“Everything, if you could only see it clearly enough, like this, is beautiful and complete. Everything has its own perfection.”
~Joan Lindsay – The Secret of Hanging Rock~
Lancia was in crisis. Their world champion driver, Alberto Ascari, had been tragically killed and now numerous creditors were clamouring for their money. Faced with ever mounting debt, there were difficult decisions to be made. Their car was capable of winning races and possibly even championships. The powers that be at Lancia were divided. While there were some who were desperate to keep competing, the majority thought that the publicity the company gained from participation in the top echelon of racing wasn’t worth the expenditure. There were debts to be paid. It was madness to continue to throw resources into the ever deepening pit that was Formula One racing – even in the 1950’s.
They had received offers for their Formula One cars – one even rumoured to be from Mercedes Benz. Concrete magnate Carlo Presenti was interested in acquiring Lancia, but not necessarily in funding a racing team. Fiat owner Giovanni Agnelli was interested in Jano’s cars and considered it crucial to national pride that Italy have a Formula One team that could compete with the might of the Germans.
Agnelli initially approached Maserati to race the D50 but they had little interest, confident that their 250F would be competitive. Enzo Ferrari was next on the list. He had not had a good year. His cars had been uncompetitive and cash was short on the ground. He was considering pulling out of racing altogether. Fiat offered him a compelling financial incentive to sweeten the deal – 50 million lira a year for 5 years. It was the deal of the century. There was no way Ferrari could lose. As well as being bankrolled by Fiat he also had a car that showed every evidence that it was capable of being competitive.
On July 26, 1955 the entire fittings of Scuderia Lancia were handed over to Scuderia Ferrari. Six Lancia D50 cars and 60 crates of spare parts were loaded onto transporters and taken from Turin to Maranello, along with their designer Vittorio Jano. Ferrari’s cause was further aided by Mercedes abandoning motor sport at the end of the year, unsure what the adverse publicity of spectator deaths at races would have on their road car sales. This left Juan Manuel Fangio without a drive and he was persuaded to sign with Ferrari. What would they be able to do with a fast, though unconventional, car and a triple world champion to pilot it?
The Lancia D50 becomes the Lancia-Ferrari D50
During 1956 the D50 underwent progressive alterations, though these did not always meet with the approval of its designer, Vittorio Jano. The car had been difficult to drive with a low centre of gravity and unusual weight distribution. It didn’t slide and was liable to spin with little warning. The fuel tanks were transferred back to the conventional position in the tail of the car, which resulted in increased weight over the rear wheels. The pannier tanks were merged with the body to improve aerodynamics and housed the exhaust pipes and,on occasions, the reserve fuel tanks. The suspension was modified to cope with the increased weight after the relocation of the fuel tanks.
The season started well for Ferrari when their “new” car dominated qualifying at the first race in Argentina, taking the top three places on the grid. Fangio was over 2 seconds faster than his teammate Eugenio Castellotti. When Fangio’s car broke a fuel pump on lap 22 he took over Luigi Musso’s car and went on to win the race by over 24 seconds, aided by Stirling Moss’s Maserati engine expiring in a ball of smoke on lap 66 whilst he was in the lead.
Monaco was the next race on the calendar and Fangio described this as his greatest race ever. He was again on pole but Moss trumped him going into the first corner, with Fangio then spinning his Ferrari while trying to catch him. Both Harry Schell (Vanwall) and Musso crashed as they took avoiding action.
Fangio proceeded to spend the whole race trying to close the gap to Moss. He swapped cars with Peter Collins on lap 54 and continued to slowly whittle down the margin, driving every lap close to the limit. Then on lap 86 Cesare Perdisa (Maserati) locked his failing brakes while being lapped by Moss, the two cars coming together. This resulted in damage to the front of Moss’s car, adversely affecting its handling.
For the last few laps Fangio was closing on Moss by two seconds a lap but Moss managed to hold on and win by six seconds. Fangio fought for the win until the very last lap, never settling for second place. He set the fastest lap on his final lap of the race with a time only four tenths slower than his pole position.
For the Belgium Grand Prix Fangio was once again on pole, this time almost five seconds ahead of Moss. The race was wet and Fangio had a poor start, ending up in sixth while Moss took the lead. However, by lap three Fangio was in second place, and by the lap five he was leading the race. Unfortunately Fangio lost his transmission on lap 24 and his teammate Peter Collins took over the lead and eventually his first ever win, also driving a Lancia-Ferrari D50.
The dominance of the D50 continued at the French GP, the Ferrari’s locking out the front of the grid and Peter Collins taking his second win (obviously the Daniel Ricciardo of 1956), with three D50’s finishing in the top four places.
At the British GP Moss would take pole position, almost a second faster than Fangio. However Fangio was racing against doctors orders, having been unwell for the 10 days prior to the race with high fevers. He was fortunate when Moss’s axle broke on lap 94 and he was able to take over the lead, winning over a lap ahead of the second Ferrari. It was Fangio’s first victory of the year driving his own car from start to finish. He said after the race, “In England the doctors did not want me to race, but the organizers insisted, so they gave me pills to dull the pain and to make the fever go down. I raced and was lucky to win, but after that I felt dead.”
In Germany Scuderia Ferrari once more headed the front of the grid with the top three qualifying positions, Fangio continuing his dominance. He led the race from start to finish, leading Moss by a gap of 46 seconds. Fangio also broke Herman Lang’s 17 year old lap record with a time of 9:41.600, ten seconds faster than his own Saturday pole time.
The concluding race was at Monza with Fangio securing his sixth pole position of the season. This time the lightening of the Ferrari had severe consequences. The holes drilled into the steering arm to reduce weight, combined with the heightened stress on the car from the banked areas of the track, combined to cause three of the five Ferraris to have mechanical failures.
Fangio’s steering arm broke on lap 46 while teammates Castellotti and Musso also crashed with steering arm failure suspected. Peter Collins voluntarily relinquished his car to Fangio when he stopped for a routine tyre change. Fangio took Collins car to second place, five seconds behind race winner Moss, and thus won his fourth World Championship title.
Ferrari had won five of the seven European races. Juan Manual Fangio had achieved three wins, five podiums, six pole positions, four fastest laps and his fourth World Championship. Over its career the Lancia-Ferrari D50 raced fourteen races and won five of them.
Ed McDonogh’s beautiful and evocative description of his drive in a rebuilt Lancia-Ferrari D50 really sums it all up. “Into Vernasca in second, the car having been flawless through the quick part, the tail waggled as I turned hard left and aimed it downhill, over the bridge at 140 mph and towards the hill, playing the gearbox like a violin, listening to V8 sonatas as the over-square Lancia engine did its business, pulling the iconic racer up the hill. Because it behaves so well, you can think about it, you can take in what you are driving, and you can enjoy it. Second to third to second to third—a rhythm begins to develop…the tail just begins to go, but is always caught with the throttle. The brakes are fine but not that necessary–this is totally a car and a throttle—it all emanates from the right foot.”