Tuesday, 27 December 2011


The outstanding but unacknowledged and fatally-shortened Grand Prix career of this talented driver

Any driver who defeated Mike Hawthorn as team-mate in same-cars 4:1 in qualifying, and 3:1 in the races would have to have been good. Was it Ascari? Gonzalez? Farina? Collins? Brooks? No, Eugenio Castellotti. Who?

In 2007 the media raved about the way in which Lewis Hamilton debuted at the front of the field, mixing it with, and not at all awed by established stars Alonso, Raikkonen, Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli and others.

Yet Eugenio Castellotti, who did pretty much what Hamilton did in his own first two seasons, got hardly a mention. Then or now. Back in the mid-fifties the young Italian immediately ran at the front against Fangio, Ascari, Moss, Farina, Manzon, Hawthorn, Behra and Collins. Yet he is ranked a lowly 95th on Alan Henry’s Top Hundred Drivers list of 2008 and does not feature on Mark Hughes’ 1999 Top Hundred list, nor in the three F1 Racing magazine’s driver rankings. His contemporary rivals Hawthorn and Collins certainly do. Were they really so much more competitive than Castellotti?

Castellotti 1956 Lancia-Ferrarri
Eugenio Castellotti came into Formula One racing in 1955 with the ill-fated, short-lived Lancia Team, completed the rest of 1955 and the full 1956 season with Ferrari. He died tragically in a testing accident following the first race of 1957. Aged 27 he had competed in just 12 championship events.


Eugenio debuted at the notorious ‘heatwave’ 1955 Argentine GP for the three car Lancia team. After 20 laps, suffering from heat-stroke in common with all except two drivers, Castellotti handed his car to team-mate Villoresi, who spun off on lap 36 of the 96.

Catellotti’s second appearance in the twitchy-handling Lancia D50 was at Monaco: the race notorious for team leader Ascari’s plunge into the harbour. From his fourth grid slot, Castellotti jumped past Ascari and Moss to run second to Fangio’s Mercedes for the opening five laps! Despite a stop to change a punctured tyre dropped Eugenio to ninth place, he charged back to finish a remarkable second. This on a difficult circuit that allowed for no driving inaccuracies! In his third race, at high-speed Spa, Eugenio outqualified the dominant Fangio and Moss Mercedes W196s for pole! The season-ending Italian GP on Monza’s daunting, road-and-banked track, was his fifth race. Castellotti brought the Type 555 Ferrari Squalo in third behind the Fangio and Taruffi Mercedes-benz streamliners. Such debut season feats were in the Schumacher-Senna-Hamilton league. The top driver competition he was up against, Fangio-Ascari-Moss, were the equivalent of Prost- Senna-Schumacher or Carracciola-Nuvolari-Chiron of the early thirties. Yet who has heard of Castellotti today?


Castellotti’s second-tier rivals, sometime team-mates and Boy’s Own heroes Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins were highly praised in contemporary media and subsequent literature. Eugenio Castellotti has hardly been mentioned, then or now. His record against the more experienced British pair, who started grand prix racing three years earlier in 1952, was outstanding. In four appearances with Hawthorn as team-mate in same-model cars during 1955 and Argentina 1957, Ferraris 555 and 625A, Lancia-Ferrari D50, the Italian won the qualifying battle 3:1 and the races 4:1! Against Enzo Ferrari’s favourite Collins, in the D50A during 1956 and Argentina 1957, he won the qualifying 4:3. Outstanding performances by any measure. Clearly the rankings of Hawthorn and Collins respectively at 58th and 67th by Hughes and 40th and 73rd by Henry beg the question: what about Castellotti, not even being in their top one hundred drivers?


Castellotti was drafted in to the newly-formed Lancia grand prix team for the 1955 season, to back star Ascari and veteran Villoresi. The revolutionary D50 car, with its side-mounted, pannier fuel tanks between the wheels, short wheelbase, low weight, high-grip Pirelli tyres and low polar-moment behaviour, was not easy to handle. On its first appearance of 1955 in Argentina both his illustrious team-mates spun off. Before his excursion, Villoresi had taken over Eugenio’s car after his own had retired with mechanical troubles. Castellotti’s second place at Monaco four months later could have been a win. Victor Trintignant in a Ferrari 625A was no match for the young Italian in the D50. Unfortunately on lap 37 of 100 when running third, Castellotti clipped a kerb and pitted to change a punctured tyre. Dropping to ninth place he then charged to second at the finish, just 20 seconds behind Trintignant.

Less than a week later, Castellotti invited Ascari to Monza to watch him testing a sports-racing Ferrari 750 Monza. Surprisingly and despite his renowned superstition about his own kit, especially his blue helmet which no-one was ever allowed to touch, the maestro decided to try the car out! Most uncharacteristically, he borrowed Eugenio’s helmet, goggles and gloves, tucked his tie into his shirt and set off, saying he would take it easy, but that “It was best to get back into a car as soon after a crash as possible.” On his third lap, Alberto crashed fatally at the high-speed Viallone Corner. The cash-strapped team was devastated, and Gianni Lancia promptly withdrew from racing.

Eugenio persuaded Lancia to let him race at Spa the next week. He scored his phenomenal pole, shading the dominant Fangio and Moss and their Mercedes-Benzs! Running second on the opening lap, he could not hold the easier-to-drive W196s in the hands of such experienced stars as Fangio and Moss. Eugenio ran third until gearbox troubles on lap 17 of 36 put him out. This was Team Lancia’s last appearance. The whole racing team, including designer Jano and driver Castellotti, was handed/donated to Ferrari, with Fiat’s influence and financial help!

Eugenio joined Hawthorn and Trintignant for the British GP at Aintree in the outclassed Type 625A Ferraris. Despite being new to the team and car and this being Hawthorn’s second season with Maranello, Castellotti was fastest of the team in qualifying! He retired early from the race with transmission trouble. Suffering a hangover, Hawthorn happily handed his own car to Castellotti, who brought it in sixth behind four Mercedes and Musso’s Maserati 250F55.

The last event in this Le Mans-disaster-curtailed season, the Italian GP at Monza, saw Eugenio qualify one of Ferrari’s newly-acquired Lancia D50s fourth behind the W196s of Fangio, Moss and Taruffi. Unfortunately Enzo’s contracted tyre, Engelbert, was totally unsuitable for the Lancia’s on the bankings. Farina had an horrific spin in practice, so the cars were withdrawn. In the race Eugenio drove a 555 Super Squalo to finish a fine third behind the two Mercedes. Tellingly he again beat experienced team-mates Hawthorn, Maglioli and Trintignant!


Signed on again by Ferrari, Castellotti had Fangio, and Collins as team-mates, with part-timers Musso, de Portago, Gendebien, Frere and Pilette. Having to make do with an original D50 in the season-opening Argentine GP, Eugenio’s sheer class showed when he qualified second to Fangio’s new Type D50A Lancia-Ferrari! After running third early on, Castellotti retired with engine failure. Four months later at Monaco, and now in a D50A, Castellotti qualified third to Fangio and race-winner Moss’ Maserati, but his car failed after 15 of 100 laps. Fangio, chasing the flying Moss in vain, damaged his own car and took another, Castellotti then driving the Argentinian’s battered D50A to fourth place. At Spa he started fourth behind Fangio, Moss and team favourite Collins, but retired with transmission trouble after ten laps.

The high-speed battle that was the 1956 French GP at Reims saw Eugenio qualify second to Fangio. Battling his team-mates for most of the race, he finished just 0.3 seconds behind Peter Collins, Fangio having dropped out of the picture with car trouble. Eugenio was caught out by team tactics. The agreement was that whatever the position was at 50 laps of the 61 should be maintained to the finish; but the pit did not signal the laps! Collins had English friends in another pit signalling him, so he made sure he was in front at lap 50!

The British GP at Aintree saw Castellotti retire after a spin which damaged a wheel while running fifth early on. The 1956 finale at Monza was a cracker, with team-mates Musso and Castellotti fighting for the title of Italian Champion, disregarding team tactics. From another fine second on the grid to Fangio, Eugenio took the lead on the opening lap, lost it to Musso on lap two, then regained it until lap five, when a rear tyre tread shredded, thanks to the pounding on the steep banking and Eugenio’s charge. Musso too destroyed his tyres early on, but managed to finish seventh. Eugenio did get the Italian Title though.

In reading Castellotti’s performances for this 1956 season, one must bear in mind that Fangio used his status and seniority to secure the best cars, and that Enzo Ferrari favoured the likeable Collins, and doubtless gave him better equipment, especially for the British GP.


For 1957 Ferrari lost Fangio to Maserati, but re-hired Hawthorn to join Collins, Castellotti and Musso as full-timers. Moss left Maserati for Vanwall, with Brooks and Lewis-Evans as team-mates to make the first strong British grand prix car and team since Sunbeam in the twenties. A promising season.

The opening race in Buenos Aires in January produced a surprise: Maserati’s latest version of the 250F was far superior to the now-ageing and Ferrari-modified Lancia-based V8 Ferrari D50A. Moss, on loan to Maserati from the unready Vanwall Team, took pole ahead of team-mates Fangio and Behra. Castellotti, clearly fastest of the Ferrari drivers, managed to take the lead from lap 3 to 12, until his car shed a rear wheel.

Two months later, when testing the new, pannier-less, Ferrari 801 model at the Modena Autodromo, Eugenio crashed fatally.

While many English language magazines and books continue extol the prowess, exploits and abilities of Hawthorn and Collins, their contemporary Castellotti is ignored. From his 1955 debut until his last race in Argentina 1957, he was faster than the more-experienced British pair in qualifying, in race results more successful than Hawthorn and at least Collins’ equal. It is no exaggeration to compare his brief Formula One career to the early years of Moss, Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton. And to those earlier stars David Bruce-Brown, Guy Moll and Gilles Villeneuve who also died prematurely in fatal crashes. With Castellotti’s natural talent and speed, 1958 would have been quite something. When Hawthorn raced the Ferrari 246 Dino at his best to win the Championship, Castellotti could probably have been even better… he certainly was faster.

© Patrick O’Brien. Nothing from this page can be used without the permission of Patrick E. O’Brien.


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