Life at the limit: review of Luca Del Monte’s Enzo Ferrari: The Definitive Biography of an Icon

The Enzo Ferrari who emerges from this biography is a complex man, a mix of the ingenuous and the ingenious

April 18, 2024 01:16 pm | Updated 01:16 pm IST

Enzo Ferrari at the Grand Prix of Italy, 1966.

Enzo Ferrari at the Grand Prix of Italy, 1966. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the mid-1990s, when I was reporting Formula One races in Europe, the most impressive sight in the sport was the one-lakh-plus Ferrari fans – called the tifosi – cheering at the San Marino Grand Prix. Everyone was in red. A non-Italian driver in a Ferrari was a bigger hero than an Italian driver in any other car – the team, not the individual, mattered.

The Ferrari is more than the sum of its race victories, just as its founder Enzo Ferrari was more than his sporting, entrepreneurial and managerial selves. The machine’s early association with death soon made way for its status as a symbol of everything stylish and sexy. As Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s president and CEO for 23 years said: “We don’t sell a car, we sell a dream.”

Enzo, who died at 90 (in 1988) wrote his autobiography, My Terrible Joys, in 1962. In recent years, biographies have appeared at a fair clip, including this comprehensive one by Luca Dal Monte, a one-time Ferrari employee. He told the New York Times, “In Italy, there was the Pope and then there was Enzo.”

The early years

Enzo lived through the amateur years of motorsports on miserable roads in the 1920s, through the inauguration of Formula One in 1950, the glamour of the 1960s and ’70s and the technological advancements of the 1990s.

Ferrari’s record in Formula One – 16 constructors’ titles and 15 drivers’ championships – is unmatched. Some of the greatest drivers won world championships in Ferraris: Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio. Lauda made the most profound statement about the sport when he said the aim was to win by going as slowly as possible.

It was not a philosophy easily digested. Between 1955 and 1971, eight drivers were killed driving Ferraris; Enzo was likened by a Vatican newspaper to Saturn who consumed his own sons.

In 1957, a Ferrari ploughed into the crowd at the road race in Mille Miglia, killing both drivers and nine spectators – a scene picturised with horror and fascination in the Netflix movie Ferrari, based on the 1991 biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine by Brock Yates.

That race is described thus: “The notion of fast cars racing on real roads, around twisting mountain hairpins and through narrow city streets, was the embodiment of every man’s fantasy to charge down an open road flat out, unencumbered by laws or moral and social impediments of any kind. For all its insanity, the Mille Miglia encompassed an entire lifetime condensed into a few hours. To have competed in it meant that a man had faced down the spectre of violent death for half a day…”

‘The assassin’

The wife of one of Ferrari’s drivers always referred to him as “the assassin” after the crash. Enzo was devastated, and wanted to quit motor racing; along with the organiser of the race he had become the most hated man in Italy. Ferrari’s first American driver, Phil Hill, said when he left the team, “I wasn’t his type, not gung-ho enough. I wasn’t willing to die for Enzo Ferrari.”

Yet, the successes and failures had begun innocuously enough. Dal Monte’s year-by-year narrative starts with the birth and ends with the death of his subject. At ten, Enzo decided that racing would be his calling after his father took him to see one. But even as he was winning races, his heart was in the manufacture of cars and in the making of a racing team. He succeeded spectacularly at both, with a mixture of skill, instinct and the ability to manipulate both people and events.

His love life flowered; he had a son who was seen as his successor but died at 24; he had another son by one of his lovers who did succeed him. Dal Monte quotes a newspaper which called Enzo “a practical value-increaser of his abilities.” It was apt.

Complex personality

The Enzo who emerges from the book is a complex man, a mix of the ingenuous and the ingenious. He read Stendhal and Leopardi and loved Kafka. He dealt with the fascist government in Italy for business reasons, as he dealt with the occupying forces. He saved lives, protecting them from the Nazis. He himself was on the hitlist for assisting the resistance.

Ferrari fans celebrate after Michael Schumacher of Germany and Ferrari won the San Marino Formula One Grand Prix on April 23, 2006

Ferrari fans celebrate after Michael Schumacher of Germany and Ferrari won the San Marino Formula One Grand Prix on April 23, 2006 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Dal Monte’s research is exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting. Enzo is much written about; besides, he also shaped the stories he would want future biographers to tell.

Dal Monte gives us the standard biography and adds enough new material to make it the definitive one. But such breadth and granularity comes with a challenge: keeping track of the names and occupations and car models is a bit like trying to remember everything in a Russian novel when you read one as a boy or girl. Still, worth it.

Enzo Ferrari: The Definitive Biography of an Icon
Luca Dal Monte
Hachette India

The reviewer’s latest book is Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?.

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