Serenissima

by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima was the name given to the Republic of Venice over one thousand years ago, and is still used today.

Count Giovanni Volpi son of an influential Venetian family adopted it for his 1960's racing team, “Scuderia Serenissima”. The team's emblem was the Italian flag with the winged lion of Saint Marco at its centre. At the age of 24, Giovanni inherited a fortune from his father, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata who, among other things, founded the Venice Film Festival. Giovanni was now able to indulge his passion for Motor Racing, and soon became one of Enzo Ferrari's best customers, remembered for owning the iconic “Bread Van” and many other classic race cars. In 1961 there was the so called “Palace Revolution” at Ferrari when top engineers Carlo Chiti, Giotto Bizzarini and other key personnel walked out and formed a new company called ATS. Giovanni Volpi financed this enterprise which soon ended in failure, Chiti left to found Auto Delta, and Bizzarini left to manufacture cars bearing his own name. This setback did nothing to dull Giovanni's enthusiasm for racing and he decided to build his own prototype cars called, simply, Serenissima.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

The modest factory he acquired was located in the small town of Formigine, half way between Modena and Maranello. The chief executive and team manager was ex Ferrari and Maserati Team Manager, Nello (Maestro) Ugolini. In charge of the technical side was Stirling Moss' legendary former mechanic, (race engineer in today's parlance) Alf Francis. Bruce MacIntosh was chief mechanic with a young Italian helper, plus two secretaries in the front office. That was the total work force.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

In the Spring of 1968, Nello Ugolini called me and asked if I was free to do some testing for them at the Modena Autodromo in return for a small daily fee plus expenses. I agreed at once, and so began a regular five hour commute up from Rome. I usually stayed with Mike Parkes, and over time came to appreciate Modena which is so different in atmosphere, accent, food and architecture to Rome which was my favourite place to live in those days.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

The car I tested was an elegant coupe with gull wing doors, based on a McLaren M1B chassis, and powered by a Carlo Chiti designed, ex ATS V8 engine coupled to a Colotti Francis gearbox. I found it delightfully easy to drive and most of the testing time was spent solving reliability issues with the engine. It was enjoyable work, and the spirit in the tiny team was happy. I only raced the car once, at Enna in August in the days before that circuit had chicanes. I knew the track well from previous F3 and F2 races, in fact, in an F3 car, with a little bit of finesse, it was possible to complete the whole lap without lifting off the accelerator. This was not the case in a three litre sports car, a mistake could put you in the lake which the circuit went around, and which was full of snakes. After qualifying, Jo Siffert, driving a Porsche 910, and I were comfortably faster than anyone else, with Jo being quicker than me. Before the start, Seppe asked me if I was happy to put on a show for the crowd, on the understanding that he was going to win. I said OK and we had great fun doing just that, changing places a couple of times a lap, giving the spectators sitting on the hills in the 40C temperature something to talk about afterwards.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

All in all, it had been a good outing, I had flown myself down to Catania and back to Rome in a small aircraft I'd hired from the Aero Club, my first long distance solo flight. As far as I know, this excellent car only served one more useful purpose before being retired, which was to be a prop in a foto shoot involving an attractive American model, with the end product being Serenissima postcards.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

For the1969 season, Serenissima built a completely new, state of the art car designated the Mk 168, open top, monocoque chassis, with a more powerful engine. It looked beautiful, but as soon as I drove it I discovered it had a dark side. At high speed, it was extremely unstable, movements of more than one centimetre on the steering wheel being unwise. To be honest, it was scary. We tried all the usual things, different springs, shock absorbers, roll bars, tyre pressures, but nothing made much improvement. All this work took time as the engine was quite fragile at first, and kept breaking down. The fact is we never sorted it out. With hindsight, the problem was undoubtedly an aerodynamic one, but in those days, only Colin Chapman and Jim Hall of Chaparral understood the potential of air flow. Everyone else made car shapes that were fast in a straight line and, if possible, beautiful.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Our first race was in July at the Norisring circuit where we retired with engine problems. In October we raced at Innsbruck on the temporary circuit around the airfield, laid out with straw bales. Frank Gardner won in a Lola T70, I finished 6th. The next week end we were at the ultra-fast Salzburgring, exactly the worst place for the unstable Mk 168. I must have been taking what Peter Coltrin called “brave pills” as I qualified on the front row and finished third behind the Austrian works Porsches 908's of Kurt Ahrens and Rudi Linz. I never drove the car again. By now, Count Volpi had tired of the game and shortly afterwards the firm was wound down, and the cars sold off.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

I continued to see Nello Ugolini, a man I admired and liked, for a few more years in his capacity as Team Manager for Scuderia Filipinetti and De Tomaso. He passed away in Modena in 2000 at the age of 95. Alf Francis, born Alfons Kowaleski in Poland moved to Oklahoma City to restore historic cars for wealthy collectors, where he died in 1985. It had been a great pleasure to work with and to know him. Bruce MacIntosh went to McLaren where his considerable skills were put to good use. Formigine today has quadrupled in size and is unrecognizable, but hidden there is a factory run by Mauro Forghieri which produces wonderful mechanical gems.

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams

Serenissima by Jonathan Williams