The current Formula 1 tyre supplier, Pirelli, has been owned since June last year by the China National Chemical Corporation, known as ChemChina, a state-owned enterprise, based in Beijing. This may seem a little odd for a celebrated Italian enterprise, but from a motorsport point of view, it is apt.
Pirelli’s first success in motorsport was an adventure which began in the Chinese capital: the Peking-Paris race of 1907.
The idea of such an extraordinary challenge came from the French newspaper Le Matin, which announced in January that year, that it would promote the race, starting in June, to prove the power of the new-fangled automobiles. The prize would be a single bottle of champagne. The cantankerous Autocar in England dismissed the idea as “one of those hardy annuals that crop up when there is nothing else to talk about in the automobile world” and dismissed the whole affair as self-promotion.
There were 62 expressions of interest, which became 40 entries, but there was little time and only five cars appeared in Peking. There were no rules beyond the fact that the cars had to be driven. There was no route, mainly because there were no roads. It was 9,300 miles of do-it-yourself adventure. The plan was simple. The racers would follow the telegraph lines across the Gobi Desert and then run close to the Trans-Siberian railway. This would provide guidance and suitable stopping off points so the competitors could access the telegraph, so that the story could be told.
The Marquis Albert de Dion, owner of the De Dion Bouton automobile company, sent two of his cars to China by ship, while the crews went by train, organising fuel supplies along the route, something which involved sending a camel train into the Gobi Desert to create fuel dumps. They were also supposed to get authorisation for the event from the Chinese government, but they were not very successful in this respect. The racers did not care. They were going to set off whether the government liked it or not. The two de Dions were joined by a Dutch Spyker, a lightweight three-wheeler called a Contal and a hefty-looking Itala. The De Dions were to running on Dunlop tyres, the Spyker had Michelins and the Itala was on Pirellis. The Italian firm had only been making automobile tyres for seven years and the company founder’s second son Alberto, then in his early twenties, was enthusiastic about using the Peking-Paris to promote the products.
It helped, of course, that the Itala was driven by a full-blown Prince. Luigi Scipione Borghese, the 10th Prince of Sulmona, who was accompanied by his chauffeur Ettore Guizzardi. The 35-year-old Prince was the son of an Italian father and a Hungarian Countess. He had climbed mountains and had travelled cross-country from Beirut to the Pacific and had written several books about his adventures. He was also a member of the Italian Parliament. He was cool, calm and aristocratic. Guizzardi (25) was the son of a train driver who had joined the Prince’s staff after a train crash close to the Borghese family castle in 1897, when he was 16. His father had been killed in the accident and Borghese took Guizzardi in and organised for him to be trained as a mechanic with Fiat and Ansaldo. The third crew member was a 33-year-old journalist Luigi Barzini, a war correspondent who was familiar with China, having covered the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War for Corriere della Sera. He was to report on the event for his newspaper and the Daily Telegraph.
The Itala was specially-built with a truck chassis, fitted with a detuned seven-litre Itala Grand Prix engine, and very basic bodywork, with planks of wood being used for mudguards (a brilliant idea, as it turned out). It had two seats in the front and one at the rear, the fourth seat having been replaced by two large fuel tanks.
A French military band played as the cars departed the French Embassy in Peking on June 10 and for the first few days, the cars remained in contact, meeting up each evening at refuelling stops. Borghese felt he was being held back and eventually lost patience and so went ahead on his own. The crew would have a series of adventures including being stuck in a marsh, which required rescue by a large number of oxen. The telegraph stations added interest as at one they found the operator drugged with opium and at another the operator explained that he had not sent a message in his entire six year stay.
Once in Russia they used an old military road, which dated from the construction of the Trans Siberian Railway but had become rather overgrown in places and on which many of the wooden bridges were rotting away. The Prince’s answer was to cross them as quickly as possible, before they fell apart. On one such occasion Guizzardi was driving tentatively across such a structure when it gave way beneath them, flipping the car over, throwing Barzini and the driver out and leaving the Prince hanging upside down, under the car.
Later they drove along the the railway lines, but this caused a near-miss with an express and a later wheel to collapse from the vibration. When they reached Moscow the Itala crew was so confident of victory that they diverted to St Petersburg before heading down the ever-improving roads to reach the Russo-German border on August 4. They had a complicated moment in Belgium when stopped for speeding, as the local policeman refused to believe that Borghese was an Italian Prince who had driven from Peking, which was not altogether surprising…
They arrived in Paris to claim their champagne on August 10. Barzini would later publish a book in 11 languages, called From Beijing to Paris in 60 Days. He would go on to move from journalism into politics and became a strong supporter of Benito Mussolini, a senator and a member of the Fascist government. He died destitute in 1947 after the fall of the regime.
Pirelli’s first taste of competition was a huge success and the company would move on to Grand Prix racing, winning its first major victory with George Boillot’s Peugeot in the GP de l’ACF at Amiens in 1913.