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Great European Lives: The untimely death of the opera-singing Grand Prix champion

Giusepp Camari, June 8, 1892 - September 10, 1933, was a world famous opera singer and racing driver. - Credit: Archant

CHARLIE CONNELLY recounts the extraordinary and ultimately tragic life of Giuseppe Campari, a man who combined opera with motorsport.

Giuseppe Campari cut an unlikely figure for a racing driver. For one thing he weighed in at a shade under 16 stone, unthinkable for a Grand Prix star today and exceptional even in the early days of motor racing when the cars were monstrous snorting beasts that spat oil and smoke as they roared around primitive courses in races that lasted many hours.

Campari was a gregarious man with a personality as large as his waistline and a broad smile that endeared him to fans and track rivals alike. His hospitality was legendary, especially the sumptuous dinner parties he’d throw for teammates, friends and even racing competitors at his Milan home where he would insist on doing the cooking himself, creating vast and delicious concoctions of pasta and sauce.

“Dressed in grey pyjamas with blue stripes, the look of a prison uniform, the great racing driver was bending over the pots among clouds of steam and bursts of flame,” recalled Enzo Ferrari of one such occasion. “The sauce received, among other exquisite ingredients, a drizzle of sweat droplets.”

The dinners would end with Campari and his wife, the operatic soprano Lena Cavalleri, at the piano performing their favourite excerpts from the works of Verdi and Donizetti, closing uproarious evenings that combined Campari’s three great passions: good food, opera and motor racing.

If it hadn’t been for his love of the track there was every chance Campari would have forged a decent career as a baritone on the nation’s opera stages – between races he sang a number of roles at prestigious opera houses – and the two contrasting worlds pulled at him with equal vigour to the point where by 1933 he planned to retire from racing to concentrate on his singing.

The Monza Grand Prix of September 10 that year was to be Campari’s last race. It was an appropriate course to stage the 41-year-old’s farewell, being the scene of many of his triumphs including the 1931 Italian Grand Prix, which he’d won paired with the great Tazio Nuvolari, the drivers taking turns in the cockpit in a thrilling 10-hour test of speed and endurance.

The Monza Grand Prix was a secondary contest to the Italian Grand Prix, having been introduced as a stand-in for the more illustrious race following the 1928 tragedy when Emilio Materassi’s car shot off the track and into the crowd, killing the driver and 27 spectators. When the race was placed on an indefinite hiatus in the light of the accident the Monza Grand Prix was introduced to keep at least some racing at the track, and when the Italian returned in 1931 the Monza continued, staged immediately after its more prestigious counterpart.

It was a short race, three heats of 14 laps around Monza’s old 10km circuit before a 22-lap final, and Campari was drawn in the second heat. At the traditional parade to the start line the portly Milanese in his trademark white jacket was given a rousing reception as he walked alongside his bright red Alfa Romeo, its tyres hissing slickly over a surface soaked by an earlier downpour, waving to the crowd.

The seven cars lined up abreast and waited for the starter’s signal. It was a familiar feeling for Campari, the butterflies in his stomach as he closed his fingers around the steering wheel, the throb of the engine coursing through him, waiting for that glorious moment of release when the roar of the cars mixed with that of the crowd as he moved up through the gears and jostled for position.

This wait was longer than usual, however. After the first heat drivers had notified officials of a patch of oil on the south bend that had caused more than one of them to skid. A van had gone out with buckets of sand and scrubbing brushes: the start would be delayed.

While he was expected to qualify easily for the final, Campari was aware that an accident or technical issue could force his premature exit from the heat. It would be an anti-climactic end to his career but he’d always accepted the risks as a fair trade-off for the glories. While he trusted his racing instincts – and there were few more experienced drivers on the circuit – you couldn’t legislate for a burst tyre or ruptured radiator. There was a chance, he reflected, that this rather than the final could be his last race.

Campari couldn’t remember when he first caught the racing bug. Cars had fascinated him from childhood and it was almost inevitable that at the age of 18 he would open his own garage on the outskirts of Milan. It was a one-man operation but successful enough that by 1912 he had taken up a job as a mechanic with the prestigious Alfa Romeo company. Within weeks he was test driving their racing cars and in 1913 competed in his first race, finishing in second place at the Parma to Poggio di Berceto hill climb.

After the First World War Campari began to establish himself as a racing driver of great promise. So impressed was Alfa Romeo’s chief designer Vittorio Jano with the way Campari drove his cars that in 1923 he promoted him to the racing team as part of a formidable trio with Gastone Brilli-Peri and Antonio Ascari. Within months Campari had won the French Grand Prix – his first ever Grand Prix, a seven-hour slog that came with a prize of a giant sausage – and in 1925, despite the death of Ascari at the French Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo had won the championship.

In 1928, Campari’s best racing year of them all, he won the gruelling Mille Miglia race on his way to become the champion of Italy and a national celebrity. Two relatively lean years followed until his 1931 Italian Grand Prix win at Monza, but a dispute with Alfa Romeo the following year led to him leaving the team briefly for Maserati ahead of the 1933 season before returning to the Alfa Romeo fold after winning the French Grand Prix.

In the meantime he had kept up his love of cooking and of opera, married Cavalleri in 1922 and in 1925, while helping Alfa Romeo to the constructors’ championship, had taken his first major operatic role, as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Bergamo opera house. The applause at the curtain call had thrilled him almost as much as the roar of a Grand Prix crowd and as he sat at the start line at Monza that damp afternoon he thought about what lay ahead as much as what he was leaving behind. He’d certainly fulfilled his potential on the track but now, at 41, it was time to explore his potential on the stage.

He had enjoyed this last season, leading the Tripoli Grand Prix for 10 laps before engine trouble forced his retirement and closing a gap of 30 seconds behind leader Philippe Étancelin to just three when the French driver’s clutch went on the final lap and Campari was able to coast by him and win. His reactions and instincts were still sound but how much could he rely on them now he was the wrong side of 40?

The crowd was growing impatient, whistling and stamping their feet, when eventually the signal came through that the oil spill had been cleared and the revving began again. Campari adjusted his goggles and smoothed down the beret he favoured instead of a crash helmet. He gripped the wheel and as soon as the flag dropped was away, reaching the first bend ahead of his main rival Baconin Borzacchini. He felt good, he felt calm, he felt completely in control.

As the drivers approached the south bend Campari suddenly felt his wheels slide under him as they hit the remnants of the oil patch at 110mph, sending him across the track and up to the top of the banking. His car skidded along the concrete retaining wall for a few yards as he wrestled with the wheel. All these years of racing and he’d never had a serious accident or sustained a serious injury, all he had to do was let the car have its head then bring it back under control.

Campari’s car flipped over the wall and somersaulted down the other side of the embankment, coming to rest upside down and killing him instantly. Borzacchini had been so close behind his rival he too shot over the embankment, was thrown from his vehicle into a tree trunk and died later from his injuries. Later the same day, in the final, the Polish driver Count Stanislaus Czaykowski crashed barely 50 yards from the scene of the previous accident and burned to death in his overturned Bugatti.

All deaths are equal, but of the three Italy felt Campari’s the deepest. A man who was so full of life and had lived it to the full had through his daring on the track and his soulful renditions on the opera stage come almost to represent the nation itself. The thousands who filed past the coffins in the pouring rain as they lay in state on the track, each attended by their faithful mechanics, felt that on a drizzly afternoon in the far north of Italy a little piece of the nation had died with Giuseppe Campari.

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