The Marquis Alfonso De Portago, his life for racing, until an unfair ending



Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Bias Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca Y Leinghton, seventeenth Marquis of Portago, was born in London on October 11, 1928.

The history of the Spanish driver is linked to the Mille Miglia, where in 1957, in a tragic accident, he lost his life.


Nicknamed the Fon by his friends, the Marquis lives with his family in Baritz, and has practiced many sports since he was a child. A passion inherited from his father, who is one of the best golfers in Spain.


Aa Alfonso, life as an aristocrat likes it, but this does not prevent him from feeling the need to always face new challenges: it will be precisely by betting the helicopter of a friend who is still a minor that he will discover a passion for speed.


This need is perfectly linked to another of Alfonso's interests, which is to travel the world. In fact, in October 1953, the Marquis decided to leave for Paris to visit the car show. Just as he wanders around the stands, the irony of fate, or destiny, leads him to meet Luigi Chinetti, who, in addition to being a driver, has also recently become the official importer of Ferrari in the United States.


The feeling immediately springs up between the two, and when Chinetti offers him to become his co-driver, the Fon accepts. A month later, Alfonso is Chinetti's navigator during a stage of the Carrera Panamericano championship. This race will become an important stage in the life of the Marquis De Portago.


In fact, during this experience, despite not being able to reach the finish line together with Chinetti, Alfonso finds the answers to that restlessness that had accompanied his youth, and that had pushed him to always test himself. On January 24, 1954, with a Ferrari 250 MM Vignale Spyder owned by him, the Spanish marquis made his debut as a driver, participating in the race called Buenos Aires 1000, paired with Harry Schell.


Alfonso immediately proves to have talent, as both will finish second at the finish. In the second half of 1954, De Portago moved to Europe, accepting the Maserati offer. The adventure with the Italian team did not start well, as the Spaniard is forced to retire at the 12 Hours of Sebring, at Aintree International, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and at the Circuit de Bressuire.


The redemption of the Fon arrives, however, on the Circuit de Metz, where he wins his first career victory. In the following events, however, including the 12 Hours of Reims, the race held on the Nurburgring circuit and the Tour de France, where he will race with the Osca, he does not reach the finish line again.


At the end of November, 1954, the Spaniard returned to drive the Ferrari 750 Monza in the Carrera Panamericana, but an oil leak forced him to retire yet another. The first victory with the Maranello cars came a few days later at the Nassau Trophy Road Races, where he also obtained two second places.


Even in 1955, due to his very aggressive driving style, the Marquis was unable to find continuity of results. At the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Spaniard is forced to retire, and even to his debut at the Mille Miglia, the result does not know a different ending. De Portago's only good placement is at Coupes de Paris, where he, starting from second place on the starting grid, finishes fourth at the finish.


But the Marquis is not satisfied with this result, and he wants to test a Formula One car.

For this reason, the Spanish driver buys a Ferrari, which he takes to the track at the International Trophy at Silverstone. But the desire to test himself, always looking for new challenges, risks costing him dearly: on the British circuit, he not only destroys his Ferrari, ending up off the track at over 200 kilometers per hour, but he also breaks his leg. This incident will force him to stop for three months.


On his return, aboard a Ferrari 750 Monza, the Marquis seems determined to cancel his early season performances, taking pole at the 9 Hours of Goodwood, but in the race a collision forces him to retire. The same situation is repeated at Aintree International: Alfonso is fourth in qualifying, but then an accident does not allow him to see the checkered flag.


Worse goes to the Tourist Trophy, where he doesn't even manage to line up on the grid. In the last months of 1955, the Fon changes gears: in Venezuela it is third in qualifying, and comes second in the race, while a month later it wins the Governor's Trophy and the Nassau Ferrari Race, and again in Nassau, on the occasion of the Production Race, takes a great fourth place finish.


The beginning of 1956 seems to be able to give continuity to the positive streak of the last months of the previous year, but once again, at the 7 Hours of Sebring, due to a problem with a valve of his Ferrari 857S, the marquis does not see the flag at chess. At the 1000 km of the Nurburgring, after having obtained a good third time during the qualifying tests, with a Ferrari 290 MM he manages to get on the third step of the podium.


Furthermore, he also obtained a good fifth place in the 1000 kilometers of Paris, while in Oporto, he won his first victory of the season. Alfonso’s excellent form continues at the Super Cortemaggiore, where he improves on fifth position at the end of qualifying, finishing fourth. The good results in the first part of 1956 allow the Fon to realize his dream: to become a Formula One driver.


In fact, for a long time now, Enzo Ferrari had been struck by that genius and reckless driver, and thus decided to join him with Juan Manuel Fangio, Peter Collin Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso, Oliver Gendebien, Paul Frère, and Andrè Pilette. Ferrari, in the book he wrote about the Scuderia Ferrari drivers, described the Marquis De Portago as follows:


A man of extreme physical courage but also an unusual man, always pursued by the fame of Don Juan. A magnificent bum for his unkempt demeanor, long beard, very long hair, immortal leather jacket and slouching step".


De Portago's Formula 1 debut took place on July 1, 1956 at the Reims circuit, which hosts the French Grand Prix. During qualifying, while the Ferraris placed a hat-trick with Fangio on pole, Castellotti second and Collins third, the Spaniard is ninth, with a gap of seven seconds and six from the Argentine. De Portago's first Formula 1 race, however, will only last a few kilometers.


In fact, on the ninth lap, a gearbox problem forced him to park the D50 along the track, while Collins and Castellotti completed the one-two at the Prancing Horse, with Fangio fourth.



What is positive, however, is that the Marquis takes little to take the measurements for the new machine, and in Great Britain he repays the confidence of Ferrari. In qualifying, while reducing the gap from the leaders, he is only twelfth, six seconds behind Moss' Maserati. The next day, paired with Collins, he is the protagonist of a great comeback, which ends in second place, one lap behind Juan Manuel Fangio. For De Portago, this will be the first and only podium in Formula 1. A few weeks later, the Marquis will arrive in Germany with the aim of fighting for victory.


Instead, in qualifying he still struggles, and is only tenth, while in the race, again paired with Collins in an attempt to recover, he is the protagonist of an accident during the tenth lap, allowing the only Ferrari to reach the finish line, that of Fangio, to become the world leader.


The last race of the championship takes place in Monza: De Portago does not go beyond the ninth time in qualifying, and on the ninth lap, a tire problem forces him to retire in four races, closing the season in fifteenth place in the drivers' standings. with only three points, while Fangio graduated, for the fourth time, world champion. But if with the single-seaters the satisfactions for the Marquis are few, the same cannot be said for the covered wheel races.


Indeed, throughout 1956, De Portago divides his time between Formula One and touring car races: at the Sverige Grand Prix he is third, at Kanonplet he is second, while he wins a splendid double by winning the Tour de France and the Coupes de Salon. The series of four consecutive podiums was interrupted only at the Rome Grand Prix, where he finished fourth. Subsequently, in Venezuela he is forced to retire, but redeems himself at the Governor's, where he wins another second position.


The only disappointing result that the Marquis collects is seventh place in the Preliminary Nassau, but twenty-four hours later, on the day of the Immaculate Conception, he is second in the Nassau Ferrari, and with third places in the Nassau Trophy and in Caracas, he closes his 1956 with three consecutive podiums. In 1957, De Portago's racing season began concurrently with the first race of the Formula One world championship, which took place in Buenos Aires on January 13th. Paired with Gonzalez, the Spaniard closes in fifth position.


This umpteenth disappointing result closes his adventure in the top flight. In fact, at the next Monaco Grand Prix, which usually takes place in May, the Spaniard will not take part in the grid. As in the previous year, while waiting to return to driving the 801, the Marquis is dedicated to racing for touring cars.


Also, in Buenos Aires, together with Castellotti and Collins, Alfonso climbs on the third step of the podium, obtaining the same result driving a Ferrari 857 M in Cuba, while paired with Musso, he finishes seventh in the 24 Hours of Sebring.


The Marquis gets the last victory of his career in the Coupes de Vitesse, a race in which he returns to the wheel of the Ferrari 250 GT. After retiring in the race held in Hawaii, the Spaniard should have taken a break to concentrate in view of the second race of the Formula 1 world championship, in Monte Carlo, scheduled for May 10, 1957.


However, Enzo Ferrari, having learned of Musso's forfeit at the Mille Miglia, immediately thinks he can replace the Italian driver with De Portago. The founder of the homonymous factory asks his sports director, Tavoni, to call him to communicate the choice directly in his office. A meeting, the latter, told by Drake himself:


Enzo Ferrari: "Do you know why I made you call?"


Alfonso De Portago: "No. Tavoni didn't tell me anything".


Enzo Ferrari: "To give you that opportunity. Do you want to run a race for me, Alfonso?"

Alfonso De Portago: "Of course I want it".


Enzo Ferrari: "Then listen to me, you have to run on the road".


Alfonso De Portago: "On the road?"


Enzo Ferrari: "Yes, because on the road you learn to improvise, to react to unexpected events and to control the shivers of fear. On the road you become great drivers, Alfonso. And if you arrive in a position worthy of the Scuderia Ferrari, you can continue to drive a Formula One, but in the official team".


Alfonso De Portago: "So, which race are you thinking about?"


Enzo Ferrari: "To the Mille Miglia, of course".


Alfonso De Portago: "Why the Mille Miglia?"


Enzo Ferrari: "Because it is the race that forced the automotive industry to study cars suitable for such a demanding test. Because it is the most difficult. Because it is the most beautiful of all".


Alfonso De Portago: "What car do you want to give me, the Berlinetta?"


Enzo Ferrari: "I want to give you Sport".


Alfonso De Portago: "Then I'll be at the start, Mr. Ferrari".


Enzo Ferrari: "Find yourself a co-driver".


Alfonso De Portago: "I already have it, it will be Edmund Nelson, an American journalist friend, so he can write a good story".


Alfonso De Portago, while betting with Gendebien on which of them would have reached the finish first, is nervous: in fact, the Spanish driver is forced to participate in the Italian race with a car he has never driven, the 335 S, but flaunts tranquillity at least until a curious episode that developed a few hours after the start disturbs him again.

To tell what happened, it will be Romulo Tavoni, the sporting director of Ferrari:


"I was with De Portago in Brescia, the morning of the start of his last race. We ate breakfast together, to decide on the latest competition strategies. He was cheerful, he wanted to participate in this adventure, the race with an official Ferrari galvanized him".


Then, however, he got up from the table when a girl asked him for an autograph: as he turned around, he inadvertently bumped into a waiter, who overturned the tray with tea and milk on him.


"I looked De Portago in the face, I saw him suddenly petrified and pale. His gaze had changed, it was as if he were afraid. After all, nothing serious had happened, I thought, what could he be worried about? De Portago looked at me and said: Tavoni in my country pouring milk and tea is bad, it is synonymous with bad luck. He was very superstitious and very upset about the little accident that happened, a fact of no importance, but for him a kind of premonitory symptom".


The Marquis is not at all convinced of racing, so much so that in Maranello, in the Ferrari workshops, on Friday May 10, 1957, he offers his teammate Luigi Musso the opportunity to take his place. But the Roman driver, still recovering from the disease, declines the offer. Indeed, the Spaniard sends a letter to a New York magazine, on the eve of the Mille Miglia, in which he writes:


"Losing control of the car and knowing that there is absolutely nothing for me to do, staying there, frozen by terror and waiting for things to take their course: that's the thought that scares me more than any other. But running is a vice; precisely because it is a vice, it is almost impossible to give it up. All runners swear that at a certain age they will not race anymore, but very few are capable of doing it seriously. They have the temperament of hardened players, and like such always postpone the time to get away from the game table. Sometimes, when a driver learns that a colleague of his has been killed on the road, he vows not to race anymore. But then he thinks: It will never happen to me. And the third day later the tragedy that hit his friend, he returns to prepare for another race".


De Portago smokes his last cigarette, before leaving, to the mechanics he confesses:


"I will play a cautious race, without ever forcing, with the sole purpose of becoming aware of the road and the characteristics of the race; in other words, I have no desire to win, but I only intend to train on the course and then try to win next year".


He had said the same words to actress Linda Christian, whom the Marquis wanted to keep away from the race: he gives her an appointment in Milan for Sunday evening, assuring her that at least for that time there was absolutely no reason to fear anything, since more than a race, his participation in the Mille Miglia would have been a simple and peaceful training.


Then, soon, they would get married. Nevertheless, for Ferrari, the race seems to be going well. Arrived at the time of refuelling in Bologna, Collins leads the race, followed by Taruffi and Von Trips. De Portago, on the other hand, is in the rear, and is attempting a desperate comeback.


On passing through Mantua, the Marquis, while handing his book to the stamp, inquires whether a telegram from Rome had arrived for him; the Spaniard is interested in knowing if there are any communications from Linda, but they say no.


There are no communications since the actress, from Rome, is flying to Milan. Then, De Portago takes two sips of mineral water, and leaves quickly, to the point that Gurner, who is greeting the crowd, hits his chest against the windshield.


After a few kilometers from the restart, Collins has a technical problem. Ferrari, present on the spot, asks the driver to retire, so as not to risk accidents, and in order not to take any further risks, he asks Van Trips to escort Taruffi to his last race, with Gendebien completing the Prancing Horse hat-trick. To spoil the Ferrari party, however, is a tragic accident involving De Portago.


While Collins is forced to retire, the Marquis is between Cerlongo and Guidizzolo, and is pushing hard on the accelerator, contrary to the initial idea of ​​simply getting familiar with the track, because there are a few kilometers to go, and he is convinced that he still has chance to overtake Gendebien, thus winning his personal bet. The Spaniard drives with his usual aggressiveness, but at 16:03 on May 12, 1957, near Corte Colombra di Cavriana, the left front tire gives way.


As usual, the municipal roads, used for racing, are surrounded by numerous spectators, therefore De Portago tries a correction to avoid injuring the people crowded along the route, but the Ferrari n.531, which until a few moments before was traveling to a speed estimated between 250 and 280 km/h, is now out of his control. The Marquis desperately tries to regain control, bending over the steering wheel to withstand the effort required, but after just 130 meters the tire detaches from the rim, overcoming the driver's resistance.


The rim will act as a pivot for the car, which swerves to the left, slips between two kerbstones, raising a cloud of dust, and with the right rear part touches a kerbstone, breaking it. As a result, the car is straightened and thrown thirty meters off the road. Meanwhile, the Spanish driver's car mows down the group of spectators present, dragging them into the channel below. The flight is interrupted by a light pole, cut at a height of one meter and twenty above the ground.


Gaetano Beghelli, a farmer who is on the right of the road, dressed up and with his hat high on his head because it is already hot, has his hand in his pocket and smokes, when he sees the car coming in the distance. When this is almost at its height, even louder than the noise of the engine, it hears the burst of the tire:


"For about forty meters the car zigzagged along the road, then leaned to the left and slipped between two kerbstones. It was already on the edge of the ditch when it struck with its right side against a kerbstone and tore it up. For the kickback. the car was straightened and turned fifteen meters off the road in a parallel direction. And it was in this section that it mowed down nine people. Then it aimed with the hood in the ditch and finally, like a bullet, it jumped all the way down the road and went to ending up in the ditch on the opposite side. In this jump he cut cleanly a light pole at one meter and twenty centimeters from the ground".


The second driver, Edmond Nelsoh Gurner is thrown from the left side of the road. Then, silence. Not even the wounded scream. The pause will last a few seconds, then the screams will rise from all sides. Gaetano Beghelli and other people who remained unharmed will take care to clear the road in just four minutes, before other cars arrive. Elda Pilon, resident of Volta Mantovana, which is on the right side of the road, will tell:


"I held the two children Daniele and Fausto, aged five and eleven, close to me. My husband Mario, who was injured, was instead on the opposite side with his friends. I remember seeing the car arrive because I too was curious to see. I was scared, but I looked curious. I saw the car skid; I saw it arrive on the group that was in front of me. In fright I closed my eyes. When I opened them again there was a dust covering everything. I did not hear anything. I took the children and threw them on the lawn, then I crossed the road and ran there, into the tangle. My husband was in the mud: my Mario had his head covered in blood. We pulled my husband out onto the road, and when I spotted an 1100, I loaded him on top, and had him taken to the hospital. Ah, what a thing. Save him; and then we won't see any more racing".


De Portago, his co-driver Edmund Nelson, and nine overwhelmed spectators on the course, lose their lives in an instant. As soon as she got off at Linate, Linda, who was waiting for the Spaniard, asked if she already knew the Mille Miglia classification:

"And De Portago? He hasn't arrived?"


She asks disappointed, before the chilling answer tells her what had happened. As of the following hours, controversies erupt. Enzo Ferrari, still shaken by the death of Eugenio Castellotti, in Modena, during a test, is targeted by the media pillory of Italian journalists.


As if that were not enough, Maurice Trintignant insinuates that some of the Ferrari mechanics, at the last stop, would have told the Spaniard that between him and Gendebien there was only a minute of distance, when in reality the gap was over seven minutes, pushing him Spaniard not to change tires. Enzo Ferrari will be put on trial. According to the indictment, the Engleber tires fitted to De Portago's Ferrari number 531 were not suitable for racing in the Mille Miglia.


Ferrari will live badly in the following months, and will delegate to his collaborators the task of making sure that the relatives of the victims are compensated. Precisely for this reason, when the Modenese manufacturer learns that the insurance companies will try to resist, he will be very angry. But this is nothing, compared to when he gets out of his acquittal, which will come only four years later, on July 26, 1961:


"The accusation is manifestly unfounded, and is based exclusively on the statements of the first experts hired by the Public Prosecutor: but already some logical considerations, obviously arising from the contradictions and inaccuracies of the experts themselves, had immediately invalidated the new hires".


"So after the meticulous and exhaustive examination of all the people interested in the case from the Ferrari manufacturer to the industrialist Englebert, from the technicians Lèdent and Boasso to the Taruffi driver and the competition directors, from the civil motorization officials to all those, technicians and assistants, who had checked the tuning of the cars and had followed their performance throughout the course - this judge had obtained the clear and precise conviction that nothing could be charged, by way of fault, to both Ferrari and Englebert , backed by over ten years of experience in the field; aware of the responsibility in dealing with, studying, building and using mechanical means of considerable driving power; perfectly aware of having to undertake, as they did, a close and continuous collaboration for the best success of the company, and for the construction and preparation of the most perfect means possible in relation to human capacity".


"In particular, the manufacturer Enzo Ferrari is a man with a strong and incisive personality, endowed with intellectual and moral abilities undoubtedly above the average, who through enormous sacrifices and driven by the passion of motoring alone, has been able to create from nothing, with his strength, a stupendous and perfect industry as a watchmaking laboratory, conquering universal esteem and admiration, building cars, both for competition and for tourism, that the whole world envies us, triumphing in an undisputed way on the circuits and tracks of every continent".


"These are objective, irrefutable elements of judgment: likewise, Englebert is the owner, in Belgium, of a company for roofing construction that is renowned and universally appreciated. The two industrialists, therefore, could not fail to undertake, due to the good name of their respective products, that the closest, most rigorous and effective of collaborations, in order to get into the race with cars perfected to the maximum of suitability and to achieve the most coveted victories: as indeed happened".


"Well, all the defensive assumptions and all the logical and technical explanations provided by Ferrari and Englebert, as well as by their collaborators and employees, were fully confirmed in the exhaustive and highly motivated report of the experts Capocaccia, Casci and Funaioli, technicians and teachers of undisputed fame and specific skills, and in particular not linked by any direct interest with the accused or with the Belgian company. It follows pursuant to art. 378 and 152 SPP that Ferrari must be immediately acquitted of the crime ascribed to him, in compliance to the requests of the public prosecutor, for not having committed it. Ex art. 622 et seq. All the finds that have fallen into judicial seizure must be returned to Ferrari".


Enzo Ferrari, after this sentence, will lash out against the press, since in the previous months he had been sentenced in journalism, even before the trial could come to an end by acquitting him.


But this will not dissolve the bitterness and sorrow in the mind of the Modenese manufacturer, which will even lead him to the idea of ​​transforming the company, ending his sporting commitment. Before the trial could come to an end, the defense of Piero Taruffi was not needed, who when he finds out about the incident, comments:


"Where did De Portago go to tear the tires apart? Didn't he cut that double S at the Mantua exit?"


A resentment, that of the press, which instead will never be transmitted by Linda Christian, who arrived at the scene of the accident for the last farewell:


"I was terrified every time I knew he was engaged in some race and I begged him many times to get it over with. He didn't even want to listen to me, he replied: Not even for the greatest love in the world could I give up racing. motoring until I have won the title of world champion. Especially the Mille Miglia frightened me, I begged him not to participate because it is too dangerous a race. He did not want to listen to me, and told me to wait for him at the passage of Rome, where he would be among the first. control of Rome, which I saw for the last time".


"It was a match of forty-five seconds, the time to exchange a long kiss. I gave him a piece of paper, on which I had written the position of the various competitors in Spanish, so that he could regulate his run. At the bottom of the card I added between words, the last words of love I addressed to him: Te quiero mucho. For nothing in the world, he would have given up racing. Alfonso was a very free man, he loved adventure and racing, I could expect him to end like this".



Never has a phrase been more appropriate to describe Alfonso De Portago, who could have had everything any individual could wish for, but he loved running so intensely, to the point of saying, the evening before the start of the Mille Miglia, to his friends who asked him if he was not afraid:


"Life must be lived in full. Better a complete life for thirty years than a half-life for sixty".


Massimiliano Amato

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