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Consalvo Sanesi (Part 2): “The Man of the Future”

Our story of the life and heroics of Consalvo Sanesi continues with the breath-taking account of the Milan Grand Prix in 1946. A race that definitively confirmed him as an official driver of the Alfa Romeo Racing Team.

Photos by Sanesi Family, Alfa Blue Team, Fabio Morlacchi Archives

Consalvo Sanesi in the Alfa Romeo 158 on the Monza straight during a test run in early 1948. You can see the informal (and heavy) sweater worn by the driver to protect him from the cold. For the same reason, the radiator is partially covered by an elegantly-shaped steel sheet, painted yellow.

At last, the war is over in Northern Italy, freed from the ex-German allies on April 25th, 1945. The Alfa Romeo factory in Portello, Milan, was partially destroyed, particularly following the Allied bombings of October 20th, 1944, when the US B.24 Liberators dropped 65 tonnes of bombs on the industrial area to the north of Milan: around 29% of the bombs hit Alfa Romeo. The result? The end of the production of airplane engines, along with the servicing activities, reduced to around 30%. The design and engineering department had been transferred some time before to the banks of Lake Orta to the north of Milan, in the Upper Novara area. The materials for the 158 and 512 racing cars, along with many spare parts, were taken to non-strategic factories in Melzo, a town to the east of Milan, to Abbiategrasso, a small town to the south-west of the Lombardy capital and to warehouses near Lake Orta. The aeronautic factory in San Martino, Pomigliano D'Arco, was also destroyed. After the war, the production resumed slowly only in Milan, with the sophisticated military-version of the 430 truck and a simplified, updated range of 6C 2500 cars.

Following the national referendum on June 2nd and 3rd, 1946, Italy became a Republic. On September 1st, the first post-war race was held in Italy. This was the Turin G.P., held at the city race circuit in the Valentino Park.

Alfa Romeo raced with the Alfetta 158, still in its pre-war version.

The drivers were Nino Farina, Carlo Felice Trossi, Achille Varzi, Jean-Pierre Wimille, plus one new driver: Consalvo Sanesi. Varzi won the race, while Sanesi finished six laps behind. One interesting fact: on the same day, the Coppa Brezzi, a collateral race for Sport cars, marked the début of the Cisitalia D46, the small single-seater designed by Dante Giacosa. Nuvolari, the driver for the brand founded by Pietro Dusio, ended the race a legend, having thrown the steering wheel out of the car during the race and using the lever that fixed it to the steering column.

Poster of the 3rd Milan G.P. (September 29th, 1946) produced by Alfa Romeo: the brand also bears the Savoy knots, even though Italy had – albeit only just – been declared a Republic. So used to seeing them, perhaps nobody noticed...

September 27th, 1946, Milan. Over a million flyers printed, hundreds of cubic metres of timber, two thousand bales of straw, hundreds of reams of paper for press releases, a whole army of workers mobilised in the area near Castello Sforzesco, in the city’s central Parco Sempione. In 1910, one of the symbols of the newly-founded ALFA brand – later to become Alfa Romeo – was in fact taken from a decoration on the tower above the main entrance to the castle, the House of Visconti “Biscione” snake.

The Alfa factory in Portello, then on the outskirts of Milan, was around 3 kilometres away as the crow flies, to the north-west along the axis that passes from the Arch of Peace along Corso Sempione, the straight, wide city avenue created by Napoleon Bonaparte to link Milan to Paris.

It was the first day of the official practice sessions on the III Automobile Circuit in Milan, after the pre-war editions in 1936 and 1937, both won by Nuvolari in the Alfa Romeo in the top “over 1500 cc” category. With the war just over, the Monza Circuit was occupied by remnants of war put up for sale by the State. The choice of track was therefore quite limited.

Even though he was the official driver, Sanesi helps to unload Trossi’s 158 from the truck that had just arrived from Portello. In the background, Palazzo dell'Arte Bernocchi, better known as the Palazzo della Triennale in Milan, built between 1931 and 1933 based on the design of architect Giovanni Muzio, located half way along Viale Alemagna.

Due to the track being slow and short, the race was held in two 56 km-heats, 20 laps with 11 drivers each, the first 5 of which went on to the 84 km, 30-lap final. Around 80,000 spectators lined up along the tree-lined avenues in the park, most of them arriving by tram or, as they used to say, “on Shank’s pony”, on foot.

The tickets for the small grandstands along the route were exorbitant, from 1,100 to 1,500 lire.

At 2.15 pm, Prince Caracciolo, President of the Automobile Club d'Italia, lowered the chequered flag. The race set off with a fierce duel between Trossi and Varzi, in Alfetta 158s, Nuvolari and Villoresi in 16-valve Maserati 4CLs. Varzi won the heat, followed by Trossi, Nuvolari and Villoresi.

At 3.20 pm the Minister of Foreign Trade, Pietro Campilli, lowered the chequered flag for the 2nd heat, but Farina had a false start, and was followed by all the other drivers. The angry race director, Renzo Castagneto, one of the minds behind the Mille Miglia, stood in the middle of the track waving the red flag.

Sanesi started in the second row, and perhaps knocked by another driver, spun the car round and off the track, causing some minor damage to the rear of his 158.

He jumped out of his Alfetta, number 32, trying to set it back on the track. He was helped, and this would have been cause for disqualification if the race hadn't been stopped.

After Farina’s false start in the 2nd heat: Sanesi spins off the track, damaging the tail of his 158. Getting out of the car, he tried to get the engine running again and turn the car round to get back on the track. He was helped by the race officials, but wasn’t disqualified as the race had been suspended.

Starting the race again, Farina was once again quick on the trigger and set off slightly ahead of the others. But this time, the race continued. Farina headed full-throttle into the tortuous track, followed by Sanesi, and Sommer and Cortese in their Maseratis. Sanesi and Sommer battled head-to-head, overtaking each other several times, while Cortese was forced to withdraw from the race with mechanical troubles. Crossing the finishing line were Farina, Sanesi, Sommer. But Farina was given a minute's penalty, and was pushed back into third place. Sanesi couldn’t believe it when he came first in the second heat.

At 6.00 pm, Sanesi was in the first row, between Trossi and Varzi.

Nuvolari was behind them. Friends and drivers saw Tazio in a pitiful state, coughing and covering his mouth with a handkerchief with traces of blood.

The Alfa mechanics arrived. They placed the electric starter shaft into the hole at the base of the grille. The mechanic signalled to Sanesi to set the contact with the magnet. Consalvo turned the switch on the dashboard. After a few revs, the Alfetta engine fired up into life, a cloud of pale blue smoke coming from the exhaust. And a smell of castor oil. In fact, the oil was Ricinavio, also used in aircraft engines.

Another view of the 3rd Milan G.P., the starting grid for the final heat: the great dispute between the Alfetta 158 drivers. Trossi shoots off in car no. 12, followed by Sanesi (no. 32), just ahead of Varzi in no. 2. Farina (no. 24) tries to pass through on the right. Nuvolari, in the Maserati no. 8, is right behind. Behind the grandstand in the background – not visible in the photo – stands Castello Sforzesco.

Sanesi saw Marquis Brivio lower the flag, released the clutch and forced the engine to 4,500 rpm. He shot into second place behind Trossi. Farina tried to pass him on the right, getting dangerously close to the edge of the track, where Castagneto - still angry over the Farina’s false starts, waved the rolled-up red flag at him like a club, making him slow down and fall to mid-group. First gear at 7,300 rpm, second gear, first left-hand bend, raising the foot in the turn towards the Arena, then back down on the accelerator, third gear passing through the slight bends in front of the old city stadium, then fourth gear for a short while before turning left towards the Arch of Peace.

Consalvo saw Count Trossi head off slowly but surely, and was overtaken by Varzi.

Farina put his foot down flat out, and Sanesi could see him in the small rectangular rear-view mirror on the dashboard. Farina overtook him, and then overtook a very surprised Varzi. The track was in good condition, but it was the hard, smooth asphalt used during the Fascist period, long-lasting but without much grip. And what was more, the roads inside the park had quite a humpback camber, to drain the rainwater off towards the flower beds. You had to hold firmly onto the steering wheel, tackling the park roads in the three lower gears; using 4th gear was impossible even though the ratios were short and the diameter of the rear wheels was smaller than usual.

Nuvolari’s Maserati didn’t make it, and perhaps did him a favour; he probably wouldn’t have been able to finish the race, having practically lost all his strength.

Farina spun off the track near the Arch of Peace. Sanesi drove past him, and saw that people were helping him to get back in the race. Disqualified. At the end of the 30th lap, Sanesi was 34” behind Trossi and 18” behind Varzi. He turned into the final straight, Viale Gadio, just 430 metres long, the finishing line almost exactly half way along Piazza Del Cannone, where Alfa Romeo often took the official photos of its cars.

Second, third, chequered flag, and onto the podium! Behind drivers of the calibre of Trossi and Varzi, he couldn’t believe his eyes! Finally the adrenalin began to wane.

On his second G.P. in the top formula, the ex-mechanic of Count Brilli Peri, a practically unknown test driver, was finally chatting with the greatest drivers in the pits, and even asked Nuvolari, “How’s it going?” The hugs from the Alfa Romeo directors, mechanics and the public paid him back for all his efforts. Even the usually tight-lipped English described him as “The Man of the Future” in the authoritative magazine ‘The Autocar’.

The following day, Sanesi was back at work at Alfa Romeo, head of the experimental vehicle testing department.

At the factory, all the workers were over the moon about their colleague’s achievement. The “Alfettas” won first, second and third place, but even more important, one of their own was on the podium.

Consalvo Sanesi was a member of the Alfa Romeo Racing Team until the end of Alfa’s grand prix adventure, which ended with the victories in the two first World F1 Championships in 1950 and 1951. Then, on February 15th, 1952, the company board decided to end their F1 participation.

Monday September 30th, 1946, after the third place in the Grand Prix the day before. Sanesi talks with Alfa Romeo workers, standing in the back of a 430 truck, in a courtyard at the factory, in front of the entrance tower to an air raid shelter that still shows clear signs of the war that has just ended.
Spring 1947, runway at Malpensa airport, north of Milan. Here, after the war, Alfa Romeo tested its G.P. cars while waiting for the Monza track to be renovated. The Alfetta 158 has just been unloaded from the truck; in the background we can see the pre-production series 6C 2500 Freccia D'Oro tested by Consalvo. In the photo, we can also see Sanesi (first on the left), the driver Piero Taruffi (in the pale overalls), head of the Alfa Romeo racing sector Livio Nicolis and Sports Director Giovanni Battista Guidotti. Nicolis was in charge of planning the development of Grand Prix and sports cars. In the Sixties, having decided against the ex-military airport at Lonate Pozzolo, next to Malpensa, the Balocco area was chosen for the Alfa Romeo test track. Nicolis supervised the design.
Sanesi at the 1953 VII Stella Alpina, 5th overall and first in the up to 2000 cc class, with the Sant Ambroeus 1900 Sprint. The results of the competitions were a great opportunity for advertising and promoting car sales.
Sanesi in the Alfa Romeo 1900 TI at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, after taking part in the 1950 edition with the 6C 2500 Freccia D'Oro. The race covers 3000 kilometres of impossible and often very fast roads. The “small” 1900 sedan driven by the couple Sanesi-Cagna, in between American cars with engines more than twice as big, and sports cars, came 15th overall and first in its class. As a famous advert used to say, the 1900 was the family sedan that won races.

Alfa Romeo in any case decided to continue racing in the Sport category, in the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Sanesi was always at the wheel. In the following years, the Hall of Fame of the “Casa di Portello” continued to mark up an impressive number of races of all kinds, with wins and rankings, even by private drivers, helping to consolidate the legend of the company as the manufacturer of sportscars that win everywhere.

Sanesi not only continued to work as a test driver, but also continued to race.

(To be continued…)

Sanesi, second from the right, chatting during a break at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana.


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