Caracas 1957 - Maseratis last race

The events leading up to the final round of the sports car championship of 1957 were the jagged combination of sweet victories and sour defeats that so often prefigure disaster.

At the vortex of the approaching storm was the capricious 4.5-liter Maserati, the most powerful sports car the world has ever known. . . and one of the most unfortunate. The last in an era of giants, the 4.5 won only two World Championship events before its life was cut short by the three liter limit imposed in 1958.

General Marcos Perez Jiminez, the dictator of oil rich Venezuela, brought big-time sports car racing to his country in 1955. Fangio won and the AC de Venezuela lost over $100,000 because no one could collect admission from the thousands who lined the 6.12-mile circuit, laid out through a park and along the autostrada leading to Caracas, the capital. The grandstands were empty but for friends of the government. Stirling Moss took home a solid gold cup for winning the next year and the Auto Club again lost a bundle. No more bread and circuses; the '57 race would count toward the Championship and pay its own way-or else. It was a last ditch effort for the Venezuelans.

The Gran Premio de Venezuelav-was also a last ditch effort for Maserati. If they could win at Caracas, they would take the championship crown away from Ferrari, who had worn it since its inception except for the brief Mercedes interlude in '55.

Ferrari had started the season with a win at Argentina, but lost the lead to Maserati at Sebring Ferrari regained it by taking the last MilJe Miglia. Aston began its three-in-a-row on the Nilrburgring and Jaguar saw its last victory at Le Mans. Maserati was fresh from their win in Sweden where Moss and Jean Behra had brought in their 4.5 ahead of the Phil Hill/Peter Collins 4.1 Ferrari.

Maserati trailed Ferrari by a mere three points (25 to 28). Never had victory seemed so close. It had been axiomatic that every time the 4.5 ran it either broke up or won. So, to virtually insure success, Maserati had entered no less than three of the V -8s (two works 4.5s, to be driven by Moss/Behra and Harry Schell/Tony Brooks), a private car belonging to Temple Buell (a brand-new 4.7 for Juan Fangio/Masten Gregory) and, as at Sebring, backed them up with the reliable 300-S (Jo Bonnier/Ludovico Scarfiotti). They were strong cars and strong drivers-things, indeed, never looked so good.

There was more at stake than just winning the championship; Maserati was already in the financial difficulties that would eventually force their retirement from racing. Much of that year's racing had been done on credit. About $155,000 was outstanding in tire bills alone and all the works cars had been sold before the race with delivery promised afterwards. True, money was owed Maserati for a whopping order of machine tools. But could they collect? The order had been placed by Argentinians during the Peron regime and Peron was now deposed, in exile right there in Venezuela.

Still, several of the creditors agreed that if Maserati could add the sports car title to the Formula One championship they would be willing to write off a consider able amount of the debt to advertising.

It was Peron, indirectly, who precipitated the first crisis. I was managing Buell's entry and the first thing Fangio's manager, Giambertone, told me as we boarded the Alitalia flight at Lisbon was, "We've got problems." It turned out to be the understatement of the year. The Venezuelan and post-Peronista regimes were having one hell of a row over What To Do With Peron and the upshot was that Fangio, an Argentine citizen, couldn't get permission to run at Caracas. '

Maserati had been very pleased that I had signed up Fangio and were anxious to provide us with a good car. I had spent some time at the factory making sure that our car received equal attention to the works cars and at Gregory's request had Fantuzzi, the bodybuilder, install a rollbar under the headrest. The first one bent like a pretzel at a strong pull. After the usual voice raising and arm-waving a much stronger bar was welded to the chassis frame. Very fortunately, as it turned out later.

Giambertone and I made the long haul from Lisbon via Trinidad to Caracas weeks early to get the cars out of customs at La Guaira, the seaport, and bring them to Caracas while Giambertone was to see about getting a "safe conduct" for Fangio. I would later be joined by Maserati's team manager, Nello Ugolini, who would run our pits as well as the factory's. We were still bleak about the prospects of finding a driver to handle the big Maserati in even a halfway-Fangio manner when we were met by a welcoming committee from the government and the Auto Club.

It was all very cheery until they brought up a matter of an entry tax of some 40 Bolivars apiece (about $20). Giambertone turned purple, blew up and it was hastily decided to stick the stamps in our passports, "Compliments of the government." When they got to ri{y passport, the official snappily palmed the 40 Bolivar stamp and substituted one of 4 Bolivars. Maybe civil servants don't get paid much in Venezuela. It certainly was a quick way of making 36 Bolivars.

We were told at the hotel where we had reservations, that they were full. "But I sent you a letter months ago," I protested The clerk, indicating our letter at the bottom of a tall pile, smiled helplessly: "I'm sorry, sir, but it's impossible." A government official came to our aid, leaping into the imbroglio with bad language and threatening gestures. The clerk put our letter on top of the pile.

Giambertone went off to seek an entry visa for Fangio while I set about renting a car. Impossible. Even if I could, I was told, minor traffic violations are cause to threaten a foreigner like myself with death. But a chauffeured car was available. How much? A bargain; only $1500 a month: I took it.

We drove the half-hour from sunny, cool Caracas to sticky, smelly La Guaira and. sought out the man recommended by our shipping agent in Modena as, "the greatest expert on customs clearance in Venezuela." His address was a dirty shack on a back street. Its only occupant had his feet up on the shabby desk, delicately picking his nose. Was he the man we sought?- No, the senor wasn't there. In fact, hadn't been there for more than a week. In fact, was hardly ever there Caracas was so much more pleasant, didn't we agree? No, he didn't know the exact whereabouts of the senor. In fact, had no address where we could reach him at all. But he shouldn't be hard to find-the senor is, after all, a very fine gentleman.

It took the whole of the next day and the help of several friends to track down the the senor. He was jubilant at having been found. "Welcome to Caracas," he boomed. "How nice it is to have all you important people here with all your exciting cars for the race." But, we explained, we didn't have the cars. . . yet. We tried to pin him down-he admitted he was our shipper's agent, but, no, he didn't have the papers for the cars. In fact, he wasn't really licensed to get cars out of customs. "Maybe," he suggested, "you should get a customs broker or something."

The next few hectic days we alternated between the freshness of Caracas and the squalor of La Guaira, finally busting the Maseratis loose from the customs minions. We didn't have a transporter; the cars would have to be driven to the circuit. We needed license plates. The ones we got weren't any good on the superhighway between La Guaira and Caracas. We couldn't see driving $45,000 worth of high-strung racing machinery over donkey trails. Someone obtained a set of the President's personal license plates. We were stopped - anyway.

With the race cars safely stashed in the Ford garage near the circuit we settled down for a large, quiet drink. Giambertone trudged in. "Fangio is definitely out-the Auto Club insisted I cable an invitation to Jimmy Bryan." "Jimmy Bryan?" interrupted Gregory, who didn't have much faith in the cigar-smoking, oval track driver as a potential Maserati driver: "Never!" "They were quite emphatic," protested Giambertone. The question became academic when Bryan cabled back he couldn't make it. We compromised with the Auto Club and had Dale Duncan, a relative of Masten's and a top-flight amateur, fly in from Kansas City to

In the midst of all this, Moss and Brooks announced their refusal to drive. Their passports had been lifted and they weren't going to budge until they got them back. Then Ugolini brought 'the news that the tires that had been shipped from America were being held up - some law that prohibits importing any tire of a size already being manufactured in Venezuela. Without the tires, we had less, than half the rubber we were going to need for six hundred miles at almost a hundred miles an hour . . . for four cars.

Col. Morro of the Auto Club recovered the passports and the Firestone agency in Caracas managed to sort out the tire problem, but as soon as, one solution was reached, a new impasse had formed elsewhere.

The troubles weren't all in our camp. A gaggle of Americans had been lured to Caracas with all-expenses-paid invitations and promises of a Gran Turismo division with lots of prize money. Fred Windridge and Jim.Jeffords brought Freddie's successful '57~ Corvette Diek Thompson, John Kilborn, Dick Doane and Tom Pistone were supplied with a brace of brand-new '58 Corvettes (the first' race appearance of the quad-headlight car); Denise McCluggage and Ruth Levy took Denise's Porsche RS; the Eds Crawford and Hugus "took another; and Art Bunker teamed up with a relative unknown, Carel de Beaufort, in a third Porsche.

They were greeted at the airport by machine guns nervously fingered by policemen; the cab drivers wanted $75 apiece for the 20-mile trip to our hotel, the Tamanaco, and when they finally arrived, the hotel was well and truly filled. Of course, they'd had reservations: and, of course, it was, in fact, impossible.

An Auto Club official took them in tow, off to the Humboldt, a posh, Berghof-style retreat usually reserved for high government officials and their "friends". In time of crisis, it was not unusual for the Humboldt to be deserted. This auberge was

7000 feet up in the blue with a fantastic view of Caracas below and the rooms went for $126 a day. A cable car, always jammed with natives, their animals and their children, was the only way of getting there and, with the American party of 15 aboard, it got stuck. Of course.

When they went to fetch their cars at La Guaira, the aluminum-bodied Porsches were mysteriously as wrinkled as a Sicilian hillside and the GT category for the Corvettes had been scratched, leaving them to compete with the sports/racing Maseratis and Ferraris for the prize money.

With everything thus tuned to a high state of disenchantment, practice commenced and we thought our luck had changed at last. Moss and Behra showed that the 4.5 was much faster than the 4.1 opposition, with Moss setting a lap record of 100.4 mph. Our Gregory/Duncan 4.7 would also be in contention, but just to play it safe, we planned to hold back in about fifth place until the half-distance, then put the pressure on.

The turns were rimmed with several layers of sandbags piled up on the curbing; Edgar Barth tripped the factory Porsche over the curb and wrecked it on the sandbags. Collins also ran afoul of the course abutments-knocking off several feet of exhaust plumbing had a salutary effect on the Ferrari; it suddenly could pull another 400 rpm on the straights. Phil Hill provided comic relief by missing the clover-leaf turnabout ("those surrealistic ramps," as he called them) at the far end of the course in the approaching dusk. He carried on at top speed, down theautostrada toward Caracas, until he spied a gasoline truck and rush-hour traffic bearing down on him.

Then came the worst blow of all Ugolini received a cable saying that his father was very ill and not expected to live. He immediately placed a call to Italy, but it was too late his father had already died. Ugolini went to pieces and we were torn by our sympathy for him and our need for him as team manager the next morning.

Race day dawned hot and heavy.

Just before we left for the track we
got the word from the factory that the cars were already sold and so please tell the drivers to take it easy with them. At the pits, hemmed in by guards toting burp guns, we were anxious to get the race over with and head home. Ugolini was still grief stricken, but insisted on taking over the pit organization. A host of small gentlemen in military uniforms festooned with bright garnish ("Generals,", somebody whispered), with peaked caps and high lift shoes, strutted around to inspect the cars and pose for photographs.
The drivers had lined up for the Le Mans-type start when Perez Jiminez materialized. He wanted to meet each of the drivers personally, so the race was delayed while the dictator strolled among 34 cars and their drivers who were waiting nervously under a broiling sun.
The flag finally fell and the drivers sprinted to their cars. Both of the works 4.5s stalled on the line, and Dick Thompson's Corvette was first into the race with the two 4.1 Ferraris in close formation behind.

Gregory got off to a good start and, on the long back straight, found it easy to bellow past the Ferraris and into the lead. Buell turned to me:
"I thought we were supposed to be playing a waiting game?" I shrugged.
Gregory braked down for a tricky, dangerously narrow turn over a bridge and, pleased with himself, couldn't resist throwing a look over his shoulder to see how far behind he'd left the Ferraris.

It was a near-fatal miscalculation. His car hit the curbing and overturned, trapping Gregory under neath. Fearing fire from a full (60 gallon) load of gas, he didn't wait for rescuers to reach the car. He kicked one of the thin doors off its hinges and crawled out, covered with blood from cuts on his face that were fortunately only superficial. One Maserati gone in the first lap.

Behra's was the first 4.5 to light and he moved into third place on the first lap, trailing Hawthorn and Collins. Moss rocketed through the field at an incredible pace, overtaking 22 cars on the first lap to come through in tenth place.

By the seventh lap, Hawthorn had fallen back and Behra had passed him. By the sixteenth lap, Moss had passed all of them, Behra was running second, and Bonnier's 300-S had moved into a position of close support. Hopes in our pit rose again despite the end of Buell's car.

By the 32nd lap, Moss had raised the course record to 101.5 mph and held a two-minute lead over Behra.Then, on the next lap, as Moss was howling along ,the back straight, his lights flashing a warning Hap Dressel, an American in an AC Bristol, pulled right into Moss braking line, hoping Moss would tuck in behind. Moss could not and, unavoidably, the cars collided. The Ac careened into a light pole and was cut in half, nearly costing Dressel his life. The front end of the Maserati was torn off and Moss got out badly shaken. Moss was checked over by the doctors and taken back to the pits, still not sure if Dressel were dead or alive. Two Maseratis gone-and two remaining. Four laps after the accident, Behra brought in the last-and leading-4.5 for re-fueling. Bertocchi, the chief mechanic, pulled the .pressure hose out of the gas tank and Ugolini yelled "GO" to Behra. As Behra hit the starter button there was a dull explosion and a belch of flame at the rear of the car-burning gas was spewing out of the pressure hose. Bertocchi tried to smother the flaming hose with his arms while Behi-a, his clothes afire, vaulted out of the car, falling heavily on the concretepit apron. People were running in all directions, but the fire squad had the fire out almost as suddenly as it had started.

Behra was badly bruised and Bertocchi painfully burned, but the car was all right so Ugolini motioned Moss to take over. Still dazed, Moss jumped into the smoking car and drove off, now three minutes behind the Ferraris. .A lap later he was back again-the seat was still smoldering and so was Stirling. The embers were doused and Schell, who had been waiting to relieve Bonnier, popped in to chase the long-gone leaders.

Schell was now our sole hope, as Bonnier's 3-liter, though well placed, wasn't strong enough to make - any impression on the Ferraris as far as the vital championship points were concerned. Harry put up a tremendous performance, pushing the 4.5 as fast as it would go and, ultimately, into the lead.

I was sitting along the back stretch as Bonnier negotiated the underpass and changed into top gear. Schell, lapping him, pulled out to pass the slower car, which chose that moment to have a blowout. Bonnier fought it, but the car slewed helplessly around into the path of the 4.5. With both cars out of control, Bonnier elected to bail out at about 80 mph when he realized his car was making for one of those light poles. The pole first cut halfway through the chassis near the driver's seat, then fell brokenly on top of the car Schell rode it out almost to the end; the car in flames he jumped out just before the 4.5 hit a high stone wall.

It was the end for Maserati. At a single stroke, our last two cars were out of the race, and with them went Maserati's hopes for the Championship like the burning 4.5 up in smoke.
Two weeks later Maserati announced that a controlled administration was taking over the management of the company and that the racing department was closed. Caracas was the end of the line.

Not for the four Ferraris. They sailed around at. a reduced rate, easily outdistancing the privately owned Marcotulij Chimeri 300-S that was to finish fifth, ironically earning two insignificant championship points for Maserati.

The Collins/Hill car won, completing 101 laps (1002.93 kms, or 621 mi) in 6:31:55.6, an average speed of 95.4 mph. Mike Hawthorn and Luigi Musso were second, Wolfgang von Trips and Wolfgang Seidel third, and Maurice Trintignant and Olivier Gendebien fourth. They drew four-abreast to cross the finish line; it was salt in our wounds. Barth and Huschk von Hanstein salvaged sixth overall and first in the under 2-liter class in a bored out Porsche RS. The only other displacement break was, oddly; at 1.5 liters; the Crawford/Hugus RS won that and seventh overall. Thompson and Doane brought their ailing Corvette home twelfth overall, just ahead of the McCluggage/Levy Porsche. When the authorities tried to confiscate the Corvettes after the race, asking $1000 ransom (they called it "storage"), Tom Pistone flew down and tricked them into loading the cars in to his plane before he had handed over the money. Then, in the best Hollywood tradition, he spirited his precious cargo into the sunset as officials howled.

It was the last Venezuelan GP, but nothing, of course, to compare with the fiasco that awaited Dick Nixon just a short while later.

Author: ArchitectPage

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Disaster at Caracas
3 - litre Maserati
4.5 - litre Maserati - Moss went well until hitting American
Harry Schell on the way back from

first aid

4.5 - litre Maserati of Schell
3 - litre Maserati