Most people get one chance to make it in Formula 1 – and it doesn’t always work out well.
Before the war Gianpaulo Volpini tuned Lancia Aprilia sports cars in his garage in Milan and when the war was over he went back into the same business, but this time building his own chassis with 1100cc engines and bodywork by the Milanese coachbuilder Carrozzeria Colli. This proved to be quite successful and Volpini then diversified into the 500cc Formula 3 in 1951, his Gilera motorcycle engine-powered cars enjoying some success, despite the fierce competition in the formula. In 1953 Frenchman Georges Chazelet even managed to win a race in Marseilles in a Volpini.
It was at this point that the 26-year-old Mario Alborghetti arrived on the scene. He was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who started racing in 1950 in a Fiat Topolino before moving on to win the Argegno-Lanzo d’Intelvi hillclimb, near Como, in 1951 with a Lancia Aprilia. He took part in the Stella Alpina Rally and the Mille Miglia in a Lancia Aurelia and drove a similar car for Lancia Corse in 1953 in the Susa-Moncenisio hillclimb, finishing third in class. He also competed in the Coppa Sant’Ambroeus at Monza and in the Giro di Sicilia and Coppa della Toscana road races. His experience was entirely in sports cars, but he dreamed of becoming a Formula 1 driver and asked Volpini to build him a F1 car.
Like many engineers, Volpini was a practical man and concluded that there was more chance of success if one bought a decent racing car and modified it, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Thus he used Alborghetti’s money to acquire one of the Scuderia Milano Maserati 4CLTs, which had raced F1 in 1950.
These had been powered by a pre-war supercharged 1.5-litre engine, designed in 1939 by Ernesto Maserati. After the war the cars had been acquired by Scuderia Milano and the engines were modified by Mario Speluzzi, a Professor of Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, who had developed the engine for use in powerboats. He added two-stage supercharging and the engine was renamed Speluzzi. It first appeared at the French GP in 1950 in the hands of Felice Bonetto. It was clear straight away that this would not be able to compete with the latest machinery at the time and the project faded away.
However with a new engine formula in 1954, Volpini reckoned that a reworked chassis and a stretched Maserati engine, the result might be competitive and called in engine-builder Egidio Arzani to transform the 1.5-litre engine into a 2.5-litre. Attractive new bodywork was created by Carrozzeria Colli.
Scuderia Volpini was ready to go into action by April 1955 and headed off to Pau, in the south-west of France for a non-championship F1 race. The Arzani-Volpini 001 was well-presented and well-engineered but it was not very fast and Alborghetti qualified well off the pace, 19 seconds slower than Alberto Ascari’s pole position.
The race, held of the Easter Monday bank holiday, attracted a big crowd and while they cheered for Jean Behra’s Maserati 250F against the Lancias, no-one paid much attention to Alborghetti, who made three early pit stops. At the start of his 20th lap, he came down to the tight right-hand hairpin near the Station, the first corner, and Jacques Pollet went down the inside to lap Alborghetti. For reasons unknown, the Arzani-Volpini went straight on, apparently without any attempt being made to slow the car. It ran into hay bales with considerable force, the driver’s helmet flew off in the impact and the driver died almost instantly as the result of fractures to the vertebrae in his neck. A number of spectators were injured in the crash, although the car itself was not badly damaged. The team was not seen again until the Italian GP at Monza in September, where Luigi Piotti was due to drive, but things went wrong and he did not take part in qualifying.
Volpini turned his attention to building a record car in 1956 and then when Formula Junior began in 1958 he bought more racing cars, continuing production until 1963.