A gentle breeze did little to reduce the almost tropical heat blazing down on the Principality of Monaco. It was 22 May 1955 and, as 37-year-old Maurice Trintignant took his place on the grid, he knew nobody gave him a hope in Hell of getting a decent result in the 13th Monaco GP, the 1955 Grand Prix of Europe, which was about to start.
Way up ahead at the front of the grid, reigning World Champion Fangio was on pole in a new short-wheelbase version of the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz W196, and in qualifying the Argentinian ace had scorched round the classic street circuit in a sensational 1min 41.1sec. Alongside him on the front row were Alberto Ascari in his works Lancia, and Fangio’s Mercedes team-mate, Stirling Moss.
Lined up behind on row two were Castellotti’s Lancia and Behra’s Maserati, both of them fast new cars. Further back on the third row were even more of the impressive new Italian Formula 1 works cars – the Maserati of Mieres, the Lancia of veteran Villoresi and the Maserati of Musso.
Before they’d even started, then, there was an awful lot of traffic on the road right in front of Trintignant. His task, on paper, was indeed hopeless and yet, of the four Ferrari drivers on that grid, Trintignant was the quickest qualifier by 1.7sec. There can’t have been much to console him there, as he sat in the baking heat and stared ahead at all that fast machinery in front of him. Ferrari was in the doldrums and ‘Trint’, as he liked to be known, was over three seconds off the pace despite his excellent qualifying performance.
Apart from the startlingly effective silver cars from Germany, it was obvious that Ferrari’s Italian rivals, Lancia and Maserati, had moved well ahead of the Prancing Horse in 1955. Trintignant did not think that way. He was a proper racing driver who never gave up. Over the next three hours the dapper little Frenchman, who came from a prominent wine-growing family, demonstrated precisely why he was never short of good drives all through his long career.
Although nobody has ever placed Trintignant in the same bracket as Fangio and Ascari, the French ace was a true artist behind the wheel. After one race, he was followed home at very high speed on a long journey through the heart of France. I can’t remember who was following him but one vital fact has stuck in my mind ever since I read it. As they were pulling into the drive at Trintignant’s home, the man behind was about to inform his host that his brake lights were not working. Trintignant then coasted into his garage, applied his brakes to stop, and the two red lights on the back of his car blinked for the first time.
The start at Monaco in 1955 was on the other side of the pits from the previous year, and indeed its position today. It was on the road closer to the harbour – facing west, towards what was then the Gasworks hairpin. As the flag fell, the Silver Arrows of Fangio and Moss streaked away, just ahead of Ascari and the muddled street-fight of all the rest. Trintignant was right in the thick of it, under pressure to avoid any damage in the controlled madness as they completed the first tortuous lap in a headlong rush. He must have kept his wits about him as he watched, just ahead, young Castellotti briefly snatching the lead at the end of that lap, by scrabbling past the German cars on the harbour front.
Ten laps in and the race had settled down, with Fangio and Moss well out in front, followed by Ascari, Castellotti, Behra, Mieres, Villoresi, Perdisa (Maserati) and then Trintignant in the first of the Ferraris, still lying in ninth place out of the 20 starters. There were 90 laps of this left to go, and he was already well down. At half-distance Fangio’s transmission suddenly failed at the Station hairpin, leaving Moss in the lead from Ascari. By then the dogged and mechanically sensitive Maurice Trintignant was lying a surprising third, some way back admittedly, but it was still third place in the Grand Prix. From then on he was under constant pressure to stay ahead of the rest of the pack. He was driving flat-out, unable to afford the tiniest error.
Thirty laps later, everything happened at once. Moss, way out in front, suddenly found himself leading a dense trail of smoke. He dashed into the pits but his race was over. At that moment Ascari, knowing nothing of Moss’s troubles, emerged from the tunnel and something went wrong for him at the chicane. This was the legendary occasion on which his Lancia darted sideways and shot through the air to fall into the harbour in a cloud of steam. Ascari’s blue helmet was clearly visible as he swam vigorously towards the shore before being hauled into a rescue boat.
Trintignant, now leading all the survivors, stroked it home for the last 20 laps to win by 20 seconds. In a masterly show of control through those closing stages, he had remained unmoved by the intense pressure from the quick but erratic Castellotti in his fast Lancia. It was the Ferrari team’s one and only World Championship race victory in the entire 1955 season. Farina’s similar works Ferrari finished third, a lap down.
We know now that the car seen here is the very same Ferrari that Trintignant drove in that race. Later in 1955, after four seasons with the works team, Ferrari fitted it with a 3.0-litre 119S (750 Monza type) engine, for Peter Whitehead, an English privateer rated by Enzo himself. He campaigned a series of ex-works Ferrari GP cars around that time, and notched up several major victories in the Southern Hemisphere in early 1956 with this one before returning it to the factory. Froilan Gonzales acquired it late in 1956 for South American races, scoring a string of victories over the next four seasons.
Still in South America, it was then raced occasionally by others in 1961 and 1962, and Roberto Mieres took it to its last recorded victory as a current car in the Parque Sarmiento, Cordoba, Argentina, on 16 April 1961. By then it had been heavily modified, with a Chevrolet engine and a totally different back axle arrangement.
Of its 63 recorded races up to that date it won 27, but such a glorious past mattered less in the 1960s than it does today. As a worn-out old racing car, dismantled and with little value, it remained in South America for some years. Thanks to American enthusiast Bob Sutherland and Englishman Peter Shaw, the remains were restored during the 1970s, in time to reappear at the Watkins Glen vintage race meeting in 1980. During that restoration, to reduce US tax charges, a brand new copy of the car was built and given to the Harrah Museum in the USA.
Times had changed and the original car had been rescued. When, in 1999, word went around that a Grand Prix Ferrari had emerged from a private collection in Florida, it attracted the attention of English collector Alexander Boswell, who immediately jumped on a plane. The car he inspected was described as ‘chassis 3/0482, the Peter Whitehead car’ but by then it barely ran, it bore little resemblance to Whitehead’s mount, and it had been given a compromised restoration. That night was spent in telephone conversations with Ferrari enthusiasts around the world, and the car’s undisputed provenance was confirmed. Boswell brought it back to the UK.
Although it was obviously a genuine Ferrari Grand Prix car, it was by no means certain who had driven it in which races before Ferrari sold it to Peter Whitehead. Boswell's detective work established its precise history as a works racer. Over the years, at least two similar Ferraris had been described as the 1955 Monaco GP winner but the question has been settled for all time now.
Once he’d got the car home, Boswell started to research its history in depth. He was determined to get the car absolutely right in every detail but establishing all those details was no easy task. A problem was that Ferrari had more than one chassis numbering system. There was one series for the customer cars and an entirely different scheme for the works racing cars. A complication was that these numbers were sometimes changed by the factory: back in the 1950s, Ferrari was not attempting to build a sacred cathedral for posterity. He was trying to win races and run a business. Far from being fixed for eternity, the number on a car’s chassis was merely a practical means of identifying it at any given time.
When it was sold to Peter Whitehead, it was given the chassis number of his previous Ferrari, 0482, in line with the customer car numbering system. During Boswell’s research, renowned Ferrari expert Pierre Abeillon said to him, ‘One day, you’ll tell me that this is definitively the Monaco car.’ It had not occurred to Boswell that it might be Trintignant’s 1955 winner, so he asked Abeillon what made him say that. Remarkably, Abeillon had tracked the precise history of the car from period photographic records, crosschecking the exact position and number of small screws and rivets all over it. In that respect, GP Ferraris of the 1950s varied like fingerprints. Abeillon was satisfied beyond doubt, but it surprised Boswell – and there remained the matter of proving it.
A minute examination of the car was begun, prior to complete restoration. As expected, the completely stripped chassis carried the number 0482, on a small plate welded to it. This was carefully lifted, revealing another plate underneath it bearing the number 2. That number was not expected. The car had always been regarded as works chassis number 3, but nobody had ever noticed that there were two plates underneath ‘0482’. It was only when all three plates were revealed that the car’s original number, 3, was seen.
That was the detective work, telling the full story: the chassis had been number 3 during the two-litre period of 1952-53, but changed to number 2 when it was converted to its 1954-55 2.5-litre F1 specification. The late Denis Jenkinson, that scrupulous doyen of motoring journalists, had been in the Monaco paddock and recorded in his notebook that Trintignant’s car was number 2. Reference to Jenks’s actual notebook confirmed Abeillon’s startling revelation: it was indeed the 1955 Monaco winner.
A tricky puzzle remained: to what specification should Ferrari No 3/2/0482 be restored anyway? It had seen so many configurations during and after being a works GP car. A book could be written on that alone, and it would not be a short work, but this is the essence of the story. Trintignant’s Ferrari at Monaco was not a bad car. It was simply out of date, in its fourth season as a works GP car and it had been greatly altered along the way. It had originally been built for the 1952 season as Ferrari’s Formula 2 factory team car number 3, and Alberto Ascari won the first three GP races in which it was entered that year – the non-World Championship events at Syracuse, Pau and Marseilles. At that stage, Ferrari was dominant in top class single-seater racing. In Formula 1, Maranello had already risen to the top and, once Alfa Romeo pulled out, the stage was Ferrari’s to command because there was, quite simply, no effective opposition whatsoever.
Consequently, back in January of 1952, the FIA had suddenly announced that the World Championship would be run to Formula 2 regulations instead of Formula 1 that year. This news was reported in the British motor racing press as a ‘Bombshell from Paris’. No doubt it came as a shattering blow to the managements at BRM and Talbot, but the FIA really had no alternative. Alfa Romeo had gone, the BRMs had proved chronically unreliable, and the unsupercharged big Talbots were never going to be anything other than slow. With not enough F1 cars in existence to form a grid, let alone run a championship, the only realistic option was to run the 1952 World Championship with F2 cars.
Ferrari alone was prepared for anything, be it F1 or F2. With small-capacity V12 engines, Ferrari had totally dominated F2 racing for a couple of years and now this even faster new car was unveiled for 1952. Designed by Aurelio Lampredi, it was described as the new 500 ‘Four’ because it was a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder replacement for the very successful V12. The engine was claimed to develop 180bhp at 7000rpm. British enthusiasts always say that Ferrari had noted the superior punch out of slow corners of the competition from underfinanced British four-cylinder HWM-Altas and French Simcas. American enthusiasts tend to say that Ferrari had taken note of the Offenhauser Indy four-cylinder engine and there’s no doubt that its performance also impressed him, if somewhat later on.
Lampredi’s obsession with low weight and simple construction even led him to experiment with a two-cylinder engine for the Ferrari works cars to use at Monaco. By comparison, his 500 might seem conventional to us today but it was arguably the most successful Ferrari racing car of all time. The first World Championship GP of 1952 was the Swiss event at Bremgarten on 18 May, when Piero Taruffi drove this very same car: he won and set the fastest lap.
Driving similar Ferrari team cars, Ascari won every round in the World Championship apart from the oddball Indy 500, which was included in those days even though it ran to totally different regulations. Ferrari drivers took the first four places in the 1952 World Championship and the result was much the same in 1953: using the same cars, Ferrari won seven of the nine rounds and Ascari was World Champion again.
It’s said that Ferrari became so used to winning that the team became complacent. Perhaps so but it’s not entirely fair because a new Formula 1 car, the 553 ‘Squalo’, was running in late 1953 in anticipation of the 1954 World Championship. The problem was that when the World Championship went back to Formula 1 in 1954, with a new set of rules specifying unsupercharged engines of up to 2.5 litres, the new Squalo did not prove a success. In was good in theory, particularly in terms of weight distribution and an all-new four-cylinder engine, but its lap times brought no progress whatsoever. Lampredi was an engineer of enormous talent but he must have been stretched beyond endurance by his massive responsibilities. Any engineer in F1 today would be astonished by the burden that rested on his shoulders alone and it just was not possible for one man to get everything right first time.
Meanwhile, the old 500 cars were updated to meet the new rules and Number 3 was included in that. A prototype with its four-cylinder engine enlarged to 2.5 litres had been run at Bari back in 1951, and the ‘500’ team cars were accordingly upgraded to become Ferrari 625s, with 250bhp at 7500rpm claimed. This one was given works chassis number 2 for the 1954 season.
As the ‘Squalo’ and the later ‘Super Squalo’ (555) still failed to threaten the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Lancia and Maserati, more radical changes were also made to the 625s for the start of 1955, creating the 625A, the ‘A’ denoting the location of its first race, Argentina. Most obviously, there was a more aerodynamically slippery body, with a lower nose and a wrap-around Perspex screen. Coil springs were fitted at the front because, surprisingly, the 625s had used transverse leaf springs all round. For 1955, the de Dion arrangement was retained at the rear but the leaf spring was moved above the final drive.
Other changes were made to this car at some point prior to the 1955 Monaco GP, including an extension of the wheelbase from 7ft 2.5in to 7ft 4.2in. The chassis was cut and lengthened towards the front of the cockpit. Quite why this was done – especially for the twisty Monaco circuit – is not known but Trintignant’s massive advantage over his team-mates suggests the handling was improved. As often occurred in 1955, Trint’s 625A was reportedly also fitted with a 270bhp ‘Super Squalo’ (555) engine and a five-speed gearbox for that race.
Both the 625A and the Super Squalo, in all their forms, failed to match the opposition in their day and, with the conspicuous exception of Trintignant’s surprising Monaco win, the 1955 F1 season was a disastrous humiliation for Ferrari. If the Mercedes-Benz W196s failed to walk any of the races during that year, the Maserati 250Fs and the Lancia D50s were still there to leave the Ferrari team trailing way behind.
The fact that the French, German, Swiss and Spanish GPs were all cancelled in 1955, following the Le Mans tragedy, simply saved the Ferraris from having their noses rubbed in the dirt even more. Late in the season, when Lancia ran out of money, that team’s infinitely superior F1 cars were gifted to Ferrari. Aurelio Lampredi had been working on two new Ferrari F1 cars, a six-cylinder for the faster circuits and his two-cylinder for tighter circuits such as Monaco. That work was immediately abandoned and Lampredi left to join the mainstream motor industry within Fiat.
Boswell’s part in the thorough research behind his car’s restoration demands respect. Wisely, he settled on the specification as supplied to Peter Whitehead, in other words how the car was when it left the factory after the end of the 1955 season. The restoration took nearly two years, much of it at RS Panels in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, where the body and chassis were returned to the correct shape with absolute precision.
His first race was at Misano circuit in Italy, back in October 2002, and as I was there to drive in another race I was lucky enough to witness it. The 625A had never been seen in action in historic racing before but Boswell emerged the impressive winner in a very exciting race. He told me that the car had incredible torque from low revs as well as plenty of top-end power. He also mentioned the excellent handling balance, the incredibly light but positive steering feel and, most of all, he commented on the great brakes that gave him the confidence to outbrake his rivals.
Alexander was kind enough to allow me to drive the car on the new Silverstone GP circuit recently, during a very well organised Ferrari Owners’ Club day. The driver sits quite high up, even by 1955 standards, but the cockpit is well laid out and extremely comfortable. Hampered by a silencer, to help meet the noise regulations that day, the engine refused to perform properly at first. The car was still pretty quick and I was able to confirm everything I’d been told about the handling balance, the light steering that feels so alive and needs very little input and, of course, the confidence-inspiring brakes. They are quite amazingly good for an ancient drum-brake set-up, pulling the car up without the slightest twitch.
Then, after one last pit-stop for a new set of plugs, I experienced the full engine performance. The 625A positively howled along the Hangar Straight, probably surprising the owners of several modern Ferraris as it shot past them. I got a lap and a half like that before the plugs started to miss again, and I won’t forget it.
By 1955, the 625A may not have been a match for the relatively modern German Silver Arrows and the latest wizardry from Lancia and Maserati but, as a pure driving experience, this Ferrari is a fabulous machine. Maurice Trintignant must have been smiling to himself all the way home after that 1955 Monaco GP.
Ferrari 625A (to 1955 specification)
Engine: 2996cc four-cylinder, DOHC, two twin-choke Weber 58DCOA3 carburettors
Power: 240bhp @ 6000rpm torque Not known Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering: Worm and wheel
Suspension: Front: double wishbones, coil springs, Houdaille dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: de Dion axle, transverse leaf spring, twin parallel radius arms, Houdaille dampers
Brakes: Light alloy drums front and rear
Performance: Information not released