Fascinating F1 Fact:40

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.

31 thoughts on “Fascinating F1 Fact:40

  1. Pirelli Italian company owned by the Chinese.
    Man the Chinese are giving every western company a five finger prostate examination whether they need one or not. No wonder Trump wants China to pay hefty costs for their tankers to enter American waters. Not a fan of Trump. But I would prefer goods and car manufacturing to remain intact rather than going cheap in China.

    1. Just a slight digression. All my local footy teams are now have Chinese owners. These are Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. All once great clubs. A sobering thought.

      1. Villa, Brum and Wolves are more likely to become great again under the current owners than those they have endured recently. WBA are doing pretty well under Sino-Welsh guidance. So long as their fans don’t turn and boo him out as Stoke’s did, they will continue to progress under Pulis.

        Bringing it back to F1, Joe, do you think Liberty will be inclined towards multiple tyre manufacturers? It can be a good way to stir things up a bit and change the established pecking order.

  2. One I actually knew ! I remember reading version of this story when I was in single figures in the 70s. I’m sure it was in one of mums Readers Digest books. I can still the illustration of the Itala in my head now.

      1. Excellent – thanks. I will renew my subscription on payday in that case! By the way I asked for and got The GP Saboteurs for xmas – really enjoying it.

      2. Thank you very much for this great story! At the end last December I’ve “discovered” your Blog, becoming a fan after the very first story I read. Already subscribed for GP+ this year and this story is the extra push I needed to go buy the archive too. You really are a great “bonus” to my 21-year F1 passion. Thanks again and greetings from the Netherlands.

  3. “The cantankerous Autocar in England … dismissed the whole affair as self-promotion.”

    Self promotion eh? How little they knew of what top flight motor racing would become 🙂

  4. What an amazing story! Worthy of a film at least. I remember seeing Itala’s at VSCC events n the 80s (1980s!) – I cant remember if they ran but they were enormous beasts with no little style. I don’t think id like to have lived in 1907 but I wouldn’t mind dropping in.

  5. Brilliant story. Peking-Paris remains a superb event! Some friends of mine did it in a 356 and the Itala still does the rally, alongside a La France fire engine from the same period and many other proper vintage machines. I blogged the event for the 356 crew and later went to the prizegiving at the Intercontinental in Paris. Listening to so many stories of great Mongolian adventures put me on the road to following the Safari Classic Rally – I will get to the Peking Paris one day. RIP Philip Young.

  6. Somehow Pirelli managed to transform the image of the humble motor car tyre, manufactured in dirty and satanic hell-holes, into a symbol for something glamorous and even artistic. Think of the Pirelli calendar, once slightly titillating but now a display of feminist heroines.

    The company’s UK Marketing & PR chief for many years was Tom Northey (RIP), who would spice up the launch party for the calendar in London by inviting the models who had taken part in the shoots and placing them among the (mostly male) guests. He also astutely recognised the talents of GP+’s own David Tremayne and gave our colleague his start in the writing racket.

    Fanatically knowledgeable about good jazz, Tom was my musical guru during a bibulous friendship filled with interesting surprises and unexpected incidents. We spent many happy hours both at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and at the Chelsea Arts Club, where his membership was briefly in jeopardy after he persuaded a young woman to strip naked and stroll along the bar. (He had told her, possibly not entirely accurately, that she would be following a club tradition laid down by a past club member, the illustrious Augustus John.)

    A good 30 years ago, when the Victoria & Albert museum in London was planning to construct an Italian garden, Tom readily agreed to find the funds for it to be named in honour of Pirelli. He also invited his friend Lee Konitz, master of the alto saxophone, to write a piece of jazz to celebrate the opening. Lee came to London and played it for an appreciative audience on a glorious summer day in the garden.

    Today the Chinese-owned Pirelli company makes most of its racing tyres in Turkey. That’s globalisation for you.

  7. 9,300 miles on the worse possible roads using a couple of sets of Pirelli tyres. Current Pirelli F1 tyres lucky to achieve 80 miles on perfect surfaces. That’s progress…

    1. Not a movie but there is a documentary about the race, originally aired on Australian ABC, called Peking to Paris (i’m pretty sure that is the title).

      5 teams recreated the original race in original/replica cars in time for the 100th anniversary of race. I havent watched it in years, but i remember it was very good. Maybe i should get the DVD out from my shelf ???

    2. I suspect that any film would have to cope with the memories of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and would be poorer for their absence.

  8. So good to have been having regular comments from The Hack. Always worth reading, and a font of, mainly, great information and anecdotes.Hopefully this isn’t a temporary thing on the blog.

    1. Glad you enjoy my interventions, Mr Stacey, and I look forward to seeing you in GP+. Meanwhile, try the following for size.

      Yes, all four of the F1 Ferraris (two V6s, one V8 and one V12) taken to Watkins Glen and Mexico for the last two GPs of the 1964 season were entered by Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team and painted in white with a blue lower half (the FIA-recognised racing colours of the USA).

      In fact, the cars were maintained by the regular Ferrari mechanics under the supervision of Mauro Forghieri. However, Enzo was having another of his spats with the ACI (Automobile Club d’Italia) over the homologation of the new mid-engined 250LM sports-racing car. He turned in his entrant’s licence and swore that his cars would never race in red again. That was before Marlboro came down the pike, of course.

      Hans Tanner’s voluminous but not always reliable tome (‘Ferrari,’ Haynes, 1979) recounts that in fact Ferrari’s people had not prepared the papers in time, and anyway the FIA did not at first believe that the car had been produced in sufficient numbers. My guess is that they were still smarting at being hoodwinked over the earlier (1972) 250GTO, of which only 40 or fewer examples would be built of the required 100.

      Chinetti, who died in 1994 at the age of 93, is an interesting chap. An old racing chum of Enzo who didn’t like Mussolini a whole lot and emigrated to France, he had accompanied René Dreyfus to Indianapolis in 1940 (DNQ) and subsequently stayed, taking out US citizenship. Post-war, he would become Ferrari’s first official dealer outside Italy.

      Between 1932 and 1953 Chinetti drove at Le Mans in 12 consecutive races, winning three times, most famously in 1949, when he was at the wheel for all but about 20 minutes, when one Peter Mitchell-Thomson (Baron Selsdon) took over. Their car, a 166M, was the first Ferrari to win the great race. After his exertions (not) at least Selsdon had the decency to buy the car.

      1. Oops, I posted this under the wrong FFF. It should have been a comment on Joe’s piece about the Mexican GP of 1964, where I have also posted it.

  9. Sounds like a great read. One of the first motoring expeditions. It is a sad irony that Pirelli is owned by The Chinese and F1 by an American company. Two new economic empires dividing up the world. Another nugget.

  10. How about a compendium of GP+ stories as a book?
    Also a reminder that we are still waiting on Joe’s next book which involves Canada. (in some way)
    And sorry again but off topic, there is part 1 of a very nice interesting interview with Louise Goodman on the F1Broadcastng blog. A lot of us remember her from her days of F1 pitlane and paddock reporting, in the Murray Walker era, now as the live one for the BTCC.

  11. The telegraph operator was found drugged with opium. If I recall correctly from school, the boxer rebellion of a few short years previously was all about who sold opium to the local population.
    It was won by the western powers and so they became the sole suppliers to China’s millions [billions?] of addicts, including our out of his head telegraphic fiend.

  12. It always surprises me how many of these vehicles are still around – and even more, how many are regularly campaigned at various races, hillclimbs and sprints. If you want to get close up and see these beasts in action (in the UK) keep an eye out for VSCC events at your local circuit – the ‘elbows out’ driving style of some of the competitors is truly amazing!

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