Racing driver, test driver and actor to boot: all the lives of the man who, despite being courted by Enzo Ferrari, remained true to Alfa Romeo right to the end.
Photos by Sanesi Family, Alfa Blue Team, Fabio Morlacchi Archives
There were a number of significant episodes in Sanesi’s life, including the terrible accident during the 1948 Mille Miglia. He was racing with his trusted mechanic Augusto Zanardi in the experimental 6C 2500 Competizione. But let’s see what Consalvo had to say:
“We set off smoothly from Brescia, without any hassle for at least the first 500 kilometres. I got the engine speed up to 5,500 rpm, but Zanardi kicked me and forced me to take my foot off the accelerator. We were chatting and joking quite peacefully, and when we got to the first refuelling point in Rimini, they told us we were a close second, behind Nuvolari. We hit the road again, our enthusiasm high, just a few seconds behind Nuvolari. Unluckily his car (Ferrari 166, ed.) was having some trouble with the suspensions, and that slowed him down a bit. Setting off again, Zanardi kicked me again, at 4,800 rpm this time. I obeyed, laughing at his jokes; it was a real pleasure racing in his company. But the good mood didn’t last much longer, as there was a pitfall ahead of us. As we approached Santa Marinella (a seaside resort in Civitavecchia, near Rome, ed.) I could feel that the steering response was a bit slow, and to keep up the good mood Zanardi, sensing some problems, joked 'te dormet' (“you’re sleeping”, in Milanese dialect, ed.). Unfortunately, I was perfectly aware there was a steering problem, and I stopped laughing and began to worry. I slowed down at a level crossing, which led into a short straight with a right-hand bend at the end, at 120 km/h; the car pulled firmly to the left, I shifted to the right but there was no response. Zanardi shouted something I didn’t catch, but I quickly replied: 'Hold on tight, the steering’s gone!'
In less than a second, the car had run off the road, flown over a ditch protected on one side by a wall and, rolling over several times, stopped upside down a few inches from the sea.
By that time, I was unconscious; with the tank almost full, petrol was pouring out and was suffocating me; Zanardi shouted for help, but nobody moved, afraid that it would explode. Zanardi was a strong man, he ripped off the car door and climbed out of the car, then ran round to my side to help me, but he couldn't get me out because my foot was stuck between the brake pedal and the clutch. Finally, with a huge effort, he managed to press the clutch pedal and free me”.
Sanesi and Zanardi were taken to the hospital in Civitavecchia by one of the other racers. Sanesi had a suspected fracture of the skull, though after a month of convalescence, he was back at work. When he returned, the Alfa Romeo engineer Gianpaolo Garcea explained that the central support of the steering linkage had broken, making it impossible to steer the vehicle. (An interesting fact: after this episode, Sanesi and his wife called their second daughter Marinella...).
In 1951, Sanesi was set a test of fate during some trial sessions with the Alfetta 159 in Monza.
Consalvo stopped in the pits for refuelling, when a jet of fuel hit the exhaust pipes and set fire, burning along the side of the main rear tank, behind the driver’s seat. Sanesi tried to jump out of the cockpit, but tripped on the bare drive shaft and fell, hitting his head. They dragged him out with his suit already in flames. He spent three months recovering in hospital.
Before this accident, Sanesi even tried his hand at big-screen acting. He played himself in the film “Last Meeting”, with Alida Valli, Amedeo Nazzari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Nino Farina, Felice Bonetto, Hans Von Stuck, Luigi Fagioli and Giovanni Battista Guidotti. The film was distributed in Italy, France and West Germany. The scenes filmed in Monza and in the Alfa Romeo racing department were very interesting.
Meanwhile, as chief test driver of the “Esperienze” department, he devoted his time to testing and tuning a number of Alfa Romeo cars, and often had a chance to race in them.
These included the 1950 1900 sedan, the Sprint version, the military off-road vehicle AR 51 “Matta” (Reconnaissance Vehicle of 1951), tested very strictly with his friend Guido Moroni, the 1952 Disco Volante and the 1953-4 2000 Sportiva. He then went on to test various versions of the Giulietta, produced in the Sprint version from 1954 and, from 1955, in the sedan and Spider versions.
In June 1955, Enzo Ferrari wrote to Sanesi asking him to race for him in the Formula 1, and perhaps also go to work at Maranello.
Consalvo’s extreme honesty and decency, along with his gratitude towards Alfa Romeo, led him to talk over the matter with Alfa’s General Director, Francesco Quaroni, seeking his approval for racing for Ferrari, even though he had already decided to stay on at Portello (his wife had told him fair and square that if he went to Modena, he would be going alone!).
Here is an excerpt from one of the letters Ferrari sent to Sanesi: “...well, if you freely decide to come and race for us, where you will be assured plenty of competitive action, so please remember this opportunity I am willing to offer you. Of course, my proposal is not the result of any dubious ideas, it is based solely on my desire to see Italian cars driven by Italian racers, every Sunday and in the most important international races.”
Sanesi remained friends with Ferrari. Their relationship dated back to the 1930s when Alfa Romeo racing cars were managed by Ferrari, and their cordial relations continued on the race track after the war.
The tests continued. First the 6-cylinder 2600, then the Giulietta SZ and the sports versions of the Giulia, the TZ and the GTA. And in the Giulia TZ, Sanesi was to use his penultimate life. But let’s go in order. For work, he would drive around 200 kilometres every day, six days a week and often on Sundays too, taking his family with him, as his daughter Edda told me. He would take a board with him in the car, to note his impressions and suggestions for the mechanics.
In 1961, Sanesi won the race against the ETR 300 “Settebello” fast train from Milan to Rome.
The three “Settebello” trains built by Breda in the 1950s had an electric locomotive that reached a top speed of 160 km/h. The Giulietta Spider, driven by Sanesi, did better than the train, even counting the start from Milan’s Central Station, and reaching Termini Station in the centre of Rome, and bearing in mind that the ‘Autostrada del Sole’ motorway hadn’t got as far as the Italian capital at that time.
Sebring, Florida, and the 1964 “12 Hours” race. It was March 21st, and the race had two drivers for each car.
Sant Ambroeus signed up four Giulia TZs for the race, two with American crews and two Italian. One was driven by Theodoli with Sanesi, the other by Bussinello with Bulgari. Curiously, the race director was Elio Zagato, who took over from Giampiero Biscaldi who was ill. The TZ driven by Theodoli was overtaken, quite badly, by a Ford Cobra coupé in the tough, early stages of the race, and to avoid knocking it the Italian driver went off the road, damaging the front of the TZ. Repaired but not perfect, the TZ had to abandon the race about half way through. Of the TZs driven by the American crews, the Dietrich-Wuestoff car was doing well, but a gearbox seal broke causing a lubricant leak, and was forced to retire. And the TZ driven by Bussinello and Bulgari was equally unlucky. After a brilliance race, during which, like David against Goliath, they overtook even 2000cc cars, even a Ferrari GTO and a Ford Cobra (I would like to think they were having trouble, or were driven badly...), a piece of metal on the track cut one of the rear brake pipes. Bulgari was forced to drive with sheer acrobatic skill to keep up a decent pace, but had to stop for repairs, and lost a lot of time.
On the eleventh hour of the race, transmission troubles forced him to slow down and the Giulia TZ stopped in the pits. But Sanesi, now on foot, refused to give up. He got into the red TZ, and without forcing it he drove to the finishing line.
But again, bad luck was around the corner. It was already dark, and Sanesi was driving close to the edge of the track. Driving in front of the Ferrari pit, he kept close to the wall. Gurney and Johnson’s Cobra came up behind him at full speed. Johnson, trying to read the instructions from the pit, only saw the TZ at the last minute.
Trying to steer, the front right-hand side of the Cobra slammed into the tail of the Alfa Romeo on the left side. The TZ spun into the wall by the Alpine Renault pits. The collision ripped the TZ tank apart, and the car set on fire.
Sanesi was thrown against the back window, his helmet knocking out the plexiglass. Still conscious, he tried to get out, but the left door was stuck and the right door against the wall. A few years later, Consalvo said that, imprisoned in the vehicle amidst the flames, he thought to himself: “this time I’m going to die...”.
The spectators were terrified by the high tongues of fire, made even worse by the dark night. The race officials couldn’t put out the flames, the fire-fighting teams were on their way but they would get there too late. The Alpine Renault driver Jocko Maggiacomo saw the scene from the pits. Without thinking twice, he jumped over the wall, ran to the back of the TZ, stuck his arms into the opening in the back window and hauled Consalvo out of the flaming cockpit. Sanesi had his 7th life left, or perhaps another number, who knows how many he had.
His daughter Edda, who flew to Florida to look after her father in the hospital, told that she found him in an aseptic room with his face swollen and blackened.
Consalvo was 53, and after a year spent between clinics and operating theatres, decided that the time had come to stop racing.
Precisely in 1964, Alfa Romeo signed a contract with NSU to design and develop the Wankel engine, which meant more test drives for Sanesi and his team.
In the early 1960s, Consalvo became friends with Enrico Mattei, the Chairman of ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) and AGIP. Mattei was well introduced to the Alfa Romeo management, and this helped Sanesi to take over a large AGIP fuel station in the north of Milan, with a workshop, where he hired a mechanic: none other than Riccardo Sivocci, son of Ugo Sivocci, the official Alfa Romeo driver and test driver in Monza in 1923. Riccardo worked at Alfa, he was Fangio’s personal mechanic, after Lorenzo Bandini’s début. The fuel station was managed by his Sanesi’s wife Vittoria, and later also by his daughter Edda.
The workshop was a huge success: not only they were good at their job, but who wouldn’t want their Alfa Romeo to be serviced by Sivocci, in Sanesi’s workshop?
Consalvo retired in 1976, devoting his time to another passion of his, racing bikes, and to his beloved Alfas of the past in the company Museum, which had just moved to a new building in Arese, where it still is today.
One anecdote that Edda told me helps us to understand Sanesi’s honesty and professionalism even more. Before putting the 1972 Alfetta into production, as often happened, Consalvo was asked to test the new and sophisticated sedan, with its very advanced suspensions, the gearbox mounted in a block with the differential at the rear, in the middle of the De Dion tube. As all Alfa fans know, the gearbox on this albeit superb sedan made it difficult to manoeuvre, as the linkage was very long and not finely tuned.
Consalvo refused to approve the car. An Alfa Romeo can't have a gearbox that engages slowly and often noisily. For Sanesi, Alfas had to be perfect to drive...