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Maserati v. Ferrari, the real story

It wasn't as melodramatic as the family-feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, in "Romeo and Juliet", and Modena certainly couldn't be confused with Verona, but the rivalry between Maserati and Ferrari featured all of the intrigue and tragedy of a Shakespearean play.

The year it all came to a head was 1957, that, coincidentally, was the setting for a recent Hollywood movie, "Ferrari". The movie producers did a good job of showing the power, drama, and polished glory of Maserati and Ferrari sports cars competing on the treacherous mountain roads of Italy.  However, making the death of Alfonso de Portago, the highlight of the movie was a regrettable error.  While the car crash was tragic, it was not the climax of what was to become an exciting and compelling year in the annals of international motorsports.  The real climax of the season was the debacle at the season's finale--the Grand Prix of Venezuela at Caracas--where a team of three heavily favored Maserati 450Ss, were wiped out in a series of freakish mishaps.  While several drivers suffered various burns, incredibly no one was killed.

Never financially robust, Officine Alfieri Maserati was counting on winning the race, and afterwards selling those three Maserati sports cars, in order to break even.  Alas, with the three cars thoroughly destroyed, the sales could not be consummated.  Following the Caracas debacle, a decision was made that Maserati would withdraw from motor racing.  On April 1, 1958, Officine Alfieri Maserati went into receivership, thus putting an end to the intensive rivalry between two old world titans that dominated European motor racing in the 1950s.

This was a vital part of European motor racing history, that the producers of "Ferrari" ignored, or, more likely, were unaware of.  I should add that the driver killed in the Miglia Mille--Alfonso de Portago of Spain--was not an official member of the Ferrari team. While supremely talented, he was inconsistent and rarely won races.  Indeed, he actually had to pay Enzo Ferrari to race his cars. The best driver on the Ferrari team that year was Englishman Peter Collins.  Collins led most of the Miglia Mille, until 140 miles from the finish, when his Ferrari's limited-slip differential packed in.


Both the Ferrari and Maserati factories were located in Modena (pronounced Mod-Na) on what had once been a Roman road, Via Emilia, which ran through center of the town.  Maserati lay to the north, and a few hundred meters to the south, could be found the Ferrari factory.  As with most factory towns, where one lives determines where one's loyalty lies; southern Modenese favored Ferrari, while those who live in the northern part of town, are Maserati loyalists. Besides winning motor races, Ferrari and Maserati were forever competing for engineering and driving talent.

While Maserati won its first race in1922, Enzo Ferrari didn't begin building racing racing cars until after World War II.  As a symbol of their cars, Maserati chose the Trident of Neptune, while Ferrari chose the prancing horse.  For the most part, Ferraris race cars tended to be more elegant than Maserati, which favored horsepower above all else.  Among major wins, Maseratis twice won the Indianapolis 500 (1939-40), something Ferrari tried several times, but never succeeded.

In 1957, Maserati competed for the Worlds Sports Car Championship with the brutish 450S, that utilized a 4.5-liter V8 engine, an engine originally designed and built to power an Indy car.  When the deal fell through, the Maserati brass decided to build a sport car around the engine.  That was the Maserati 450S.  For drivers, Maserati employed two of the world's best--Juan Manual Fangio of Brazil, and Englishman Stirling Moss.  Other Maserati drivers included Frenchman Jean Behra, and American ex-patriot Harry Schell. Ferrari employed two English drivers, Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorne; an American, Phil Hill of Southern Californian; and a host of journeyman Italian drivers, one of whom, 50-year-old, Pierro Taruffi, would win the '57 Miglia Mille  (and promptly retire).

Not only was 1957 noteworthy for a battle for dominance between Ferrari and Maserati, but it was the first year Aston Martin and Porsche would build sports racing sports cars for international competition.  It was also the last year the famed (and aged) D-Type Jaguar would win the Le Mans Twenty-Four Hours.  Below are the results of the seven international sports cars races that were held that year.


Jan 20 --1000K of Buenos Aires: winning car, Ferrari 290 MM: drivers: Masten Gregory, Eugenio Castellotti, and Luigi Musso

Mar 23 -- Sebring Twelve Hours: winning car, Maserati 450S, drivers: Juan Fangio and Jean Behra

May 11-12 -- Miglia Mille (1000 miles): winning car, Ferrari 315S, driver: Piero Taruffi

May 26 -- Nurburgring 1000K: winning car, Aston Martin DBR 1/30, drivers: Tony Brooks, and Noel Cunningham-Reid

June 22-23 -- Le Mans 24 Hours: winning car, Jaguar D-Type, drivers: Ron Flockhart and Ivor Bueb

Aug 8 -- Swedish Six Hour Grand Prix: winning car, Maserati 450S, drivers: Stirling Moss and Jean Behra

Nov 11 -- Venezuelan 1000K Grand Pix: winning car, Ferrari 335S, drivers: Peter Collins and Phil Hill


Prior to the Venezuelan race, Maserati was having its most successful year ever, having won it's first Formula One World Championship (and the fifth world title for the supremely-talented Juan Fangio).  Also winning races for Maserati that year was a Swiss driving specialist, named Willy Daetwyler, who won the European Mountain Championship. That summer, Maserati began production of the new 3500 GT road car.  Also in the works, was Maserati's first 12-cylinder F1 engine, that promised great things for the 1958 Grand Prix season.

After the shutdown, the race car facility at Maserati continued building race cars--on consignment.  In 1959, a Maserati engineer halved the 450S V8 engine, retooled the bore-and-stroke, and to his delight discovered a torquey, powerful four-banger.  Installed in the new, lightweight, low-slung Maserati "Birdcage"; in private hands the Maserati "Birdcage" was more dominant than even the 450S, winning races all over the world, from Germany's Nurburgring 1000K (twice), to the Riverside Grand Prix in Southern California.

The Maserati V12 racing engine developed in 1957--that delivered off-the-chart horsepower--was given new life, in the mid-1960s, when the Cooper F1 team of England made a deal with Maserati for use of their V12 engine to power the latest Cooper F1 machine.  Despite its age, with some updates, Maserati once again had the most powerful engine in F1.  Unfortunately, the Cooper chassis designed to take the Maserati V12 proved too heavy to be truly competative, and the new Cooper-Maserati managed to win but two races.  In 1968, the partnership between the two companies dissolved, mainly due to the inevitable communications problems that arise between companies operating in two countries.


Maserati will be forever remembered for its three most iconic racing cars:  the Maserati 450S sports car, the Maserati 250F GP machine, and the successor to the 450S, the Maserati "Birdcage".

Having prevailed in the Maserati-Ferrari wars of the 1950s, Enzo Ferrari would face a similar challenge in the mid-1960s, from the Ford Motor Company of North America, and, in the 1970s, from Porsche, which proved to be so dominant that Ferrari would pull out of International sports car competition, to concentrate solely on Formula One.

- END -


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