Richard Williams on Enzo Ferrari

Enzo Ferrari created the world's most revered racing cars - but at a tragic cost

Enzo Ferrari's days started with a visit to the cemetery where his parents, his wife and his elder son were buried. The routine never varied - up at eight, a session in the barber's chair half an hour later and then the short drive to the family tomb. Only after that could his working day begin.

For the last 30 years of his life Ferrari was the most compelling figure in motor racing, and perhaps the most misunderstood. Bernie Ecclestone may have been responsible for transforming formula one into a multinational industry worth billions but he could never have achieved the feat without the glamour conferred on the sport by the legacy of an old man whose influence continues to cast shadows more than a decade after his death.

And yet Ferrari himself, despite his worldwide fame, was a man of small-town habits, his temperament characterised by an ingrained conservatism that was both his strength and, on several occasions during a long and turbulent career, almost his downfall. Time and again he was pulled back from the brink of disaster by a stroke of luck or the generosity of others. But that, like the early-morning vigil by his son's grave, was another part of the complex mystique.

His lifelong distrust of elevators and aeroplanes meant that he was happy to stay put in Modena even when his business was expanding across continents. By the early 1930s he had stopped attending races, preferring to wait at home and hear the news over the telephone. Powerful figures came to see him, rather than vice versa. This, like the dark glasses that he wore even in his gloomy office, and like a penchant for conducting rows on the telephone at window-rattling volume, emphasised what many took to be the Machiavellian aspect of his character. In fact he had never read Machiavelli and in private his life was full of humour, much of it coarse. But after photographers started asking him to scowl for the cameras, he began to see the value in refusing to correct the impression.

Darkness had become a vital element in the Ferrari myth and it would be useless to pretend that the appeal has nothing to do with the question of death. To trace Enzo Ferrari's life story is to wander through a graveyard populated by brave young men who died before their time.

His own life was coloured by tragedy from the age of 18, when his father - who had taken him to Bologna to watch his first motor race - contracted bronchitis and died suddenly. Later that same year, 1916, his brother fell ill and died while serving with the ground crew of a fighter squadron. Enzo himself contracted pleurisy at the front the following year, while shoeing mules for a mountain artillery regiment. His convalescence took place in a home for incurables, where he was woken up every morning by the hammering of coffinmakers - a sound, he said, that reminded him of the noises from his father's metalworks, among which he had spent his childhood.

Closure of the small factory meant there was nothing for him to inherit. Thrown back on to his own resources, he immersed himself in the society of the pioneer automobilists who congregated in the cafes of Turin and Milan. Assiduously cultivating contacts, he slowly progressed from small-town obscurity to the kind of fame that exists in the realms where a surname alone is necessary to evoke a universe - Chanel, Kalashnikov, Ferrari. Unlike Coco Chanel or Mikhail Kalashnikov, however, Enzo Ferrari never needed to put pencil to drawing paper in order to realise his dreams. There were other people to do that. His special gifts lay elsewhere.

Through vision and opportunism he created the first Scuderia Ferrari in 1930, entering cars for professional drivers as well as a variety of wealthy young amateurs whose contributions helped finance the business. Ferrari's shrewdness in assembling a group of trade sponsors was an innovation which forms the commercial basis of today's formula one racing - and the trademark of one of those original sponsors, Shell, is still to be found on the bodywork of today's Ferrari grand prix cars.

Death, however, was an ever-present factor. Antonio Ascari, his mentor, was killed when he crashed at the Montlhéry speedbowl outside Paris in 1925. His friends Giuseppe Campari, Luigi Arcangeli and Baconin Borzacchini were soon to meet similar fates, as was Guy Moll, a round-faced Algerian prodigy poised on the threshold of greatness when his Alfa, entered by Ferrari, somersaulted at 160mph at Pescara in 1936.

After the war, when Ferrari began to build cars under his own name, the combination of immediate success and a baleful fate surrounded the cars with an atmosphere of sombre glamour. As they sped to victory at Le Mans, Monaco and elsewhere, the roll of victims lengthened. Some were obscure amateurs but others were among the most celebrated figures of their day - Alberto Ascari, Antonio's son, became Ferrari's first world champion before crashing to his death during a Monza test session. He was followed by Eugenio Castellotti, Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso, Peter Collins and Wolfgang von Trips, all killed in Ferraris between 1955 and 1961. When Porfirio Rubirosa, the legendary Dominican playboy, smashed into a tree in the Bois de Boulogne and killed himself on the way home from a party in 1965, it was somehow inevitable that he was driving through the Parisian dawn at the wheel of a Ferrari.

Ferrari usually took the blame but in fact his vehicles were noted for their sturdiness and were seldom at fault. Yet there was something about a Ferrari that made a driver push himself to the limit and beyond - often provoked by the sense of competition assiduously fostered by the Old Man between those who accepted an invitation to join the team.

He seldom attended the funerals of those who died in his cars. Perhaps he had seen too much. And his attitude to the deaths of young men was probably affected by the tragedy of his own first son, Dino, who was born in 1932 but soon began to display the fatal symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. A technical school graduate who had started work in the engine design department, Dino was 24 when he finally succumbed.

The mourning was protracted and intense. Enzo Ferrari, after all, had once said that the only true form of love was that of a father for his son. Few outsiders were aware that he already had a second son, Piero, a gentle and unassertive boy born in 1945 to Ferrari's mistress, Lina Lardi, with whom Enzo maintained a relationship that had begun at the end of the 1920s and was to continue, undisturbed by various other liaisons, through the death of his wife, Laura, in 1978 up to his own death in 1988.

Laura's demise allowed Ferrari to give Piero his surname, along with the 10% of the company's shares that remained in the family's name after the rest had been pledged to Fiat in a rescue deal made in 1969. Today Lina Lardi lives with Piero and his family in the tall, handsome house just outside the centre of Modena, into which Enzo and Laura Ferrari moved in the 1960s.

And the cars race on, once again champions of the world, the beneficiaries of a myth whose complexities and contradictions may be receding into history but whose appeal refuses to fade.

· Readers can order Enzo Ferrari: A Life, by Richard Williams, for £16 plus p&p. Call the Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979. Published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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