Considered the most revered test driver in the history of Alfa Romeo, he was an accomplished racing driver in both the F1 and the Mille Miglia.
Photos by Sanesi Family, Alfa Blue Team, Fabio Morlacchi Archives
On the banks of the Arno River in Arezzo, Tuscany’s easternmost province, rests the sleepy comune of Terranuova Bracciolini — 35 kilometers from Florence, population 12,000. A decent spot for a quiet, uneventful weekend getaway — quaint, beautiful in parts, unassuming. All things told, Terranuova Bracciolini isn’t the kind of place you’d think of when pondering the origin stories of a cult racing hero.
But it was here that on March 28th, 1911, Consalvo Sanesi was born.
He was raised on Via Concini, a narrow back street off the main road. A characterless, low-key part of town. But Terranuova Bracciolini, for all its understatedness, makes a pretty fitting birthplace for Sanesi. Though he remains the most revered test driver in the history of Casa del Portello (The first Alfa Romeo factory), as well as an accomplished racing driver in both the F1 and the Mille Miglia, Sanesi himself was unassuming and short on public words.
Thus, little is actually known about Sanesi the man and his life away from the track, despite his famous name.
During my research at the Alfa Romeo Documentation Center I found only a handful of dry documents bearing mention of him. But I’m lucky to be on speaking terms with his daughter Edda, who could provide a better insight into her father’s character. By her account, Consalvo was shy and reserved, deeply attached to Alfa Romeo and grateful for them having taken him in. It’s as though he felt he owed them more than they owed him, even for all his contributions to their greatness.
Directly across the Arno River from Terranuova Bracciolini is the town of Montevarchi. Just like it’s neighbour, Montevarchi is not the kind of town you’d associate with breakneck speed, but it too harbours a racing legacy that ties into the origin story of Consalvo Sanesi.
Count Gastrone Enrico Brilli Peri was born into a noble Florence family in1893. After serving as a motorcyclist during the Great War he brought his talents to the race track after. Six years later, Count Gastrone would be crowned the Italian Grand Prix champion while racing an Alfa Romeo P2. With his winnings, and no doubt a fair helping of the family fortune, he bought himself a country home in Montevarchi. Thus, the story of the Brili Peri family and Consalvo Sanesi intertwine.
No one knows how the young Sanesi came to find his way into the Brili Peri home garage.
But it’s safe to assume that the presence of a nobleman, his part-time home and his collection of race cars wouldn't stay secret for very long in these parts. Speculation aside, the teenage Sanesi gradually became an ever present in the corner of the car workshop, making himself useful where he could, watching, learning and letting his passion for roaring engines grow. The boy’s fervour wasn’t lost on Count Brilli Peri either, who would later help him find work in an auto-repair shop on the busy Via Porpora in Milan, just a click away from Central Station. That was in 1928. The following year Sanesi received word that Alfa Romeo was on the lookout for mechanics in their racing department, and once again using his connections to the Count, he secured an interview with Technical Director Vittorio Jano.
In a reluctant, sparsely-worded and unpublished 1960 memoir dictated to his secretary, Sanesi recounts this period of his life, “I joined the Alfa Romeo racing department as a mechanic, working on cars driven by the likes of Nuvolari, Campari, Varzi, Borzacchini and Zender (sic).”
But as Sanesi’s life in motor racing was beginning to gather steam, another was about to grind to a halt.
Count Gastone Brilli Peri lost control of his Talbot 1500 and flew off the road in Libya in 1930, during his test laps for the Tripoli Grand Prix. “He had already done seven or eight laps when the wind picked up and blew sand from the nearby dunes onto the track. Having felt the track out and not knowing what there was now to know, he arrived at the corner too fast and went off the track…” explained Sanesi simply in an interview. No fancy turns of phrase or rhetoric.
When asked to speak of others though, Sanesi seemed more willing to open up a little. On Giuseppe Campari, the first ALFA test driver and later Alfa Romeo race driver, Sanesi said, “ Campari… was a great materialone (an Italian term for someone simple, pragmatic but often heavy-handed or inelegant). As he was in person he was in the car - good but rudimentary. I’d go with him in the car often… he’d grind the gearbox unlike the more deft drivers. But he was a daredevil on the street and on the track, and we clocked up some great times.”
Sanesi would sit in the car with Campari as they tested its limits, tightening the steering wheel and making running adjustments as Campari indelicately stamped on the pedals and paid little heed to the needs of the engine.
Campari was a big and burly man, and Sanesi was often forced to wrap one arm around his shoulder and hold on to the car's outer bodywork with the other as he sat in the mechanic’s seat, set back slightly from the driver’s in the narrow cockpit. From here he’d cling on for dear life and keep half an eye on the revs, tapping Campari’s shoulder to alert him to regular over-revs. But if that was a chastening experience, sharing a car with Borzacchini was downright traumatic. So much so that the mechanic who had to go out on the track with him was jeered by his colleagues. “We considered Borzacchini an unsafe driver, even dangerous... He used to make great lurching movements with the steering when cornering, he “rowed” as we say... He also had a habit of screaming when he entered a curve, and this didn't give you an impression of security when you were sitting next to him…”
Sanesi worked in the racing department until 1933, when management passed to Scuderia Ferrari. Vittorio Jano, head of the project office, transferred Sanesi to the race car testing team, directly under the stewardship of Attilio Marinoni. But it didn’t last, as Marinoni and his operation were transferred to Modena. Jano wanted to keep Sanesi in Milan, so he gave him a new position testing series cars under the direction of Gianbattista Guidotti.
In 1938, racing management returned under the direct direction of Alfa, and Sanesi returned to dealing with racing cars.
The first tests of the new GP car, the 158 Alfetta, were carried out by Sanesi, with a view to him participating in the races with Enrico Nardi, who helped with the fine-tuning. The little single-seater was built to race in the small car category (up to 1500cc), and it vastly improved the fortunes of Alfa Romeo, whose reputation had been tarnished by poor performances in the wake of the fantastic Alfa P3.
Vittorio Jano was forced to leave Casa del Portello after years of designing production cars, Grand Prix cars, industrial vehicles and aviation engines. His replacement was the Spaniard Wifredo Ricart, who with the help of Jano’s old team including Sanesi and Gioachino Colombo, designed and developed the Alfa Romeo 158. The 158 proved a hit, with its 195hp engine capable of reaching 230 km/ h at 195 hp and 7,200 rpm. Its run lasted thirteen years, by which time its capabilities had been surpassed by engines that could reach 390 km/h at 9,300 rpm. Still, a great run while it lasted.
On its debut in 1938, at the Coppa Ciano in Livorno, Emilio Villoresi was chosen to drive the 158. His selection made a great narrative as his older brother Gigi was also racing that day (in a Maserati). Emilio overtook his brother who retired in lap 13, and roared home to victory on its first appearance — Just like its predecessors the P2 (1924) and the Tipo B P3 (1932).
Emilio Villoresi’s life came to an end in June of the following year though, in yet another stark reminder that, in those days especially, great speed came with even greater risk. Enzo Ferrari would claim that he’d taken ill while throttling the car too enthusiastically after a hearty lunch, but Consalvo Sanesi had another explanation.
When Sanesi met Gigi Villoresi later, he told him how his brother Emilio was really killed: “S'è rott el sterz (the steering broke)”.
I digress... back to Sanesi. He made his official race debut a few months prior to Villoresi’s death, in a sprint Tobruk-Tripoli as the second driver of one Ercole Boratto, the personal driver of Benito Mussolini. The pair took home gold in the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500SS "Thick Wing”, hurtling along Via Balbia, the scenic Libyan coastal road built by infamous transatlantic pilot and air marshal Italo Balbo, who’d been appointed Governor General of Libya in 1933.
In May 1940, Sanesi was second driver to Carlo Maria Pintacuda, in a 6C 2500 SS Spider Touring car in a rather odd edition of the Mille Miglia, which was to be completed over 9 laps of a 165km road circuit. The pair finished a modest 7th place, behind the likes of Bartolomeo “Meo” Costantini and Nello Ugolini.
And then came the war. June 10, 1940 was the day that Italy entered the fray.
Racing on hold, Alfa Romeo pivoted into aircraft engine development. They built in-line cylinder engines at their new plant in Pomigliano D'Arco, and radial engines at Casa del Portello. Thus continued Alfa Romeo’s race, now in the skies, powering the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force). The Macchi C.202, and the fearsome three-engine bomber Savoia Marchetti S.79 both came in part from Alfa Romeo.
Though testing continued for a little while on Richart’s new creation, the type 512 racing car, the plans were soon shelved as the country plunged further into the darkness of conflict.
So it was that aviation became a part of Consalvo Sanesi’s life.
In 1938 he’d married Vittoria Salandini, an employee at EIAR (Italian Radio Auditions Authority) and the widow of an aviator who’d disappeared in the skies of Cairo en route to Eritrean minister Luigi Razza. They two met when she was studying for her driving license (he was her instructor).
In return, she’d helped him study for a diploma to become a technical designer. In 1939, the aforementioned daughter Edda was born.
But it was after the end of World War II that Sanesi became, in a way, the essence of Casa del Portello. The company went from strength to strength, led by a team of fantastic test drivers, engineers and racing drivers. The Alfetta 158 of the late 30s was quickly surpassed by superior versions of cars such as the 1900, the Giulia, the Giulietta, the 2600, and various upgrades of the Alfetta.
Sanesi’s racing career would continue until 1964. He was 53 years of age when he entered what would be his final race. At the 12 hours of Sebring, his Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ crashed and burst into flames. Racing driver Jocko Maggiacomo was spectating nearby, and rushed to drag the imperiled Sanesi from the flames. Though his racing career ended that day, Sanesi’s life rolled on. Not the type to go out in a dramatic blaze of glory like some of his less fortunate, though more bombastic colleagues, Sanesi lived until the ripe old age of 87, passing away in July 1998—Never saying too much, never making too big a deal of things.
A very Sanesian way of doing things.
(To be continued...)