“Giancarlo Baghetti: The Grand Débutante”

This post was originally published on Too Much Racing in August of last year, as part of the VivaF1 blogger swap shop. The Grand Débutante reappears here today, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Giancarlo Baghetti’s great achievement.

Giancarlo Baghetti. © Copyright unknown.

In terms of startling Grand Prix débuts, few will ever rank as highly as Lewis Hamilton 3rd place finish at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, not far behind race winner Kimi Raikkonen and then team mate, Fernando Alonso.

However, while Hamilton’s initial steps in Formula 1 were indeed impressive, they will always fall short of the marker that one Giancarlo Baghetti set during 1961.

Discounting the first World Championship race and that year’s Indianapolis 500 (in the days when the marquee event was part of the World Championship), Baghetti is the only driver to win a Formula 1 race on his first outing.

Whereas Hamilton would eventually take the world crown nineteen months later at Interlagos, Baghetti’s career faded thereafter and the Italian would eventually fall into the depths of obscurity.

Born on Christmas Day 1934 into an affluent household in Milan, Baghetti was the son and grandson of wealthy industrialists. With money not being a problem in his family, the young Giancarlo would often borrow his father’s car with the intention of running it in the famous Italian road race, the Mille Miglia, something he would finally do in 1958.
Admittedly, by this stage the Mille Miglia had been downgraded to being a street-legal rally event following a number of fatalities in previous years, yet even the event’s diminished status the speed and the talent were still clear. Baghetti would split the running of the road rally with his brother and indeed finished 2nd in the GT1300 class (7th overall), but his real influence would come from Milanese tuner and engineer, Angelo Dagrada.

Baghetti continued to run touring cars through 1959; however Dragada would soon convince him to purchase a purpose built Formula Junior car to compete. It was Dragada that had actually designed the racing machine, based around a Lancia engine and with it Baghetti secured a podium at the Coupe du Salon de Paris. From the very beginning of the 60’s, the 25-year-old would start winning.
Baghetti’s improving form would eventually see him selected to be part of FISA (Federazione Italiana Scuderie Automobilistiche) – a scheme that gave young drivers an opportunity to take out a loan of a Ferrari and drive in competition. Given the time and the changes in car development during the late 50’s, Baghetti was lucky enough to be seated in a rear engined Ferrari Formula 2 car, while some of the Italian marquees primary machinery was still front engined. Baghetti faced opposition to get the seat, mainly from Albino Buttichi and Lucien de Sanctis; however the 25-year-old Milanese racer was not going to let this opportunity slip away.

For a great many years, it was not unusual for drivers to compete in many events outside of the World Championship for prize money; in fact some would even compete in multiple disciplines during any given year. It was something that would decline through the years, with 1983 being the final year non-Championship Grand Prix would run; however in 1961, non-Championship races were still in full swing with an amazing twenty-one Grand Prix taking place outside of the World Championship – seven of which ran in Britain alone.
A further four of those events would be run in Italy and FISA entered Giancarlo Baghetti into the first two – the Syracuse Grand Prix and the Naples Grand Prix. Come April, the youthful Italian would finally get the opportunity to race at the top level. First though, Baghetti ran a shared Ferrari at Sebring with Willy Mairesse – the duo picked up second in a sportscar event when their respective seats were later taken over by Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther.

Baghetti at the wheel of his Ferrari 156 in 1961. © Copyright unknown.

As part of the FISA deal, Baghetti was loaned a Ferrari 246P for the Syracuse event, but despite this being a non-Championship run, the Italian faced some very stiff competition in the form of Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, plus a whole host of other big motorsport names. Amazingly at his first attempt, Baghetti lined up 2nd on the grid, alongside Gurney and ahead of Surtees.
Once the starting flag dropped, the FISA supported man fell down seven places from the line, yet with the raw power of the Ferrari’s 1500cc Chiti engine, Baghetti took the lead ahead of Gurney of the sixth lap of 56 and stayed there, taking a popular victory ahead of the factory teams.
Baghetti’s Syracuse victory shocked many in the paddock, a feat that he repeated at Naples some weeks later; however with much of the grid competing at the Monaco Grand Prix – held on the same day, the depth of talent was somewhat lower, with only the names of Roy Salvadori and Lorenzo Bandini being somewhat recognisable.
Starting fourth, the Italian had another poor start, but pulled into the lead on lap 4 – Baghetti would go on to lap the entire field by the chequered flag, despite nearly spinning out of the race on the 53rd lap.

During the 1961 Formula season, Ferrari ran three ‘regular’ drivers (eventual Champion Phil Hill as well as Ginther and von Trips), however for the Belgian Grand Prix, the Italian squad ran a fourth car for Olivier Gendebien. However, after the race at Spa-Francorchamps, Gandebien suddenly left Ferrari, leaving the team with spare car for the upcoming French Grand Prix.
The departure of Gandebien and Baghetti’s incredible show of strength at Syracuse and Naples convinced FISA to enter him into the World Championship event. On June 18th 1961, Giancarlo Baghetti would contest the French Grand Prix at the famous Reims circuit in the powerful Ferrari 156, under the banner of the Scuderia Sant’Ambroeus.

Whereas, his first two victories were down to skill and power, Baghetti now found himself up against much tougher competition under Formula 1 rules, with Italian qualifying down in 12th while his team mates all lined up first, second and third on the grid. This would indeed be a Ferrari victory, but no one thought Baghetti would take the flag first.
As the race took place in the intense July heat, the excessive temperatures would take their tole on a number of engines as unit after unit blew itself to smithereens, including that of von Trips. Others would either stop or slow considerably as oil pressures reached tension point – something that Brabham and Ginther would fall foul of.
So hot was the summer pain, that even the tarmac began to tear up under the tortuous pressure of the Formula 1 machinery – so much so, that the third Ferrari of Hill would spin out under the breaking road, as did Surtees.

Leading Gurney and Bonnier at Reims 1961. © Copyright unknown

In a slipstreaming battle with the Porsche’s of Dan Gurney’s and Jo Bonnier, Baghetti would constantly exchange the lead with his foes lap after lap, at no point bowing to pressure from his more experienced competitor. On the 53rd lap, Bonnier – beginning to experience engine difficulties – drew back from the battle, leaving Baghetti and Gurney to have at it.
The leading pair continued to swap the lead on Reims’ long straights, yet as the exited the final turn on the way to the chequered flag, it was Gurney that had the lead, but it was still not over. With one desperate final lunge down the inside of Gurney from the final corner, Baghetti had just enough momentum to pip the Porsche to the flag by 0.1 of-a-second. It was a major upset, but the grand débutante had won!!

Following this success, things quickly went downhill for Baghetti. He next competed at the British Grand Prix a month later at the fast Aintree circuit and later the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, retiring from both events. The FISA driver would set the fastest lap in the Italian race, but this – and everything else about the race – was overshadowed when von Trips collided with Clark approaching the Parabolica sending his red Ferrari careering into a full viewing area.
Von Trips would die in the tragic incident, as would fourteen spectators – a crash that would gift fellow Ferrari driver, Phil Hill the 1961 title in the most horrible of circumstances.

Before the year was out, Baghetti would take one more minor victory in the Coppa Italia at the Vallelunga circuit just north of Rome, thereby claiming the Italian Drivers’ Championship. Lorenzo Bandini was Baghetti’s main rival; however with Bandini not in attendance, it was hardly a fair fight. Even Ferrari saw little point of supplying Baghetti with a car for such a minor event, leaving FISA to borrow a Porsche to enable the Italian an opportunity to take the title.
Baghetti was moved to the works Ferrari team for the 1962 season, but with new rules in place, the red cars were nowhere. With only a 4th and 5th place finish to his credit, Baghetti left Ferrari at the end of the season to move to the uncompetitive ATS squad alongside Phil Hill. In a disastrous 1963 season, Hill finished a highest 11th with Baghetti achieving 15th on one occasion, their year being peppered with unreliability and slow machinery.
The next year saw Baghetti with Scuderia Centro Sud team, but a highest finish of 7th at the Austrian Grand Prix meant that Baghetti once again scored no points, whereas team mate Tony Maggs secured four points with top finishes at the Nordschleife (Germany) and Zeltweg Airport (Austria).

That was Giancarlo Baghetti’s final full or mostly full season in Formula 1. Between 1965 and 1967, the Italian would routinely show up for his homeland’s race at Monza and a couple of non-Championship events at Syracuse and di Pergusa for the Mediterranean Grand Prix. Later, Baghetti would drive a number of touring car events for FIAT Abarth, Alfa Romeo and Porsche before disappearing completely from limelight.
His final race was the 1968 Formula 2 Lottery Grand Prix at Monza in a Ferrari Dino 166, but with a batch of new young stars coming through the ranks, Baghetti found himself comfortably outpaced and ended the event in the midst of a huge multi car accident while running in 6th spot. Baghetti chose then to retire from motorsports – alive – at the ripe old age of 33.

With his racing career now firmly behind him, Baghetti became a photographer for Playboy magazine, before starting a weekly magazine called Auto Oggi.
In 1995, just one month shy of his 61st birthday, Giancarlo Baghetti died from cancer.

3 thoughts on ““Giancarlo Baghetti: The Grand Débutante”

  1. “In terms of startling Grand Prix débuts, few will ever rank as highly as Lewis Hamilton 3rd place finish at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, ”
    But Jacques Villeneuve does… he finished second in his first GP after having been told to slow down to save his engine while leading…

    1. I agree in one sense with your comment on Villeneuve, but it was clear he had an oil leak problem. Had Villeneuve continued to push it, he may not have finished. However, Villeneuve was also a known and highly regarded quantity, following his CART title at a time when the series was arguably at its peak.

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