When Ferrari Raced Motorcycles

While Ducati was still making transistor radios, Enzo Ferrari was racing bikes

Today one rarely finds a crossover racer, someone whose success on two wheels readily translates to four. The most celebrated of them all is John Surtees, still the only man ever to win the world championship on a bike and in a car. The Englishman won four 500cc Grand Prix crowns (and three 350cc titles) on MV Agusta motorcycles before going on to win the 1964 Formula 1 crown for Ferrari. There have been others who have made successful transitions-Mike Hailwood, Eddie Lawson, Jeff Ward-but nothing like in the '30s, when many of the top drivers were veterans of motorcycle racing.

None less than Enzo Ferrari has his roots in two-wheeled competition, having campaigned motorcycles early in his career before establishing himself as a car racer who once finished ninth in the Targa Florio. Scuderia Ferrari was founded in 1929, and its early years are best remembered for fielding Alfa Romeos. Ferrari worked for Alfa in various capacities such as test driver and race team manager, and when the factory curtailed its race program, Scuderia Ferrari filled the gap.

Few are aware, however, that the small team from northern Italy had initially built its reputation racing motorcycles. All Scuderia Ferrari race cars over the years have had an "SF" number stamped on them. But it's always been a bit of a mystery why those early Alfas were numbered in the 50s and 60s. Presuming the sequence started with number one, what were those early numbers stamped on?

Motorcycles. As Peter Giddings, owner of a 1935 Scuderia Ferrari Alfa, explains: "This car here is number SF64, so you scratch your head and wonder, 'How did Ferrari have 64 vehicles that he put his numbers on, because by 1935 he had only been in it for a year or three?' The reason was because every motorbike he had also had a sequential number. I have seen photos of Ferrari's shop with 20 to 30 motorbikes sitting in it, every one of them with an SF number on it. I've got a Ferrari yearbook and there is an entire section full of motorcycle pictures."

Enzo wasn't alone, as some of his top drivers also started on bikes. Tazio Nuvolari won his first motorcycle race on a Harley-Davidson in 1922. And three years later he won four motorcycle GPs, including his famous win in Italy on a Bianchi 350, despite being ordered by doctors to take a month of bed rest after a seized gearbox put his Alfa into a tree one week earlier. Achille Varzi also had been successful racing motorcycles, starting out with a Sunbeam 500 before switching to a Garelli 350. In '24 he became the third Italian to compete in the Isle of Man TT, and he continued to race there until '30. The two were the top riders in Italy by the late '20s, and when Nuvolari decided to put together a team to race the legendary Bugatti Type 35 cars, Varzi was his teammate.

Giddings again: "Varzi absolutely came up through racing bikes, and Nuvolari was known for racing Rogers, and I think also Nortons.Nuvolari had a fair amount of accidents on motorcycles, and his mom famously said of him, 'He's a nice lad, he's a good lad, but he's crazy.'"

Hermann Lang, who was to become the 1939 European champion (the pre-war equivalent of F1) for Mercedes-Benz, also came from bike racing. He had been a successful sidecar racer before earning a spot as chief mechanic on Mercedes' GP team. Given an opportunity to try out as a driver, he showed enough speed to become a junior member, and went on to win the '37 German GP with the 646-horsepower supercharged Mercedes. He later won the '52 Le Mans 24-Hour. Upon his retirement from racing he went back to work for Mercedes, the consummate factory man.

Bernd Rosemeyer, perhaps the most gifted driver of the era, was yet another of the greats with his roots in motorcycle racing. He had been described as a daredevil rider and came straight into the Auto Union team from the DKW motorcycle division after also riding for NSU. The futuristic, Porsche-designed, rear-engined V16 Auto-Union was best described as fearsome, but because Rosemeyer had never driven a race car before, he didn't know what one was supposed to feel like. A national hero, he married Elly Beinhorn, one of Germany's greatest aviators, and the Nazi propaganda machine spun their fame to unprecedented heights when Rosemeyer won the '36 European Championship. His luck held out until a gust of wind threw his Auto-Union streamliner out of control at nearly 300 mph while attempting to break a speed record on the Autobahn south of Frankfurt. To this day, people stop to leave flowers at his memorial alongside the road.

Prior to Rosemeyer's death, fully four of the top-five drivers in the world had come up through motorcycles. Should Valentino Rossi one day graduate to F1, it would only be history repeating itself, with the premier class of motorcycle racing once again serving as the proving ground for the next generation of carracing superstars.

Double trouble: John Surtees' championship-winning MV Agusta and Ferrari on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama.
Reparto Scuderia Motociclistica reads the heading atop this page from an Italian book, which shows a brace of Rudge motorcycles in the early Ferrari race shop.
Where many bike racers have gone on to cars, F1 great Michael Schumacher recently went the other way and tested the Ducati Desmosedici GP7 at Valencia, Spain.