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#77 1959 Indy 500

2021-04-21 00:00

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#77 1959 Indy 500

On Sunday 24 May 1959, the forty-third edition of the Targa Florio, the second round of the World Sport Championship, was held in Sicily. The Targa Fl

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On Sunday 24 May 1959, the forty-third edition of the Targa Florio, the second round of the World Sport Championship, was held in Sicily. The Targa Florio is one of the most famous races in the world and, of those still alive, boasts the greatest seniority, its date of birth being 1906, the year in which Alessandro Cagno won the race in an Itala. The venue for the Sicilian race, which was created and lived until last year thanks to the passion of Vincenzo Florio, the well-known automobile pioneer who recently passed away, will once again be the Madonie circuit, laid out in capricious volutes between the banks of the northern Imera river and the Madonie mountains, to be used for this race. A road race: but weren't they banned? Sure, they had  been banned in Italy two years ago too. But, for some reason, the Targa Florio is an exception. Perhaps it is because the autonomy of the Sicilian region acts as a smokescreen for the ban, or because the difficulty of the roads and the constant ups and downs force the speed of the cars within reasonable limits, and what's more, the sparsely populated Madonie plateau (this is what the organisers claim) and the extraordinary discipline of the Sicilian public allow the course to be kept absolutely clear. In fact, the only straight stretch of the circuit is the eight kilometres near the village of Bonfornello, where indeed a 1,000-metre timing base is established. The rest is a continuous serpentine where the drivers' resourcefulness and the cars' qualities of stability, braking, handling and acceleration emerge decisively.

The record average over the twelve laps of the race (936 kilometres) belongs to the Moss-Collins duo in a Merdeces (1955) with 96.290 km/h; the record lap time still belongs to Stirling Moss in an Aston Martin (1958) with 42'17"5 at an average of 102.196 km/h. The reasons for interest in the forty-third Targa Florio are all in the official participation of Ferrari with its mighty cars equipped with twelve-cylinder three-litre engines, the Testa Rossa, which had already won the first world championship race (the 12 Hours of Sebring), and with the new six-cylinder 2000 cubic centimetre Dino 196, which made such a favourable impression recently at Monza in the Coppa Sant'Ambreus. It still seems possible that an Aston Martin will take part in the Targa Florio with the Moss-Fairmann pairing, a fact that would certainly give the second world championship race a higher level of expectation than the entry list that has been received to date. If not, Ferrari can certainly take for granted a further consolidation at the top of the championship standings. A moderate threat could, however, come to the Modenese cars (assuming there is no Aston Martin as well) from the Porsche 1500s alone, which thanks to their lightness and manoeuvrability, always manage to make themselves respected on rough circuits. At the wheel of the Ferraris will be the crews Behra-Allison and Gendebien-Hill in the three-litre, and Cabianca-Scarlatti in the two-litre: a very agile and powerful car that could provide a performance at the level of the biggest twelve-cylinder of the axes. Trips, Bonnier, Barth, Herrmann, Von Hanstein and Umberto Maglioli are the drivers from which the three pairs will be chosen for the three official Porsches.

 

Maglioli returned to racing after a two-year absence following the serious accident he suffered in Austria; the Biella driver knew the Madonie circuit perfectly, on which he had won twice: in 1953 with the Lancia and in 1956 with the Porsche. A record equalled only by six other drivers; Nazzaro, Masetti, Costantini, Divo, Nuvolari and Brivio. Long gone are the days when the Sicilian race was one of the biggest confrontations of the season, and the official teams would drive to Termini Imerese three or four weeks before the date of the race in order to conscientiously complete their training. Now the Targa Florio seems to live more by virtue of its beautiful traditions than by its own power. The long journey, the excessive number of races that fill every Sunday from March to October, the shrinking number of teams dedicated to the construction of big sports cars; these are factors that have contributed to making victory less attractive. After the upsurge in 1955, with the great and decisive confrontation between Ferrari and Mercedes, the prestigious Sicilian race is gradually losing its importance, despite qualifying as a round valid for the World Championship for Makes. Last year, the almost invincible Ferrari sports cars were challenged in Sicily by the Aston Martin, which set a new record lap time before retiring. The organisers had hoped to have the car (one of the very few sports cars currently built with an engine of the 3000 cubic centimetres allowed by the regulations) and the English driver back in the race.

So Ferrari, always present with its formidable mechanical means - even in Italy, despite its intention to race this year only outside the Italian borders - is on its way to winning its sixth world title. In fact, victory in the Targa Florio shouldn't escape Ferrari. On one side, therefore, the cars built in Maranello, and on the other the Porsches. But the most interesting reason for the race is the presence of the new six-cylinder Ferrari entrusted to Cabianca and Scarlatti, who race under the colours of the Scuderia Castellotti di Lodi, a kind of unofficial sub-brand of the Scuderia Ferrari. This being said, two twists and turns characterised the 43rd edition of the Targa Florio, a race valid for the World Championship for cars in the sport category, and for the Italian speed championship for the gran turismo and sport category: the disappearance, after the first few laps, of the three three-litre Ferraris and the two-litre car of the Castellotti team (an experimental prototype entrusted to the Scarlatti-Cabianca duo), as well as the unexpected disappearance from the scene, thirty kilometres from the finish line, of Bonnier-Trips' Porsche. The defeat of the cars produced in Maranello against the white Porsches was determined not only by various accidents that put Behra, Brooks, Gendebien, Hill, Allison, Gurney, Cabianca and Scarlatti out of action, but also by technical factors that were to be found in the better power-to-weight ratio that the Stuttgart company could boast; factors that in a difficult race like the Targa Florio were essential.

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The three-litre Ferraris, too powerful for a track dominated by numerous turns and hellish ascents and descents, were unable to keep up with the rhythm impressed on the race by the fast Porsches, and when they tried to brake the attack of the German cars after the first lap, pushing hard on the accelerator, they ended up badly: in fact, already on the first lap the car of Gendebien-Hill arrived at the pits five minutes late and another ten lost for the necessary inspection. It restarts with difficulty, but after a few kilometres is put out of action due to a broken differential. The other Ferrari, the one driven by Cabianca-Scarlatti, is forced to make a long stop on the second lap due to a fire that has fortunately been immediately put out. But for the Ferrari the troubles weren't over and on lap four Behra crashed, remaining unhurt. Aided by some spectators, the brave Frenchman resumes the race, which he has to interrupt a lap later due to mechanical problems. While the Ferraris are cut off for the fight, the Porsches go unchallenged to the lead and from the second lap we see the Bonnier-Trips pair driving steadily for 981 kilometres, until, that is, the unfortunate accident puts them out of the race. By lap seven - halfway through the race - the Bonnier-Trips pair were in the lead, followed by Barth-Seidel, Linge-Scaglierani, Pucci-Von Hamstein, Strahle-Mahle, and Boffa-Drago. Nothing exceptional happens in the laps from eighth to thirteenth, to the point where everyone expects the triumphant conclusion of the formidable leading pair Bonnier-Trips.

But as Barth unexpectedly crossed the finish line, the loudspeakers announced that the car that had been leading up to this point had to stop at Collesano due to a mechanical failure. The Ferrari rout at the Targa Florio, the second round of the world sports car championship, is so unexpected and sensational in its proportions as to merit some reflection. No one, on the eve of the Sicilian race, could have remotely doubted that the Modenese cars would win again. If any credit had been given to the Porsches as possible spoilers, it was more to find a reason for interest in a race that seemed to offer very little of interest. Instead, what a hailstorm of ugly figures on the predictors. Basically, one shouldn't take credit away from the amazing Porsches (whose engine capacity is about half that of the Ferraris), but at the same time one shouldn't judge the Ferraris on the basis of this one day alone. Not least because the failure of the gearboxes, or half-shafts, complained of by Ferrari's three-litre cars seems to offer a logical explanation: the increase in engine power compared to last year, without a parallel reinforcement of other organs that the extremely severe Targa Florio course has stressed beyond all limits. Under more normal conditions of use (see the victorious 12 Hours of Sebring), in all likelihood the Ferraris wouldn't have suffered such failures. On the other hand, if you compare the hourly average achieved on the Madonie circuit by the Barth-Seidel duo, first overall, with that of last year's winners, Gendebien-Musso, at the wheel of a Ferrari 3000, you can see a difference, in favour of the latter, of almost three and a half kilometres.

 

The chronicle of the Targa says that one cannot even speak of Porsche's victory over the Ferraris, since the latter left the scene, either through mechanical failures or accidents, when the race wasn't even a quarter of the way through. Which means that there wasn't struggle, and that the Porsches found themselves almost immediately without opponents. To be sure, this isn't a demerit for the agile, lightweight Stuttgart cars, while it is for the imperfect preparation of the Ferraris. From the way things went, one can believe that Ferrari could very well have fought for the overall victory. The world championship standings after Sebring and the Targa Florio now see Porsche in the lead with 12 points, while Ferrari remains at eight. The next appointment is at the Nurburgring, where Ferrari, more than Porsche will have to watch out for Moss's Aston Martin, whose participation in the tremendous Adenau race seems assured. So there will be discussions and countdowns again in a fortnight's time, since the motor racing calendar knows no more breaks. In the meantime, between Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 May 1959, three events of worldwide resonance will take place. It will begin on 30 May 1959 with the world-famous Indianapolis 500, a race that has no equal in the world in terms of spectacularity, environment, difficulty and prize money. But the following day, Sunday 31 May 1959, the Dutch Grand Prix, the second round of the World Drivers' Championship, will be run on the Zandvoort circuit. Ferrari is presented with an excellent opportunity to redeem the difficult days of Monte Carlo and the Targa Florio: the Dutch track should be quite favourable to the possibilities of the Italian single-seaters.

But the entry list isn't yet known: it is awaited with interest above all to see with which car Moss will race (maybe the Vanwall?) and if the new and fearsome Aston Martins will be present too. Also on 31 May 1959, the Mille Miglia will take place. This name, until two years ago, would have aroused great, world-class interest. But now even the Brescian race has lost its value after it was, for well-known reasons, downgraded to the status of a mixed trial, i.e. a regularity race with time trial speed sections, according to the formula pioneered in 1958. This time, however, the speed sections have been increased to nine, totalling 188 kilometres out of the total of 1487 of the entire route, which partly returns to the old roads of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines. Excluding the sportscar, a maximum of 230 cars in the turismo and gran turismo categories are admitted to the start. All in all, it could be an interesting race, although far from the exasperated competitive pace of yesteryear. Moving from the sporting championship to Formula One, the North American leg of the Indy 500 is confirmed as a separate entity, with specific regulations. The race takes place on the same day as qualifying for the third round, in the Netherlands. Drivers and cars in the race play a marginal role in terms of the championship, due to the absence of European cars in this competition. On 30 May 1959, the Indy 500 is traditionally staged, regardless of the day of the week. Again in the name of tradition, the North American competition is included in the Formula One World Championship calendar.

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Now in its tenth year, having been on the calendar since 1950, it is now clear that this stage across the Atlantic is increasingly a stretch. The sporting event itself isn't in question: indeed, the Indy 500 is the sporting event of greatest global interest. However, some of the customs and habits of this particular race don't mesh well with Formula 1, and thus European participation, the core of this motorsport discipline, has always been lacking. First of all, the Indy 500 starts a long time before the race weekend: in fact, the official and unofficial practice sessions begin in early May, a historic period when the Monaco Grand Prix usually takes place in Europe, another highly prestigious event where the achievement of a victory brings great visibility to both teams and drivers. From an economic and financial point of view, it is not advantageous to make continuous journeys from one continent to another. In addition, the World Sport Championship sees some European companies - Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Lotus to name a few - engaged on the double front, such as the recent Targa Florio held in Sicily. The final paradox of the calendar, on the weekend of 30 and 31 May, the third Grand Prix of the year will be held in Europe, specifically in Zandvoort (Netherlands). It is therefore impossible to be present on two different continents just a few hours apart. The stage is also valid for the USAC National Championship Trail, an American championship reserved for single-seaters that adopts a different technical regulation, to which Formula 1 conforms. However, the differences are considerable: in the United States, the allowed engines of the cars have a cylinder capacity limit of 4.500 litres, which is much larger than in European Formula 1s.

Another regulatory factor disincentivising participation is classification: drivers who eventually decide to make the American trip earn points in the world championship standings, but their teams do not get points for the constructors' championship. As one can well imagine, no Europeans show up at the starting line, so the second race of the season is a kind of limbo within the championship narrative. This doesn't detract from the prestige of an event that always offers great emotions, where the racers are hanging by a thread, suspended between life and death at very high average speeds. As mentioned earlier, the preparatory stages of this difficult race begin in the early days of the month and immediately the bill is heavy: on 2 May 1959 a serious accident involves Jerry Unser. His car spins into turn four, flies over the wall of the main straight and catches fire. The driver is rescued and hospitalised for his severe burns, he bravely fights his injuries but passes away on 17 May 1959. The weekend of 16 and 17 May 1959 saw the start of official practice with the first two sessions: Saturday's practice determines who will start from the first position and the first row, while Sunday's practice will rank the front runners. As usual, participation in the race is limited to thirty-three drivers, although there are no less than sixty-five entries. Among them is a European car, a Maserati 420M, known as the Maserati El Dorado because of its sponsorship too. Brought to debut by Stirling Moss in the 500 Miglia di Monza, where he had performed well, the single-seater was entrusted to Ralph Liguori.

 

Technically, it is based on the chassis of the legendary Formula 1 250F, with front suspension similar to the Maserati 450S, and is fitted with a 4,190 cubic centimetre V8 engine capable of producing 410 horsepower. In the first session Johnny Thomson took pole position with an average lap time of 1'01"683, at an average speed of over 234 km/h. It should be noted that the time is obtained by calculating an average over four laps run, and that each driver tackles a free track. Eddie Sachs and Jim Rathmann follow. Tony Bettenhausen is the protagonist of a spectacular accident, but fortunately gets away with a few minor injuries; the American racer will be on the track the following weekend, to attempt to participate. After three years of inactivity, Hartley once again stepped into the cockpit and managed to qualify. Unfortunately, it is still black history that takes centre stage after the first weekend: in fact, a gust of wind betrays rookie Cortner, and the resulting accident is fatal. In the final qualifying sessions for the Indianapolis 500, characterised by a large crowd with over 100.000 spectators at the track during practice on Sunday 24 May 1959, the Maserati El Dorado suffered fuel problems that prevented it from running on the track, while Jimmy Bryan, winner of the previous edition, gained a place on the grid but would only start from 20th position. On Saturday, 30 May 1959, the grandstands are taken by storm: those who weren't quick enough or lucky enough to buy tickets try to enjoy the upcoming spectacle by hanging from some tree or scaffolding at the edge of the circuit. The pre-race spectacle keeps the standard high, but one only waits for the signal from Tony Hulman, president of the Indianapolis Speedway facility, to start the real show. Thirty-three racers, lined up in eleven rows of three, await the start, ready to do battle. When Hulman announces the classic phrase:

 

"Gentlemen start your engines".

 

Silence falls over the racetrack despite the 200.000 people in the stands. Two hundred laps for a total of 804.672 kilometres, the equivalent of 500 miles, separate the winner from the triumph: the tension on the grid is high. The start is given behind the Pace Car, but right from the first moments a twist ignites the race: Jimmy Bryan is stuck in the middle of the grid with his car at a standstill. The car is taken to the pit lane by the mechanics, who try to get it going again, but the race has already started and the laps of delay are piling up more and more. Thomson wants to take full advantage of the first starting position and tries from the early stages to set the pace to attempt an escape; but he has not reckoned with Rodger Ward, who easily catches up with him. The two set up a spectacular duel in which the racers covered the track side by side for about a lap; Ward came out on top and tasted the top of the standings. In the pits the Belond AP boys failed to pull off a miracle and Jimmy Bryan was forced to retire without having had a real opportunity to challenge his rivals. For him Indianapolis 1959 was a nightmare. The first thrill was given by Eddie Sachs in car number 44: the driver spun at the first corner, and after a series of dangerous swerves in the middle of the track he stopped his car on the grass. Yellow flags are shown but the driver restarts without any problems. Sachs re-enters to change tyres irreversibly damaged by the previous manoeuvre. Ward continues to lead over Jim Rathmann, second, and Thomson, third. Rathmann took the lead with a fine overtaking move on the outside line, while Pat Flaherty was fourth after starting eighteenth.

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Adding new verve to the race is another incident: Len Sutton hits the outside wall of turn one and is forced to retire. His car comes to a dangerous halt on the track, then the Pace Car comes onto the track to allow the operators to remove the single-seater. Thomson goes in to refuel, effectively changing the race strategy, aiming for four stops instead of the three initially planned, while the rivals stick to the same tactics devised before the start. When the race restarted with the green flag waved by the race marshal, Flaherty overtook Rathmann and was first. Ward, third, is slightly behind the leading pair who continue to challenge each other with overtaking moves. However, Ward hopes to re-establish the hierarchy with a clever strategy during the refuelling. Accidents permitting. For it is precisely a serious accident that brings chaos back to the track on lap 45. At turn three a carambola between Amick, Larson, Magill and Weyant eliminates four drivers in one fell swoop. The crowd experienced moments of true terror as Magill rolled over and the moments to get him to safety seemed interminable. Even Weyant jumps in to help his colleague. Transported in an ambulance, he pulls through. Shortly afterwards Jack Turner was forced to retire having run out of petrol: he was the first rider to abandon the race due to a technical problem, but he was only the first in a long list. The series of refuels began: in the top positions Pat Flaherty lost many seconds before restarting, losing contact with the leading duo of Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward. In this delicate phase of the race the work of the only five men allowed to refuel was fundamental to allow their drivers to restart without wasting precious moments.

Ward's men completed the entire operation in twenty-two seconds, a full five seconds less than Rathmann's team. Back in the lead was Thomson who, it should be remembered, was running on a different strategy involving one more stop than the main antagonists. Just over halfway through the race Ray Crawford also hit the wall, spilling fuel on the asphalt: the fourth Pace Car call was therefore necessary with the drivers in the race forced to slow down their race pace, also because the rescue men entered the track to put out a fire start on car number 49. As the green flag came out the race restarted: Thomson entered the pit for extra fuel and the race strategy turned against him. Ward was back in the lead, with a decent margin over his pursuers. Complicating Ward's situation is a technical problem on his single-seater: during the race the torsion bar has been damaged, making the car's behaviour less predictable. Ward now had to watch out for Jim Rathmann's comeback while Jim's brother, Dick, was the protagonist of a dramatic episode in the pit lane: during the last stop, a fire developed, enveloping the racer in flames. The team promptly intervenes with fire extinguishers and saves its driver who had voluntarily remained in the cockpit. Dick Rathmann thus leaves the track angry and... a little toasted. A pity given his fourth starting position. Among the excellent retirements in the last phase of the race was Pat Fleherty due to an accident, but he will console himself with the prize money that is rightfully his, having led the Indianapolis 500 for eleven laps.

 

At the finish line only sixteen riders arrived: Ward easily won with a twenty-second lead over Jim Rathmann, who failed to make a comeback, while third was Thomson, almost a minute behind but able to record the fastest lap of the race, which earned him an extra point in the rainbow classification. Fourth is Tony Bettenhausen: the latter proves to be fully recovered from his accident a few weeks earlier, while the last point is the prerogative of Paul Goldsmith. Ward is celebrated by his team as he arrives at the parc fermé. For him this triumph represents his first victory in the Indy 500, and his wife and mascot dog Skippy await him to celebrate the event. Followed by the traditional sip of milk, the majestic trophy, actress Erin O'Brien to celebrate it, and an impressive $330.000 prize for leading the event for a hundred and thirty laps, the highest prize ever achieved by a driver. From a championship point of view, nothing at all changed, as the Formula One world championship started again with the Dutch Grand Prix on the following day, Sunday 31 May 1959. Theoretically, on 30 May there was a race valid for the Formula One World Championship, and on the same day the qualifying round of the following round. An anomaly that, highlighted even more by the intercontinental distance and time zones, confirms once again, if it were needed, the extraneousness of the Indianapolis 500 to the world of Formula 1.

 

Luca Saitta

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