Friday, 20 March 2015

Enzo Ferrari, A Life - Richard Williams - book review

With the dawn of the new Formula 1 season, I have been prompted to revisit some of the racing books gathering dust on my shelves. One of those was Richard Williams' biography of Enzo Ferrari, first published in 2001.

This is a biography of Ferrari the man, so those searching for exhaustive lists of chassis numbers, or intricate technical analysis, should perhaps look elsewhere. There is some good scene-setting stuff, exploring Ferrari's early life and his background.  Indeed, these stimulating passages left me yearning for more information concerning those formative years. The chapters dealing with Enzo's own racing exploits are equally evocative, for example the 1919 Targa Florio.

With limited space, it is understandable that this book does not go into great detail about how Ferrari reacted to, and fitted into, the febrile social and political climate which prevailed in Italy when he was launching his career in motor sport and business. The author does not ignore the issue, though, and one is left with an impression of the realities and choices faced by many prominent Italians at that time.

It is striking how convoluted, constantly shifting, and sometimes strained, Enzo Ferrari's relationship with Alfa Romeo was, much more so than is popularly imagined. I was gratified to find that this stage of his life is covered in some depth, as are the "heroic" and "golden" ages of motor racing, between the world wars. These sections are gripping, and one is left with a vivid impression of a perilous but momentous era. From the emergence of the likes of Nuvolari, Varzi and Moll, and Ferrari's relationship with these figures, to the sea-change brought about by the advent of the Auto Union and Mercedes teams. The legendary races such as the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio are also afforded due attention.

At various junctures in this biography we are informed how some of the mythology and legend which surrounds (or surrounded?) Ferrari accumulated. It is worth stressing, however, that Williams does not go overboard on this dimension of the tale. Indeed, some myths and/or tall stories are dispelled or debunked. It is tempting to view every episode surrounding Ferrari in "conspiratorial" terms. Thankfully, a more measured and dispassionate approach is adopted here.

The parts of the book which address the tumultuous 1950s are also quite absorbing. The tragedies, the controversies, the playing off of drivers against each other, the brief Ferrari tenure of Juan Manuel Fangio and the turbulent 1958 season all feature heavily. Throughout there are also fascinating and often revealing anecdotes about Ferrari's dealings with drivers, celebrities, notables and the families of drivers. I feel that the portrayal of the man is balanced, showing his flaws but also highlighting his human qualities, which are often overlooked or obscured by the aforementioned mythology.

The outbursts of political trouble in the racing team are naturally detailed, including the problems with Italian drivers, the strains which led to the departure of John Surtees, and the Niki Lauda epoch. A recurring theme in the later chapters is the incidence of infighting, and the extent to which this was compounded by Ferrari's remoteness and consequent tendency to delegate. The complex nature of his relations with several drivers, including Surtees and Lauda, is examined realistically and sensibly. Matters were not always black and white, despite what some would like us to believe.  The accounts of the negotiations with Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart leave me with a sensation of "what might have been".

Of course, Ferrari's personal and family life are documented here, as is the growth of the road car side of the company. We also learn about the abortive negotiations with Ford in the 1960s, and the subsequent agreement with Fiat.

Overall, this is a lively and well written book.

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