Unsung Heroes: Giancarlo Baghetti

24 March 2021

Words - Gavin Green

A new series looks back at Ferrari drivers who deserve greater recognition. The first is Giancarlo Baghetti, who not only won for the Scuderia on his debut in the Formula 1 World Championship, but also took the first-ever victory for a mid-engined Ferrari F1 car

Aside from the victor of the inaugural Formula 1 race, Giancarlo Baghetti is the only driver to win his first world championship Grand Prix. In fact, he won his first three Formula 1 races, all for Ferrari.

His first two victories were in non-championship events preceding the start of the 1961 season. They might not have counted towards the end-of-season points tally, but they were important events in period, with Baghetti competing against the likes of defending Formula 1 world champion Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Dan Gurney at the Syracuse GP in April 1961.

No matter the calibre, Baghetti won on the Italian island of Sicily, his performance also demonstrating the prowess of Ferrari’s first purpose-built mid-engined F1 car, the 156. Three weeks later, against more limited opposition with the Monaco Grand Prix opening the F1 championship on the same weekend, Baghetti was again victorious at the Naples GP.

Still, when he arrived in July for the 1961 French GP, round four of that year’s Formula 1 season, most people expected the novice Italian finally to get his come-uppance.

This was 26-year old Baghetti’s first world championship race. He was undoubtedly driving the best car, Ferrari’s new 156 ‘sharknose’ – as it became known due to its distinctive twin-nostril nosecone. But then so were his more illustrious teammates, Americans Phil Hill and Richie Ginther, and German Wolfgang von Trips – and they all had the latest and more powerful V6 engine. Plus, Moss, Brabham, Clark, Hill and co were in the hunt as well. Nobody gave Baghetti much chance, despite his two impressive non-championship GP victories.

He qualified only 12th, but the young Italian carved his way through the field impressively, showing astonishing maturity and coolness while the three other Ferrari drivers all had mechanical problems. At the end of the race at the high-speed Reims circuit, he was fighting for the lead. On the final run to the chequered flag, Baghetti’s Ferrari powered past Dan Gurney’s Porsche, winning by 0.1 seconds.

Baghetti not only became the first driver to win his maiden GP, he was also the first Italian to win a world championship F1 race since Luigi Musso in 1956. What’s more, he’d done it in a Ferrari. Italy had a new racing hero, and one who had arrived on the scene with astonishing haste.

Baghetti had first come to Enzo Ferrari’s attention with success in Italy’s 1960 Formula Junior series, a noted breeding ground for tomorrow’s stars. A patriotic man and keen to promote his promising young fellow countrymen, Enzo helped to set up a semi-works team that would occasionally enter one of the new Ferrari 156s for the youngster.

The next world championship race was the British Grand Prix at Aintree. The Ferraris dominated, its trio of seasoned drivers finishing 1-2-3 (Von Trips won from Phil Hill and Ginther). Baghetti crashed while 10th. Just after his Ferrari hit the bank, the course commentator memorably announced, ‘Baghetti is beaten at last!’.

He would never finish in the top three of a world championship Grand Prix again. The following year he once again drove for Ferrari, but 1962 was a poorer season for the Scuderia after Hill and the Scuderia took the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles in ‘61. Baghetti’s best result was fourth in the championship-opening Dutch Grand Prix. He left Ferrari after 1962 and retired in 1968, aged just 33.

Unlike most F1 drivers, Baghetti achieved all his success at the beginning of his career. When he retired, he enjoyed life, working in a variety of roles from photographer to motorsport journalist. He died from cancer aged 60 in 1995. He remarked, in his later years, that perhaps he should have retired at the end of 1961. ‘Then everyone would have remembered me as a phenomenon.’