Historic Karting: Umberto

Written By Dave Bewley

05.MAY 1983

It’s one of life’s little quirks that seemingly insignificant incidents can have a huge influence on events further down the line. ACR’s Andy Cox might not know it, but Birel and Easykart quite possibly owe their current existence to a borrowed pair of blue overalls worn almost 46 years ago. What happened back then provided a much repeated tale of ingenuity and subterfuge from an era when team racing was very much part of international karting.

Ferdinando Sala opened a bicycle shop in the Italian town of Lissone more than a century ago. Sala was a very common surname in that area and so every family had its own nickname. The one adopted by Ferdinando’s clan was “Birel”.

When Ferdinando died in 1936, his eldest son Umberto took over the business. After the end of World War 2, Umberto was able to indulge his passion for motorcycles and began racing them with some success. He retired from the sport in 1952 to support his younger brother Guido who by then had become a professional racer. 7 years or so later he was persuaded by Gigi Villoresi to build a kart. Villoresi had been a much revered motor racing star with notable F1 victories, together with a couple of wins in the famous Mile Miglia driving Ferrari and Maserati cars. He turned up at Sala’s workshop with a kart imported from England and Umberto decided to copy it.

By 1961 Umberto was producing karts on a commercial scale. Guido had made the switch from motorcycles by that time and he raced for Birel in several events before signing up as a works driver with Ital-karts. After that, Umberto relied upon his son Oscar and nephew Walter Eleonori to provide race victories. These came quite frequently at local and national levels but Birel failed to make a breakthrough on the international scene.

In 1964 the National Kart Committee decreed that all members of Italy’s team should use Tecno/Parilla outfits to avoid inter-factory squabbles. Tecnos claimed three consecutive world titles from 1964 until 1966. Consequently, their sales at home and abroad far outstripped those for Birel which, at this stage, were still being produced in a semi-domestic environment.

The 1967 World Championships were contested over three rounds at Vevey (Switzerland), Dusseldorf (Germany) and Monaco. Birel had followed the lead from Tecno and were building F3 racing cars by then with Ernesto Brambilla pulling off their first win at Monza in May. A poor season with the karts might well have encouraged Umberto to concentrate exclusively on car production, as did Tecno later that year. Any thoughts along those lines were radically altered by a young Swiss driver called Eduardo Rossi whose performance at international level undoubtedly boosted sales of Birel karts worldwide.

Reigning world champion Suzy Raganelli maintained her winning streak with a convincing victory at Vevey. Daniel Corbaz, Rossi’s Swiss teammate, finished 2nd in very controversial circumstances after Britain’s Mickey Allen had been black-flagged, allegedly for baulking. The following round in Germany produced a win for Francois Goldstein who was followed home by Kjell Ronno (Sweden) with Rossi finishing 3rd ahead of our own Paul Fletcher. Raganelli had previously been involved in a heavy smash during the Paris 6 hour race and it appeared to affect her speed as she settled for 6th spot. That left Rossi lying 4th in the championship standings, just 7 points behind Raganelli who still retained her overall lead.

Race day at Monaco turned out to be a particularly warm one and the atmosphere was certainly highly charged. Raganelli, Goldstein, Corbaz and Rossi all began the proceedings with realistic hopes of becoming World Champion, as did Guilio Pernigotti. Team orders took precedence over factory loyalties back then. Oscar Sala arrived in Monaco with strict instructions to assist Raganelli and Pernigotti wherever possible, even though they were both Tecno mounted.

Raganelli suffered from a bad draw in Timed Qualifying which put her out on the circuit early on when it was still covered in dust. Sala topped the timesheets closely followed by his teammate Ferdinando Beggio who was also receiving factory support from Birel. Pernigotti qualified 5th and Raganelli 18th.

Sala’s instructions were simply to slow the pack until Pernigotti and Raganelli could come through. After Raganelli suffered a series of collisions, Pernigotti emerged as the Italian favourite. Sala and Beggio were instructed to support Pernigotti wherever possible in the Final and allegedly warned that their licences would be withdrawn if they finished ahead of him. This directive would have consequences that assumed farcical proportions later that day.

Raganelli’s earlier problems meant that she was forced to qualify from the ‘B’ Final. Rossi had struggled with an underpowered motor and he too found himself in this race.

After making very drastic alterations to his carburettor settings, Rossi came charging through from the back to win this one. Even so, his world title prospects appeared to be as good as over and it was Corbaz, starting from row 2, upon whom Swiss hopes were now focused. The ‘A’ Final got under way with lots of bumping and boring taking place and was then red-flagged after a couple of laps. Several arguments between race officials and team managers broke out before the karts lined up once again in their original formation.

After wishing Corbaz well, Rossi made the long walk back to his own grid slot musing upon how many drivers ahead would be eager to knock him out of contention. It was expected of all drivers that they would race in their national colours, but nothing had actually been written into the rules. The Swiss drivers, especially, were easily identified by their white overalls. Just moments before the pack began their warm up lap, Rossi switched to blue overalls as worn by members of the Lissone Kart Club. This turned out to be a master stroke, one for which Umberto Sala and Birel would have reason to be eternally thankful.

Pernigotti, Sala, Goldstein, Corbaz, Fletcher and Robert Asselbur were the early leaders. Rossi meanwhile was carving a way through the pack, unrecognised in his blue overalls. Corbaz became the first major casualty when he was shunted ruthlessly from behind and finished upside down in his kart. Sala and Beggio were diligently carrying out their instructions to protect Pernigotti. When Goldstein attempted to find a way through he was driven off the circuit, suffering a badly bent steering column. According to some reports he was infuriated by these tactics and circulated slowly until Pernigotti came back around before promptly knocking him off. Heeding their previous warning, the other Italian drivers dutifully pulled up behind their leader.

Werner Ihle from Germany emerged as the race winner, receiving a handsome trophy from Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Rossi finished back in 8th spot and was astonished to be informed some time afterwards that he’d just become the new world champion.

Present day karters might have difficulty in understanding the part that national loyalties played even in world championship events that were ostensibly competitions for individuals rather than teams. Each country selected four drivers who fell under the control of a team manager and his authority was absolute. Anyone disobeying team orders ran the risk of missing out on all future competitions. Occasionally it got a little bit out of hand, as at Monaco when drivers were instructed to ensure that members from rival teams were knocked off the circuit. However, a certain Mr Horner from Red Bull might well look back in envy at the discipline which these people were able to instil.

Much has been written about Sebastian Vettel disobeying team orders during last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix, with some newspapers even criticising Red Bull for issuing instructions to their drivers in the first place. It’s only in the last few years that team orders became dirty words amongst motor racing fans. It used to be the norm for teams to sign up drivers with number 1 and 2 status. It was the second driver’s job to support his team leader. Ronnie Peterson, who had taken part in the 1967 world karting championships, signed as Mario Andretti’s number 2 at Lotus ten years later. Throughout the 1978 F1 season he was considerably quicker than the American. However, his contract stated that, unless there were other drivers in between, he had to let Andretti finish ahead of him. Much earlier, when drivers were allowed to switch cars halfway through a race, Peter Collins gave up his seat to Fangio whilst actually leading the 1956 Italian GP. Tony Brooks performed the same favour for Stirling Moss at Aintree a year later. No-one can surely believe that team orders weren’t involved in those circumstances.

I met Eduardo Rossi when he came to Whilton Mill four years ago. Contrary to my previous understanding, Eduardo told me that he’d raced in the 1967 World Championships strictly as a privateer without any support from Birel. He still has the blue overalls in his collection today, swearing that they enabled him to become a karting world champion. It’s also quite possible that, without this particular victory, Birel wouldn’t have survived to be one of the market leaders today.


Off Track Poser
The circuit featured in last month’s poser was Wombwell.

This month’s photograph was kindly sent in by John Leitch. Probably taken in 1973, it shows a large field of 250cc International karts racing somewhere in Scotland. Alan Smith (85) and Dick McCutcheon (185) can be seen in amongst the leaders. Quite a few famous names raced there including Jim Clark and Sir Jacky Stewart. The circuit first opened in 1965 and staged around 160 motor racing events before being closed 29 years later. The annual Royal Highland Show still takes place there in June.