Ready to celebrate a big birthday (he was born on 11 March 1943), the "cowboy driver" accompanies SpeedHolics readers on an extraordinary journey: from his encounters with the greatest car manufacturers to the drivers he shared the cockpits with, he reveals the behind the scenes of a unique and unrepeatable life
It’ll tell you straight away that I’ll be spending my birthday with my family. I’m flattered to have received so many invitations and offers to organise something a bit more official, but I can’t imagine spending such an important event in any other way than with my wife, my children and grandchildren.
For a driver of my generation, reaching eighty is worth twice as much, because managing to survive the races in my day was a lucky feat.
And, luck in luck, I think I can say that I was part of the most brilliant era. Starting from the inventions that drastically changed our way of living and our habits. It seems incredible, for instance, when I think that I saw the very “first” television, and I can clearly remember my father saying, “One day, we’ll see people talking on the radio”. I also remember the return flight from the South African Grand Prix in 1973. Sitting next to me was Christiaan Barnard, the man who performed the first heart transplant in human history, and his wife. The first heart transplant, you get that? And today it’s a routine operation.
After all, my motorsports career is also a testimonial to a unique era. Being eighty and being able to say that you spend sixty-one of those years racing cars means one thing: I was lucky - and at the same time unlucky, as there were certainly some dramatic moments too - to experience a big slice of car racing history first-hand. This is why, when I hear people talking about a race, a character, an episode, I can almost always say: “I was there”.
Just think, I started racing against my friends on our bikes, just for fun, and then when I was nineteen I found myself gripping the wheel of my Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider on the track in Monza. And that was when my passion also became my career. Do you know what it meant to be on the tracks in the Sixties, firstly as an amateur and later as a professional? The answer is as simple as it is extraordinary: getting to know and racing against drivers of the calibre of Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Hans Hermann.
On the other hand, Jochen Rindt and I practically started together: I remember that in the uphill races, he drove the Giulietta and I had the Abarth. I also raced with Dan Gurney; with John Surtees, I had the privilege of sharing the wheel of the Ferrari 512. The same thing happened with Chris Amon and Nino Vaccarella: for me, every one of them was a legend.
In relatively recent years, I raced with BMW M1s and 635s in the European Touring Car Championship, with Ford Escorts and the Capri, with the Opel Commodore and the official Porsches in the Italian GT Championship, but as a professional I can say that I started and consolidated my career racing for Abarth, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo when - respectively - there was Carlo Abarth, Enzo Ferrari and Carlo Chiti’s Autodelta.
What characters they were. Abarth was a cold, calculating and very scrupulous man, but with a big heart. I remember one episode, on the Vallelunga track just outside Rome: we had to test a modification to the front end, and he was convinced it would go wrong, and so he stood in the middle of a bend, just outside the trajectory, with a newspaper under his feet. As I drove past him, I was supposed to rip the paper away with the front right-hand wheel: it was his way of demonstrating that his theory - and therefore the modification we were testing - was valid and safe.
I think Enzo Ferrari was fond of me, he treated me almost like a son. We had a very direct relationship, he listened to me but was always uncompromising. After the 1973 edition of 24 Hours of Le Mans, when I came in second, he cut my celebration short by saying: “Second is the first of the last places”.
Carlo Chiti, on the other hand, was a “one-man-show”: everything depended on him. An extraordinary engineer, an all-round designer, but with one great limit. When improvisation was required, or when decisions implying risks had to be taken, he took a step back. His priority was to send his driver out on the track in a safe car, even if this meant that it was less competitive. And in racing, this doesn't always pay off.
And talking about behind the scenes, now I will tell you the story of the cowboy hat that I wear whenever I don’t have a helmet on. Cowboys have always been my heroes, since I was a boy. I loved that sense of freedom you can breathe when you read their stories, and I was literally seduced by the idea of taming a horse (and after all, a car for a driver is like a horse for a cowboy, right?). That’s why when, in 1967, I went to the United States for the first time, as soon as I got off the plane I went to a hat shop and came out with an original Stetson on my head.
When I had become a “racing” cowboy, as many had nicknamed me, I tamed a horse too... or rather, a Rearing Horse. It all began in 1969 when Enzo Ferrari called me to Maranello for the first time. After the interview with him, I went to Franco Gozzi, his right-hand man, and asked him for a Ferrari sticker. I cut the Rearing Horse out there and then, and stuck it to the side of my helmet. It’s still there today, but with a couple of changes: I added reins and turned the tail upwards. I did that at the end of 1973, when I decided to leave Maranello, ahead of the choice that the “Commendatore” would certainly have taken shortly after. That was the year of the 312 B3, a single-seater with a monocoque chassis made in England. There were all kinds of problems, from the monocoque that bent to the engine that lost power. It was the result of a team of engineers who came from Fiat, headed by Stefano Colombo, but in the end it was me and Mauro Forghieri, a great friend right up to the end, who got it working. I remember that whenever we had to do a test, we loaded it on a trailer and set off in our red 124 estate. That was my last experience in Maranello.
Today people still ask me about Niki Lauda’s accident at the Nürburgring in 1976, but I always change the subject. Contrary to many fans and journalists, I never wanted to consider it to be a major event, but simply something that happened, part of my life like many other episodes. I mentioned it now just to say that, for me, going to pull a driver out of the single-seater on fire was the only possible choice: it was a matter of instinct. Who was in the car was a detail that made absolutely no difference at the time.
I stared death in the face in 1991, on the Magione track during the test sessions for the Italian Prototype Championships. Something went wrong with the brakes, and I ended up beneath a guardrail. And I can still hear the voice of the first steward who ran over: “Merzario’s dead”. “F**k off!” I answered.
I was still conscious, despite having fractured two cervical vertebrae, some fingers and my feet, but I couldn’t say practically anything. They took me to hospital, where I heard the chief physician say that I would never be able to walk again. But I didn’t agree: so, I had them call my mechanic, and asked him to go to the hotel and get my bag, where I kept some emergency numbers. And that was how, thanks to my trusted doctors and several weeks in halo traction, a millimetre at a time I got my life back.
This is my story. I’ve done a lot, and would do it all again, with three exceptions: I wouldn’t try my hand as a manufacturer (the greatest mistake of my life), I wouldn’t send Ferrari to hell and I would accept the signings I was offered in the United States, which I never paid much attention to at the time.
But even with these mistakes, I can say that I have always been true to myself.