Obituary: Luigi Villoresi

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The Independent Online
Luigi Villoresi was one of the leading half-dozen racing drivers in the world during the decade following the Second World War and one of the last survivors who spanned the years between the racing of the 1930s and the modern World Championship era. Although never quite matching the brilliance of World Champions such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari, he was a safe and skilful competitor who could make the very finest drivers work hard for their successes.

"Gigi" Villoresi was born in Milan in 1909. He started motor racing in 1931, driving a touring Lancia Lambda in minor hill climbs. In 1933, he drove in his first major event, the Mille Miglia, the great Italian road race, sharing the wheel of a sports Fiat Balilla with his younger brother Emilio. Continuing his career with the Fiat, he won the Italian 1100cc sports car championship in 1935.

The following year, he bought a 1500cc Maserati and entered the tough and competitive world of voiturette racing, gaining his first major win at Brno in Czechslovakia in 1937. This was the turning-point in his career and the next year he became a Maserati "works" drivers, one of his greatest rivals being his brother Emilio who was now racing for Alfa Romeo.

Villaresi won three major voiturette races in 1938 and became the Italian 1500cc champion. The association with Maserati continued and he won three more important voiturette races in 1939, though the death of Emilio in June that year, while testing an Alfa Romeo, was a cruel blow. During an abbreviated season in 1940 before Italy entered the War, Villoresi repeated his 1939 victory in the Targa Florio and thus won the last motor race in Europe for five years.

When racing resumed in 1946, the voiturettes of pre-war racing had now been promoted to being full grand prix cars and Villoresi won the Marseille Grand Prix, the first event of the season, now driving for Scuderia Milan, a disguise for the Maserati "works" entries. The victories continued throughout the 1946 seasons and 1947 seasons and Villoresi now had a young protege, Alberto Ascari, whom he had introduced to the sport in 1940. Ascari was a good pupil and it was soon evident the pupil was becoming quicker than the master. Off the track, Villoresi and Ascari were business partners in Milan.

Life was getting hard for the Maserati drivers as the cars were not as fast, nor as reliable, as the great Alfa Romeo rivals which swept the board whenever they raced. Despite this, Villoresi remained with Maserati and became Italian champion for 1947 and 1948, mainly by picking up victories in those races where Alfa Romeo stayed away. In October 1948, Villoresi won the first British Grand Prix to be run at Silverstone where he beat Ascari into second place.

The emerging firm of Ferrari had made a tentative entry into Grand Prix racing in 1948, and for the 1949 season, Villoresi abandoned Maserati and with Ascari signed up with Ferrari, bringing his valuable experience to the new team. That year, Villoresi won the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort and had several places mostly behind Ascari. But 1950, when the World Championships began, was a thin year. Ferrari was developing new unsupercharged cars to combat Alfa Romeo so Villoresi and Ascari marked time. At Geneva, Villoresi had the only major accident of his career so he missed the latter half of the season while he recovered.

In addition to driving in grands prix for Ferrari, Villoresi was also contracted to race sports cars and in April 1951 he gained probably his greatest victory in winning the legendary Pulle Miglia in a 4.1 litre Ferrari. The 1951 Grand Prix season saw the new Ferraris topple the previously unbeatable Alfa Romeos and Villoresi picked up a number of places, now racing against a new generation of drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Froilan Gonzalez. At the end of the year, his tally of points placed him fifth in the World Championship.

Alfa Romeo stopped racing at the end of 1951, so in 1952, Ferrari was all-conquering in the new two-litre grand prix formula. Villoresi was now the third string in the team behind Ascari and the 1950 World Champion Giuseppe Farina, but he missed the first half of the season after being injured in a road accident though he had three wins in non- championship races. In 1953, the British driver Mike Hawthorn also joined the Ferrari team but Villoresi had a steady season with a number of places and again was fifth in the World Championship placings, two points behind Hawthorn.

He was still racing Ferrari sports cars and with a 4.1, won the 670-mile Giro di Sicilia and the Monza Grand Prix with a three-litre. At the end of 1953, Villoresi and Ascari left Ferrari to join Lancia which had decided to enter Grand Prix racing. It was a disastrous decision, the Lancias were not ready and virtually the whole 1954 season was wasted. To keep his hand in, Villoresi went back to Maserati for the latter half of the season.

When the Lancias appeared in 1955 they showed promise and Villoresi picked some places but in May, Ascari was killed testing a sports Ferrari at Monza and Lancia withdrew from racing, leaving a bereft Villoresi, as Ascari had very much taken the place of Emilio.

At the end of the 1955 season, he returned to his old love, Maserati, and had some drives with a 250F as a private entrant. Continuing with Maserati in 1956, he picked up a handful of championship points and drove his last race in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, fittingly once again in a "works" 250F. Villoresi was now 47, and knew it was time for him to retire.

For many years Luigi Villoresi attended Grand Prix races as an honoured spectator, but in old age he became frail and destitute, as unlike the modern drivers he had made little money from his racing.

He was unmarried and with no family, so Don Sergio Mantovani, a parish priest in Modena and the unofficial chaplain of Italian motor racing arranged for him to be cared for in a local monastery. In 1996, word reached England that Villoresi was short of funds for his maintenance. A quiet man with a courteous charm, he had always been held in special regard by British enthusiasts and there was an immediate and generous response to meet his needs.

Luigi "Gigi" Villoresi, racing driver: born Milan 16 May 1909; died Modena, Italy 24 August 1997.

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