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The Man Who Conquered Speed

As Andrea de Adamich turns 80, he remembers his successful F1 career with Ferrari and explains how the dangers of racing in the 60s and 70s led him to create the International Safe Driving Centre
Words – Luca Giraldi

They called them the “knights of risk” in Italian, the drivers of the 1960s and 1970s who seemed, once their helmets were on, to scorn the perils of circuits which were as feared as they were spectacular, all while travelling at absurd average speeds.

They lived turn after turn, straight after straight. Among them was Andrea de Adamich, a young man from Trieste who really hurtled along and turned 80 on October 3rd.

More than 60 years of passion about cars, racing and safety bridge the gap between “knight of risk” and the founder of the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura (International Safe Driving Centre). He met with Ferrari in 1967, aged 26. Two Italian drivers, De Adamich and Ignazio Giunti, were eligible to replace Bandini following his tragic death in Monte Carlo. 

‘I came from Jolly Club,’ De Adamich begins, ‘whereas Giunti was in a different situation. A one-hour race was organised at Vallelunga with the 2000 class prototypes and engineer Chiti sent two Alfa 33s that had just made their debut. I was faster qualifying and won the race by quite a stretch, which didn’t go unnoticed: Enzo Ferrari summoned me to Maranello. 

The dangers Andrea faced while racing led him to create the International Safe Driving Centre

‘We agreed to carry out a test at the Aerautodromo di Modena. I got into in the cockpit of Chris Amon’s 312, with half my torso outside it, since the pedals couldn’t be adjusted to my length. The 170 hp Alfa Romeo TZ2 was the most powerful car I’d driven until then. You can’t imagine what the leap in performance was like between that GT and a single-seater! The third time round, buffeted by the air and unable to change gears properly, I remember saying to myself: “This is no job for me.” But I was going really fast. 

‘After that test, Ferrari put me through my paces at Monza, where I drove the car Amon used to compete in the Italian GP. This time the cockpit had been adapted for me and I managed to lap four tenths faster than the New Zealander did when qualifying. At the next test at Vallelunga, with a track record, the doors opened to my first F1 race, at Jarama, in a non-world championship round.’ 

And the first official GP?

‘That came straight afterwards, in South Africa. I raced with Ferrari and with Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx as teammates. I faced Kyalami without ever having seen it in my life, but in qualifying I was still 2 tenths faster than Amon and 1"3 faster than Ickx, with the same single-seater. I was doing well when, while following another car, I failed to avoid an oil spill. I spun around, hit the guardrails with my suspension and was forced to pull out.’ 

Drivers in the 60s and 70s were known as the Knights of Risk

Today, as in the past, drivers believe they are getting behind the wheel of the safest cars on the planet. What about then?

‘All the drivers took it for granted that they wouldn’t make any mistakes during the race. The worry was over the possibility of a technical failure, also because mechanical components weren’t as reliable as they are today. It wasn’t so different when it came to road cars. There were no seat belts, no progressive bumpers in case of an accident: it was a world we’d struggle to accept today.’

Safety is so important to you that you founded the Centro Internazionale di Guida Sicura.

‘It was an initiative that came about after Fiat bought Alfa Romeo. At the time, there were courses to teach you how to race, not how to drive safely. That’s where the project of promoting “safe driving” began, finding a perfect home in Varano. They were the ideal facilities to make sure that drivers concentrated on guiding the vehicle, in complete safety. The immediate success of the initiative far exceeded our expectations.’ 

Andrea de Adamich met with Ferrari in 1967 aged 26, and immediately impressed with his speed

How did the collaboration with Ferrari come about?

‘Luca di Montezemolo, the chairman at the time, saw the success of the courses organised for Alfa Romeo, called me for a meeting and asked me to set up a project. The course began in 1993 under the name of Corso Pilota, dedicated to Ferrari customers. It’s still a huge success today, with a wide-ranging and comprehensive offering.

'Drivers who take one of our courses learn how to react correctly to situations that arise suddenly, created artificially in our case. Swerving, lost grip and lost control when braking, for example, have to be handled without panicking, always keeping control of the car. All this is done in a facility that lets you try and try again in safety, followed by instructors ready to put their experience at the service of the participants.’