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From the Earth to the Sky: Challenges beyond the Limit

As the Italian Air Force celebrates its hundredth anniversary, we would like to tell you about the time Gilles Villeneuve, Nelson Piquet, Bruno Giacomelli and Riccardo Patrese challenged the F-104 Starfighter fighter planes to race against their Formula 1 single seaters: it was 1981, and it was one of the most famous challenges between the knights of the air and the knights of risk

Photos courtesy of Aeronautica Militare Archive

When you put yourself to the test, when you approach the limits of human skill and you feel it’s still not enough. That’s when it happens: something is triggered in the mind and in the heart, a sensation of healthy and uncontrollable omnipotence of the individual, which feels like a mission on behalf of all of humanity. Going beyond is that one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, sharing the thrill and the words of the US astronaut Neil Armstrong when he left the first human footprint on the surface of the moon.

All in all, challenges are the driver of mankind. Without them, there would be no discovery, no evolution. This is why man has always been bewitched, charmed and indeed obsessed by two - both abstract yet concrete - emotions that have always fuelled our dreams: flight and speed. And while it is true that flight and speed go hand in hand in the aeronautic world, it is equally true that speed has always been identified with cars.

And this is why, in the week in which the Aeronautica Militare - the Italian Air Force - celebrates its first century of history (it was founded on 28 March 1923), I have been thinking about some epic challenges between planes and cars. Authentic duels of their time, when a knight of risk, in his car, battled against a knight of the air, at the controls of his flying machine.

The first in Italy to throw down the gauntlet to the sky was none other than Tazio Nuvolari: in 1931, his Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 "Monza" raced against a biplane, Vittorio Suster’s Caproni CA 100, on the Caracalla circuit. Five laps, the car on the ground and the plane in the air: the plane won.

But the duel that has remained dearest to enthusiasts took place fifty years later, on 21 November 1981. The idea came from Marcello Sabbatini, chief editor of the Italian weekly motorsport magazine Rombo: the racing challenge was between the Formula 1 single-seaters of the time (Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo, Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese’s Brabhams, Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari) against the F-104 Starfighter fighter planes, born to intercept other planes in the sky and capable of flying at over twice the speed of sound.

The race was held this time on the track at Istrana military airport (Treviso), home to the 51st Wing of the Italian Air Force. To relive the thrill of this story, I chose to use the words and memories of a man who played a key role in that day, recovering a long interview from a few years ago with the then-Major - now General - Leandro De Vincenti: not only the Starfighter’s pilot but also the man in charge of coordinating the event.

“With the involvement of the Alfa Romeo engineer Carlo Chiti, we immediately assessed the performance of the Formula 1 cars: it was clear that over a short distance the cars would win, but a longer distance would have benefited the planes.

And so we established that one thousand metres would be the right distance, and the duel would take place with the wheels on the ground: an acceleration contest, divided into six races".

Six F-104s were in the race, with the following configurations: two in their ‘heavy-duty’ set-up, with tanks on the wing ends and two beneath the wings, which was certainly a disadvantage; two ‘clean’ planes with no external tanks, which certainly had an advantage; and two ‘intermediates’ with tanks on the end of the wings, which were more up to the challenge. Fuel allowance on board: 7000 pounds for the heavier planes, around half for the two lighter ones.”

“The weather forecast for 21 November was quite good, but when we woke up there was thick fog and visibility was less than 1500 metres. Aviano, our alternative airport, where the planes would have headed for in the event of an emergency after take-off, was also covered in fog. So this wasn’t feasible either, and this is why we chose Grosseto, but which was much further away. This meant adding an extra reserve of 3000 pounds of fuel to the two ‘clean’ Starfighters".

"And so I proposed a little trick to my colleagues to make a play for it in any case. The afterburner on the 104 guaranteed 60% extra thrust, but with the normal take-off up to five seconds were lost before reaching full power. Too long! But with a little play on the throttle, we could anticipate the afterburner cut-in to practically as soon as the brakes were released.”

The best fighter plane performance was obtained by De Vincenti, obviously in the ‘light’ set-up (18”05). The fastest of the Formula 1 cars was Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari 126 CK (16”55), which had the spoilers removed to reduce the aerodynamic drag. Nelson Piquet, just crowned world champion, obtained a time of 17”45 with his Brabham BT 49C. Bruno Giacomelli’s Alfa Romeo 179C came in at 17”75, and Patrese at 19”98.

“Seen from the cockpit of our fighter plan, the Formula 1s seemed like mosquitoes with the speed of a bullet: over the first 2-300 metres, they were unbeatable, no question. But then the afterburner cut in and the situation was upturned; in the end, the Formula 1s won five out of the six trials".

It was a unique experience for everyone, including the audience: someone estimated that there were around 100,000 people watching. I can remember seeing people everywhere, and when Villeneuve started spinning in his Ferrari, he was literally swamped by the fans. I also remember that Gilles was the most interested in our planes, you could tell he was an enthusiast.”

The challenge was launched again in 2003, in Grosseto, at the base of the 4th Wing of the Italian Air Force. This time the duel was between Michael Schumacher, who had just won his sixth world title, at the wheel of his Formula 1 Ferrari, and Maurizio Cheli, astronaut and test pilot, at the controls of his Eurofighter fighter plane. But that’s another story, which we will tell you another time.


Alessandro Barteletti is a photographer and journalist. Through his photos, he has been revealing the reality behind news stories, as well as social and sports events, for almost 20 years. Being keen on anything that can be driven fast, on the roads or flying in the sky, he has specialized in the auto, aviation and space industries. Among his clients: National Geographic, Dallara and Italian Air Force. Alessandro currently lives between Rome - where he was born - and Modena, the heart of Motor Valley; he is the editor-in-chief of SpeedHolics Magazine.


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