnenville, followed shortly after by the yellow car of Gendebien, quietly in fourth place. The duel between Surtees and Graham Hill ends after nineteen laps, when the B.R.M. seems to go slow and stops in the pits, leaving Surtees safe in fifth place. On the B.R.M an exhaust pipe broke and the hot gases burned the spark plug cables, so these are promptly changed and repaired, allowing Graham Hill to continue the race, despite the sound of his engine being a bit flat due to the broken pipe. While Trips, Hill, Ginther and Gendebien, all on Ferrari, precede Surtees (Cooper), Gurney, Bonnier (Porsche), then - with a long gap - Moss (Lotus), Graham Hill (B.R.M.), now very far from the fellow countryman who is ahead of him, Lewis (Cooper) and Gregory (Cooper). With a gap of one lap Trintignant (Cooper) and de Beaufort (Porsche) cross the finish line, while during the twentieth lap Bandini returns to the pits with the beautiful new red Cooper which lacks oil pressure inside its Maserati engine. Due to pit stops, Clark (Lotus) and Brooks (B.R.M.) were delayed. After twenty-three laps Trintignant slowly returned to the pits to retire with a damaged transmission and carried Ireland who was sitting on the back of his car; at the end of the next lap Graham Hill stopped in front of the pits and retired with oil coming out of the engine.
Starting from the twenty-fifth lap a very light drizzle begins to fall on the circuit in Spa, but not enough to wet it, while the three Ferrari surround the young Lewis, who quickly slips behind them and is still has a small gap over next lap, remaining with the top three until the end of the race. This is because the Ferrari drivers, given the clear superiority of their cars, decide to lower their time by racing in 4'10"0. In the last laps Gendebien seems to slow down unwittingly favoring Surtees but it’s a false impression, as it looks like the latter is attacked by Gurney, who is very close but doesn’t put him in danger. The Belgian Grand Prix ended with Phil Hill leading on Wolfgang von Trips by a few meters to the finish line, marking the most convincing victory of Scuderia Ferrari in Formula 1 in recent years. Ginther finishes third and Gendebien fourth, proving that the technicians from Maranello built yet another first-class racing engine, the true heart of a Grand Prix car. Also in this race the cars of the team from Maranello confirmed their superiority with an all-red triumphant podium, a nice redemption after years of attempts (the last victory of Ferrari on the Belgian circuit dates back to 1956, with the English driver Peter Collins). Therefore, Ferrari respect the predictions made on the eve of the race, which saw the Italian cars as the best Formula 1 cars not only for their speed but also for their endurance, making the race almost boring from the point of view of the audience. But the spectators' interest is kept alive by the duel between Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, fighting for the first place. Both were reached by Richie Ginther’s Ferrari for a short time, but they gradually outdistanced it. The exciting head-to-head of the two champions of Ferrari ends only at the last kilometer, when Phil Hill manages to outdistance the teammate for only seven tenths of a second and crosses the finish line first. First and second place for Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, followed by Ginther and the fourth Ferrari driver in the race Gendebien in his yellow car. Fifth place for the former Motorcycle World Champion, the English rider John Surtees, on Cooper. Surtees, after a great start obtaining the first position, just two laps after the start was overtaken by the four Ferraris. After the race Franco Gozzi, who was euphoric, calls Ferrari on the phone as usual to tell him the good news, and as soon as he answers the call shouts:
"First, second, third and fourth".
Even before knowing the name of the winner, Enzo Ferrari asks the name of the fourth driver and when he learns from Gozzi that it’s Gendebien, he answers peremptorily:
"I told you he wasn’t a Formula 1 canary".
(Editor’s note: Both the canary and the color yellow are respectively the symbol and the color of Modena)
Graham Hill was fifth, but he demanded too much from his car and was forced to retire. Sixth and seventh place are for the American Dan Gurney and the Belgian Joachim Bonnier, both on Porsche. Another unlucky competitor was the Australian Jack Brabham, world champion in 1960, who retired after breaking a piston in the middle of the race. Stirling Moss is only eighth. At the end of the third Grand Prix, the Drivers' ranking saw Phil Hill and von Trips in the top positions, with 19 and 18 points respectively, followed by Ginther and Moss with 12 points. Behind them, Clark with 4 points, Gendebien and Gurney with 3 points and Brabham and McLaren with 1 point.