If you have an hour to spare, you could do worse than listen to ‘The Grand Prix of Gibraltar’, the parody by Peter Ustinov on Grand Prix racing in the 1950s.
In a solo recording produced almost overnight, the brilliant satirist captures the atmosphere of the day, making engine noises and mimicking to perfection Stirling Moss (aka Girling Foss), Fangio (Fandango), Wolfgang von Trips (Von Grips) and the rest of the sport’s leading characters of the day.
I mention it because, of course, Enzo Ferrari (Commendatore Fanfani) plays a major part in this imaginary race around The Rock. Ferrari has entered two cars, one of which refuses to start because, as he says: “I told them to lighten the car to the maximum – and they took out the gas! You can’t trust anyone these days. I can’t talk about this. It make me so mad.”
Enzo’s mood darkens further when he believes Schnorcedes (Mercedes) have not adhered to the admittedly bizarre rules. When asked if he has a moment to explain: Ferrari replies: “I’ve all the time in the world, since I’m retiring from racing. I’m disgusted.”
Now you can see where I’m coming from. Ferrari’s recent threat to quit F1 because of engine proposals for 2021 is nothing new in the team’s history – either real or imagined. Ustinov’s script was based on Ferrari’s manipulation of a position much stronger than it is today. When the recording was made in 1959, Ferrari had won half of eight titles since the start of the drivers’ world championship.
Teams did their own deals and Ferrari was by far and away the most significant, a fact not lost on the Old Man as he regularly withdrew his cars. Although individual race appearances were, in later years, to be guaranteed by contracts drawn up through Bernie Ecclestone’s collective bargaining, Ferrari’s petulant long-term threats of withdrawal continued, almost as if by rite.
In 2009, for example, talk of a budget cap caused then president Luca di Montezemolo to theatrically flick back his hair and declare Ferrari’s long and distinguished participation to be at an end. A year or so before that, mention of standardised engines had been enough to prompt Ferrari to revert to truculent type with the same old threat. On every occasion, talk of quitting has proved to be nothing more than dramatic posturing, noted for its entertainment value rather than a cause for concern.
That said, the thought of a starting grid without a splash of the iconic red is indeed a troubling one. I’ll never forget the feeling of devastation as a fan when Ferrari failed to turn up for the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix, my first F1 race outside the UK. There had been no warning whatsoever.
The loss was ours more than theirs even though racing was, and still is, a means to an end for Ferrari with the marketing of high performance road cars. There was the undeniable feeling that missing one race would not be damaging whereas the closure of the Scuderia would be commercial suicide.
The same thought applies today even though the structure of both Ferrari and motor racing has changed beyond anything Enzo Ferrari might have imagined when he started out in 1948. The sound of sabres currently rattling in chairman Sergio Marchionne’s office drowns the dictation of memos investigating the effect of shutting the Gestione Sportiva across the road. After all, there’s a cussed tradition to be followed.
Ustinov picked up on it when he had Commendatore Fanfani call Fandango into the pits. Asked why he had done this when there had been a lot of shouting at his driver but no refuelling or tyre change, Fanfani replied with triumph: “My driver insulted me earlier and I thought of an answer, so I brought him in. I feel better. I have decided not to retire.”