There’s one man who is responsible for nearly all of Ferrari’s greatest racing cars throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, it’s fair to say that without him, the legend that Ferrari is today would probably have never existed.
That man is designer Mauro Forghieri: the unsung hero of Ferrari’s Formula 1 success. He always kept away from the limelight, preferring the books and pens of his design studio in Maranello. But he was normally at races too, watching his creations in action and figuring out ways to improve them. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet him. And the first surprising thing I discovered was that he never meant to be a car designer. He only ended up working at Ferrari because his dad knew Enzo Ferrari, as they both came from the same part of Italy.
“I had no intention of going to work at Ferrari after I graduated, even though I loved cars,” said Forghieri, now aged 85. “My first proper job was as a teacher at a technical school near Bologna. The story with Ferrari started when Enzo said to my father ‘tell that mad son of yours to come and work here instead of wasting his time teaching…that way he might actually learn something’. And he was right: I stayed for 28 years and learned a lot.”
Ferrari at the time – and to some extent, still now – was a political hornet’s nest, with various people coming and going following disagreements with the management. And that frantic merry go round led to a meteoric career rise for the loyal Forghieri, as he remembered vividly:
“One day, Enzo Ferrari called me and said: ‘Mauro, you’re in charge of the race team now.’ It was 1963 and I was 26 years old. I said to him: ‘With the greatest respect, are you mad?’ He said he was serious though, and that’s how it happened. I was effectively called upon to be sporting director as well and that’s the only aspect I didn’t like: I’m an engineer and purely an engineer; I never enjoyed the politics.”
Aged not even 30, Forghieri had a terrifying responsibility on his shoulders. But he knew that Ferrari trusted him.
“It wasn’t quite friendship; it was more a reciprocal respect,” said Forghieri. “Ferrari was something that you gave yourself to with body and soul. My colleagues were the same: they had married Ferrari so there was a real feeling of mutual respect and the absolute certainty that you could rely on everyone. It wasn’t a normal relationship between employers and employees.”
That unique dynamic was personified by Enzo Ferrari himself. “Enzo was a force of nature,” is how Forghieri described him. “He ‘felt’ things while I calculated them. Sometimes we saw him decide on something with a ‘yes’ when all the information and advice we had on the table should have led to a ‘no’. I often said to him: ‘but why have you said yes to this?’ And he used to tell me ‘because I feel it and you don’t.’ About seven times out of 10 he was right: it was remarkable.”
What’s most striking about Forghieri, despite all his achievements and decorations from the Italian government, is his overwhelming modesty.
“Most of my ideas aren’t mine,” he pointed out openly. “I’ve just had the good fortune to read some excellent books and meet some remarkable people.
One of those people, for example, was Robert Eberan von Eberhorst, who designed the Auto Union. He was the first person to introduce modern aerodynamic thinking and road holding into racing cars. I also used to go to a wind tunnel at the University of Stuttgart that was run by an engineer called Potov. He was an incredible person: I think he was Czech but he never told me. He designed a unique wind tunnel where the car was raised up in the air, which enabled him to better correlate the results seen on the road with results in the laboratory.
We introduced the rear wing in Formula 1 after some of my work with Potov, but also following a few chats I had with Michael May: a brilliant Swiss aerodynamicist. Things were so different back then: you were exchanging ideas with other people all the time and going for dinner together even if they were from other organisations. There was a cross-flow of information that just doesn’t exist now.”
Eberan von Eberhorst’s book (Das Organische Automobil) is perhaps the most consulted in Forghieri’s library. Look carefully and you can see traces of those 1930s Auto Unions in the 1974 Ferrari 312B – in the way that the bodywork wraps around the car’s contours – while the basic design of rear wing that appeared on the 1968 F1 Ferrari was first seen on a pre-war land speed record car. Forghieri’s mind is an encyclopaedia of painstakingly cultivated information.
“My favourite design was probably the Ferrari ‘T’: the car with transverse gearbox,” he said. “It had a big influence on the packaging of the whole car and the handling – and it was the first Formula 1 car that had proper bodywork. There was some pressure to bring it in as soon as possible but I didn’t want to introduce the T in 1974, as it needed more work and development. So we had it for the 1975 season, which is when we were unbeatable. That car generated downforce that not even the English teams could understand – and that’s the highest compliment I can pay because I have a huge respect for the English teams.
I also liked the 275GTB road car: it wasn’t actually a car I designed, but one that I worked on a lot and one of the prettiest cars Ferrari ever made.”
Forghieri also didn't take long to identify his favourite driver. “Niki Lauda. I knew that if we gave Niki a competitive car, he would win if there were a chance. Unfortunately, after his accident in 1976, he tried to come back too soon. Not physically but psychologically: if Lauda had come back as the driver he was, he certainly wouldn’t have stopped at the last race in Japan and lost the championship.
He came into the pits and told me: ‘Mauro, I don’t want to carry on.’ I said to him ‘OK, let’s say we had some problems’ – and it was true because we did have problems with the electrics in the rain. But Niki wouldn’t have it. He said: ‘No it’s my decision. You have to say this.’ And so we did.”
But the sign of a truly great designer is when they can turn their minds to something that’s completely outside of their area. And what most people don’t know is that Forghieri is the man who basically invented the F1 motorhome: those shiny hospitality palaces that now litter every Formula 1 paddock.
“In the 1960s, Formula 1 was a tough life because there were no proper pit garages or motorhomes,” Forghieri recalled. “At one British Grand Prix, our mechanics had to get by during the day with sandwiches and pies, then in the evenings we were out until late looking for restaurants. Afterwards we could be working on the cars until 4am. I said to myself one day: ‘to save time, why don’t we prepare some food ourselves?’ So we sent one of the mechanics to buy a big aluminium pan and made a cooker out of a welding torch. And we boiled some water and made spaghetti. The Lotus mechanics next door seemed pretty interested in what we were doing, so we fed them too.
When we got home, Enzo Ferrari, who used to sign off all the expenses personally, said to me ‘you’ve spent less this time – how come?’ So I told him that we’d cooked at the circuit rather than eating out at a restaurant. And he was angry: ‘That’s shameful!’ he said. ‘Did people see you do it?’ I replied that they certainly did – and they wanted some too… So, I suggested that if next year he allowed us to take a caravan to races, we could cook and eat in it – not to save money, but to save time.
Ferrari saw the sense in that and the caravan was purchased. So while we invented many things to do with the cars during my time at Ferrari – I must have done 24 or 25 cars – we also invented on-track catering and maybe something approaching the first motorhome!”
Forghieri finally left Ferrari in the late 1980s, joining Lamborghini and finally becoming technical director of Bugatti, before winding down to happily concentrate on a series of freelance projects in semi-retirement. But he’ll always be known for his incredible legacy at Ferrari.