The 1957 Cuban GP : Ah, Havana !

The Cuban GP took place only three times, in 1957, 1958 and 1960 (not held in 1959 as Castro’s revolution was becoming ineluctable).

At the time, Cuba was a real tropical paradise, "a hedonistic playground for the world's elite", with magnificent beaches and a lot of luxury resorts, casinos, nightclubs, in the hands of the American mafia. We were in the Golden Age of sportscar racing and the idea for the organizers was that creating such an event, mixing glamour and danger, would undoubtly provide an additional attraction for rich American tourists and their dollars, much needed to sustain their moribund economy.

The Cuban GP took shape as a 500 km non-championship race for World Sports Car Manufacturers Championship open cars only (and not F1s as the official poster suggests), on boulevard along the Havana oceanfront called the Malècon, with return through in-town streets. An
anti-clockwise 3.5-mile circuit, to be covered 90 times. The spectacle and the noise of Ferraris, Maseratis and all other bolides roaring at 170 mph on this Malècon circuit with the world's best drivers at the wheel (1) would provide a lot of excitement to the 150.000 race fans massed along the track, with no ARMCO barreers between them and the cars. Thrilling !

The inaugural GP took place on February 25th, 1957 (2). As pilots were arriving to Havana, they discovered that due to a dock strike in New-York, the ship carrying the factory Ferraris and Maseratis had to return to Italy … with the cars. Face to such a critical situation, organizers did not give up and had to find “replacement” cars from Latin America countries for the Cuban week-end. Eventually, they were able to gather a valid field of sports cars and drivers together. The GP was saved ! Being mostly ex-factory 1956 cars, the replacement cars would do the job. They were attribued to “orphan” pilots according criteria unknown to me. As an example,
Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Harry Schell inherited three private Maseratis, lended by the Scuderia Madunina (3) : a 200S for Moss (#28) from Scuderia Madunina Venezuela and two 300S for Fangio (#2) and the flamboyant French-American Harry Schell (#6) from Scuderia Madunina Brazil.

The race

Juan Manuel Fangio on his Maserati #2 qualified 1st and won the race. But the real hero was “Fon” de Portago, driving a powerful Ferrari 857 S, who held the lead most of the race, fighting hard against Fangio, until he suffered a throttle problem and had to make a pit stop on lap 68. He lost 2 minutes and 40 seconds but could still finish third, behind Fangio and Carroll Shelby on a Ferrari 410, turning the race’s fastest lap. Very sportingly, Fangio dedicated his victory to de Portago and put his winner’s wreath around Fon’s neck (4).

As for the two other Maseratis, none could finish the race. On lap 17, as Stirling was in third position, he was forced to retire when his oil pressure dropped to zero (ruptured oil line). Stirling then took over the yellow 300S from Harry Schell, but unfortunately
a valve broke in the 300S's engine and he had to retire a second and final time in the race. So, a contrasted result for our trio of Maseratis, one victory and two DNFs. Of the seventeen starters, only eight did take the chequered flag. Considering this first Cuban GP as globally successful, the F.I.A. gave its green light for organizing a second GP in 1958, which would prove absolutely calamitous. But that’s another story.

The profile

For this profile, I’ve chosen the Maserati 300S #6 simply because of its original and gorgeous Brazilian yellow-green stripes livery so much representative of Latin America. Also, I had no yellow car in my collection of profiles so far... This 300S s/n 3062, originally red, had been accidented a month earlier during the 1000 km of Buenos Aires. Then, it was bought back by the Brazilian Antonio Pinheiro Pires who will have a long nose fitted and the car repainted yellow (it will be repainted red later on). Esso was apparently a major sponsor of Madunina, as suggested by the big Esso ovals on sides of the three Maseratis.

I suspected the other triangular sticker close to Esso ovals to have something to do with the Scuderia Madudina, but the photos of Madunina cars available to me did not permit to see it correctly. I did many long researches on the internet, all unsuccessful, until one day I was incredibly lucky to find a real Madunina sticker of the time on sale on eBay ! Bingo !! As you can see on the pic (left), it represents a red single-seater race car (presumably a formula Junior) inside a steering-wheel and the Milan Cathedral in the background, with the famous Madonnina statue at the top. Knowing that the Scuderia Madunina was founded in Milan (3), the loop was looped.

(1) Among the drivers who participated in the race were Juan Manuel Fangio (considered as a racing god in Latin America, his participation was a sine qua non for organizers to give legitimacy to their event), Stirling Moss, Fon de Portago, Phil Hill, Harry Schell, Carroll Shelby, Eugenio Castelloti, Olivier Gendebien, Masten Gregory, Peter Collins.

(2) February 25th, 1957 being a Monday, it might be that the race was initially planned for Sunday 24th but delayed by a day due to problems with cars missing… I’d welcome any more info on this.

(3) The man behing the Scuderia Madunina, formed in 1952 in Milan, was the
Commendatore Marcello Giambertone, who happened to be business manager to Fangio, which facilitated the extension of the Scuderia to Venezuela and Brazil. No doubt that the Cuban GP organisers did rely on him to complete their field of cars.
Note that the Scuderia Madunina did not own any cars on its own, it was only providing help and services to their owners in their dealings with race organisers. It’s based on this approach that “Giamba” became a key actor in the formula Junior during the 1961-63, years.

(4) Remember, we were in the Golden Age of sports car racing, when drivers’ spirit was friendship, solidarity, gaiety, fair play and ... (much needed) courage !