The good burghers of Metz, France, haven't heard a racket like this since Prussian Prince Frederick Charles besieged the place back in 1870. Trundling along the narrow cobblestone streets, our Maserati GranTurismo S - the brand-new, hooligans-rejoice version of Maserati's sexy coupe - clatters raucously on overrun and shakes the picturesque rafters of the medieval buildings with barely muffled blasts of V-8 pandemonium. We pull into a parking lot beneath the soaring spires of a Gothic cathedral and squeeze into a ridiculously cramped space after much gratuitous revving of the engine. By the time we kill the ignition, the parking attendant is hopping up and down with what we hope is enthusiasm. "Bruit magnifique!" he shouts over and over. Magnificent noise!
We hear you, dude. There are faster cars than the GranTurismo S, but none of them make more intoxicating sounds when you select the Sport mode, thereby opening a bypass in the exhaust and liberating countless decibels of race-car-style mayhem. Luca Dal Monte, Maserati's affable chief of public relations, had advised us to avoid the Sport mode in confined spaces because, as he put it: "Even when you're going 30 miles per hour, it sounds like you're speeding." But photographer Mark Bramley and I have agreed that Sport mode is a must in small towns, when leaving tollbooths, and, especially, when blasting through long tunnels, where the GranTurismo S sounds like a prototype wailing down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. Along the way, we get respectful salutes from French gendarmes, see thumbs-up from motorcycle racers, and nearly blow unsuspecting commuters off their motor scooters.
Although the GranTurismo S isn't quite loud enough to wake the dead, we're betting that its howl is spine-tingling enough to conjure up the ghosts of racetracks past. Fifty years ago this summer, Maserati stood at center stage during a historic changing of the guard. First came the Race of Two Worlds on the banking at Monza, which pitted Indy roadsters against grand prix-style monopostos. One week later was the 1958 edition of the French Grand Prix at Reims, where three Americans - Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, and Troy Ruttman - made their world championship debuts and Juan Manuel Fangio, driving a fourth Maserati 250F, ran his final race.
By 1969, both the banking at Monza and the grandstands overlooking the circuit at Reims had been rendered obsolete by modern safety regulations. But they still stand today as monuments to a bygone era. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the events of 1958, we thought it would be appropriate to make a pilgrimage to these historic sites and genuflect at the silent sentinels that stand guard over them. And what better vehicle for our journey than the GranTurismo S, a car that looks to Maserati's past even as it points to the future?
Maserati has been through more ups and downs than a crystal meth fiend since the Maserati brothers founded their eponymous marque in 1914. There have been transcendent highs (Fangio winning the championship in 1957), and there have been unspeakable lows (waiting for a Biturbo to commence its inevitable self-destruction sequence). With Fiat's purchase of the company in 1993 came the promise of financial security - especially welcome after disastrous associations with Citroën, Chrysler, and De Tomaso. But Maserati remained a poor sister to Ferrari until 2004, which brought the new four-door Quattroporte. The company's renaissance continued with last year's debut of the GranTurismo coupe.
Based on a shortened version of the Quattroporte's architecture and featuring a Pininfarina body that was at once brawny and voluptuous, the GranTurismo was a stylish four-seat grand tourer that harked back to the Maserati 5000 of the '60s. The new GT S is a GranTurismo, but mo' better. The most noteworthy improvement is found under the hood, where the 4.2-liter V-8 has been bored and stroked to displace 4.7 liters. Tarted up with red valve covers, the engine in the GT S makes 433 hp and 361 lb-ft of torque while spinning to 7600 rpm. The GT S also gets a sequential manual transmission with six gears (and six modes) that can serve as an automatic, a clutch-pedal-less semiautomatic, or a faux-F1 gearbox, dubbed MC-Shift, that swaps gears in a mere 100 milliseconds if you're turning more than 5500 rpm and you have the throttle cracked open 80-plus percent.
We pick up our car at the factory in Modena and motor northwest on the A1 to the ring road around Milan. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza, the spiritual home of Italian motorsport, was built in 1922 in a city park north of Milan. When we arrive, the track is eerily quiet, and nobody can tell us anything about the location of the fabled banking. It's only after I resort to childlike hand gestures that somebody finally says, "Ah, la Sopraelevata!" We're led through a couple of gates to what appears to be a vacant section of the park. And then, suddenly, there it is in front of us - an abandoned stretch of racetrack seemingly turned on its side, with trees encroaching over the low, rusty guardrail at the top and a faded yellow line undulating along the broken pavement at the bottom. The banking is so steep - at 38 degrees, significantly higher than Daytona's - that Bramley can't open the passenger door when we're parked on it, and once we climb out, I have trouble even walking to the top. As a handful of cyclists slowly pedal past, the modern racetrack seems far, far away.
The Sopraelevata was erected in 1955 to be used in concert with the existing circuit, but this didn't go over well with road racers. So in 1957, the two banked sections were connected with straightaways to create a high-speed oval, and Indy-car drivers were invited to compete in the first Monza 500. Most Europeans boycotted the race because they thought the banking was a death trap. But the Italians showed up the next year with mongrelized specials built just for "Monzanapolis." The Eldorado ice cream company commissioned a supersize version of the Maserati 250F for Stirling Moss. Painted white instead of red and with a cartoon one-toothed cowboy on the hood, it was built with extra-stout tubing to support a hefty 4.2-liter V-8. Ferrari, meanwhile, stuck a 4.0-liter V-12 sports car engine in a single-seater, and Luigi Musso put in a death-defying performance to qualify it on the pole with a lap at better than 174 mph. But the Indy cars were the class of the field, and Jim Rathmann won easily in a Watson roadster.
After a brief recce to make sure I don't flatten any cyclists, I climb back into the Maserati and blast around the banking. Even at 100 mph, the car bucks awkwardly on the bumpy pavement, and I can only imagine how miserable the drivers must've felt back in 1958, saddled with solid axles and ladder frames. "I could see air between the tires and the road," Dan Gurney, who attended the race as a spectator, had once told me. "Musso looked like he was hanging on for dear life. And when Phil Hill got back to the pits, he was completely wasted. Of course, that was better than Moss, who almost got wasted when the steering broke while he was flat-out on the banking, chasing A. J. Foyt, and he destroyed several yards of guardrail before grinding to a halt. He later wrote in his diary, "I was sure I was going to be killed.
After leaving Monza, we hightail it through Switzerland and arc into France at a healthy clip that spotlights the Maser's best attributes. The GranTurismo S leaps from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds (according to Maserati), and with massive, low-profile Pirelli PZeros at each corner, the car has plenty of stick. But it's a big car that seats four adults and weighs more than two tons, and carving through Alpine passes isn't its forte. As its name suggests, the GranTurismo S is built for covering vast distances at prodigious speeds. Snugged into its firm but supportive seats, with my hands curled around the beefy steering wheel, we sail effortlessly through the French countryside. My only gripe is the gearbox. Even in automatic mode, the car lurches forward during brisk upshifts, and the normal semiautomatic mode isn't as satisfying as a true manual. Only when the MC-Shift is engaged does the gearbox seem world-class. But do you really want to make every run to Starbucks at full throttle?
It's pouring by the time we reach Reims. Although Bramley is seriously bummed, I consider the weather a godsend. I know that local enthusiasts have been painstakingly restoring the abandoned grandstands, and I'm afraid that the structures may look too pretty. But as we navigate the roundabout at La Garenne - a restaurant that's been a fixture alongside the circuit since before World War II - and roll down the two-lane highway toward the old start/finish line, the grandstands materialize out of the gloom like a spectral phantasm. The Shell and Esso logos are worn and faded almost beyond recognition, and there's a haunting sensation that we're trespassing at an ancient temple to a dead civilization. We park in the pit lane - the unprotected shoulder of the highway - and climb the crumbling concrete stairs to the top of the grandstands. When I gaze back at the Thillois hairpin, it's not hard to envision racing cars hurtling toward me and disappearing underneath the Dunlop Bridge (removed a few years ago because trucks kept getting stuck underneath it).
In 1958, Phil Hill made his Formula 1 debut here at Reims in a 250F owned by Jo Bonnier. Two more ex-works 250Fs were entered by Modena-based Scuderia Centro Sud for sports car ace Carroll Shelby and 1952 Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman, who'd finished tenth at Monzanapolis the previous week. The big news, though, was Fangio's appearance in a special lightweight 250F known as the Piccolo. But Fangio was never a factor in the race, and on lap 10, while running a close second to Mike Hawthorn, Musso overcooked the almost-flat-but-not-quite right-hander at the end of the front straight and fatally rolled his Ferrari.
I wheel the GT S onto what remains of the triangular circuit - three public roads that were closed for races. The corner where Musso lost control has been disfigured by a roundabout. But Pierre Kuraj, a spectator who witnessed the accident, leads me to the spot where the Ferrari came to rest, upside-down, in a wheat field. "Musso was ejected from his car like a jumping jack," he tells me.
The Quick and the Dead
It's customary to think of the 1950s as a golden age of motorsports. But in mythologizing the past, we often gloss over how brutally dangerous racing was during this era. Of the thirty-four drivers who competed at Monza and Reims in 1958, twelve would die in racing accidents.
Resurrecting the past at Reims
Mary Roche was an Illinois girl who visited Reims while attending college and decided to move there after falling in love with the culture, the wine, and, most surprising, the races. "There was something magical about them," she recalls. "The vibrations. The emotions. The excitement. I would find myself thinking, 'Is this real, or am I dreaming?' "
Roche ended up marrying a distant cousin of Toto Roche, who was not only the principal organizer of the races at Reims but who traditionally served as the starter. So it's especially fitting that she's now a leading member of Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux, which was formed in 2003 to restore the dilapidated grandstands to their former glory.
For the past five years, Les Amis have repainted large swathes of the structure in the hopes of frustrating efforts to raze the grandstands. Three years ago, the group found a powerful ally in Franz Hummel, a Le Mans veteran who organizes events for historic race cars. "Here, there is a legend," Hummel says, explaining why he decided to stage a rally in the heart of France's Champagne region. "Reims is fantastic because it is a story."
Last fall, Hummel organized the inaugural Weekend de l'Excellence Automobile de Reims. More than 200 cars participated in the historic rally, among them the W196 streamliner that Fangio had driven to victory at Reims in 1954 in Mercedes-Benz's historic return to grand prix racing. For the event, Hummel enticed his close friend Jean Alesi to drive the car.
"There are no words to describe how I felt when I saw Jean in that car," Hummel recalls. "I have been racing for maybe thirty-five years, and that was my best souvenir."
Maserati GranTurismo S
Base Price $135,000
Engine DOHC 32-valve V-8
Displacement 4.7 liters (286 cu in)
Horsepower 433 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque 361 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Transmission type 6-speed sequential manual
Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, front/rear Control arms, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Tires Pirelli PZero
Tire size, f 245/35YR-20
Tire size, r 285/35YR-20
L x W x H 192.2 x 75.4 x 53.3 in
Wheelbase 115.8 in
Track f/r 62.4/62.6 in
Weight 4145 lb (per manufacturer)
City MPG 11
HWY MPG 17