Tazio Nuvolari was the first racer to look up at the sky and think of pitting cars against planes. Over the years, many others have followed in his footsteps. The last high-speed battle between machines on land and in the air dates back to 2003 – between a Eurofighter and a Ferrari F2003GA. F1 great Michael Schumacher lost two out of his three races against the fighter jet. The man who beat the F1 legend recounts the day through this memorable account.
Amazed, fascinated, and even obsessed. This is how man has always felt towards two abstracts – flying and high speed! And if it’s true that in the aerospace sector, flying and speed are part of the same coin, it’s also a matter of fact that road vehicles and speed are bonded together with an equally intense force. These two dimensions are sometimes brought together by passionate men. How? Well, by organising duels between airplanes and cars of course!
In 1931, at the of Autodromo del Littorio, Italian racing driver, Tazio Nuvolari, was the first to launch his challenge against the mechanical birds of the sky. His Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 took the fight to the Caproni CA 100 – which was the standard training aircraft of the Italian Air Force – flown by Italian aviator Vittorio Suster.
The duel comprised of five rounds, following which the plane emerged victorious. Fifty years later, a pair of speed machines from land and air locked horns yet again. It was November 21st 1981, at the Istrana Air Base – which are the headquarters of the 51st wing of the Italian Air Force. Five full-bore acceleration runs over a distance of a kilometre were witnessed between single-seater F1 cars and F-104 Starfighters. And this time around, Formula One emerged victorious.
And then, in 2003, a Eurofighter Typhoon raced against an F1 Ferrari. The pilot was astronaut and test pilot Maurizio Cheli. And the driver was none other than the charismatic Michael Schumacher. This time, the jet notched up an impressive win.
“I had never found myself in front of such a legend,” confesses Cheli. “I discovered him to be a simple, humble and shy person, which was actually in deep contrast to how aggressive Michael was on the racetrack.”
57-year-old Cheli, who has a constant smile plastered on his face, is an entrepreneur in the aerospace sector today. He has, under his belt, over 5,000 hours of flying time on board all kinds of different aircraft. The development of the Eurofighter was carried out by him, and he’s even spent more than 380 hours in space – orbiting around the Earth in a shuttle.
We met Cheli to refresh his memory of the day he succeeded in doing what very few have achieved – beating Schumacher and his F1 Ferrari. “That was perhaps the only time when Michael managed to smile after having lost a race,” he quips.
The race took place at the Grosseto airport, headquarters of the 4th wing of the Air Force – because that very wing was the first department to receive the Eurofighter. In 2003, the fighter plane was yet to be utilised. It became operative only a year later, replacing the glorious F-104 Starfighter – the Interceptor – which had protected the Italian skies since the sixties.
“The competition took place in front of the then Italian Defence Undersecretary, Filippo Berselli, who was passionate about cars and wanted to organise a duel between these two top products of Italian industry – the Eurofighter, the most advanced European fighter plane (developed by a European consortium with a 21% Italian share) and the Ferrari F2003GA, the car with which Schumacher won his sixth world championship.” It was 23,000 kilogrammes taking to the skies against 600 kilogrammes hitting the tarmac. It was two turbo fans, with two afterburners producing 20,000-pounds of thrust apiece, versus a V10 engine belching out 845bhp. A fighter plane that can pierce through the sound barrier at twice the speed of sound versus a single-seater capable of hitting over 350 km/h. A deafening roar versus a sharp shriek.
“Many people think that being a demonstrative fight, we had exchanged some secrets with each other. But, truth be told, that wasn’t the case. A pilot, or a racing driver, is competitive by nature. Hence, both Michael and I did everything possible to win,” continued Cheli.
It was an acceleration race over three different distances – 600 metres, 900 metres and 1,200 metres. But it was not done in that sequence – first was the shortest, followed by the longest, and, lastly, the 900 metre race took place. The day chosen for the competition was December 11th, a rainy Thursday. “On Wednesday, we conducted our tests – but without Schumacher. In his place was Luciano Burtu, a former F1 driver and Ferrari tester for that year. We faced a few glitches, like the Ferrari refused to budge off the line on occasion. So, the following day, I went to face the official challenge without knowing what an F1 car was really capable of.”
“Now things have started going wrong,” I told myself as soon as I saw Michael accelerating. He was literally flying. I even thought that Ferrari had been sandbagging the day before, and had extracted more performance from the car as part of their strategy.” However, the plane ended up winning two times out of three. “I lost the 600 metre challenge, but only by a tenth of a second. But then the roles were reversed in the 900 metre race, where I won by a difference of 0.1 of a second over Michael. In the 1,200 metre race, I took a clear victory.”
Smiling Cheli continued on. “In hindsight, I would have suggested to race the 600 metres last, because that would have meant I’d be carrying a lot less fuel.”
Schumacher, on the other hand, said that if it weren’t raining that day, things would have been different. “But, Michael, in fact, was supported by electronic equipment. His Ferrari had launch control, which assisted him with traction off the line. I, however, had trouble launching the aircraft with the tyres losing traction on the damp asphalt. The thing is that the Eurofighter engines make it very hard to modulate the power delivery, and you’re constantly trying to find the right equilibrium. For a simple fact, a plane is meant to be operated in the air, and not on the road – unlike an F1 car. And so it takes time for an aircraft to shift from the minimum to maximum speed on the runway.”
MAN AND TECHNOLOGY
It was a challenge between two advanced and sophisticated vehicles, dominated by two different elements – air and earth. “In reality, these two worlds might be different, but they are actually closer than it appears. For example, aerodynamics plays a key role for both. Then, there are the electronics, which allow pilots to control a fundamentally unstable plane – while in cars they help to measure traction, speed and power.” But Cheli also believes that man still remains at the centre of everything – in both fields. “Technology is simply assisting man, who has created it. It allows him to employ his means in the best possible way. However, in my field of work, the most renowned test pilots have always been the ones who have a good technical background, but, more importantly, a strong sensibility and instinct.” A concept that Niki Lauda also expressed when he said that he could feel the mechanical grip of the car through his bottom. “It’s a characteristic that technology will never be able to replace,” said Cheli.
To understand the man better, we played a short word association game with Cheli. Here’s how it went – Speed: “Adrenalin.” To fly: “To see the world from a different perspective.” Sky: “Freedom.” Space: “Infinite.” Challenge: “The salt of life.” Fear: “Part of your emotions.” Eurofighter: “More than a myth.” Ferrari: “A great emotion.” And what about yesterday’s technology? “The past keeps fascinating me, since it allows us to understand that the world moves in a circular way. When there were less means and knowledge, talent was expressed more than today. Retrieving solutions from the past and re-interpreting them with modern technology is the key for future innovations.”
A man of great passion, Cheli, who as a child used to play with toy cars, saw an airplane flying over his head when he was seven. At the time, he told himself: “When I grow up, I will become a pilot.” “Passion is the engine of our lives, which pushes us to do more than what we really want and motivates us to overcome the obstacles we meet everyday,” concludes Cheli.
Three versus Six
WHEN VILLENEUVE WAS TOP GUN
Three F1 single-seaters – the Alfa Romeo of Bruno Giacomelli, the Brabham of Nelson Piquet and Riccardo Patrese, and the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve – versus six F-104 Starfighter planes of the 51st Wing of the Italian Air Force lined up to settle the debate that was ignited 50 years earlier with the battle between Nuvolari and Suster. The race was held on November 21st 1981. The event was led by the then Deputy of the Italian Air Force and Starfighter pilot, Leandro De Vincenti. “The idea came to Marcello Sabbatimi, director of Rombo magazine,” tells us General De Vincenti. “To us, it was a great opportunity to showcase the activities of our planes to a vast audience, thanks to the attention brought by F1”.
A crowd of 5,000 to 10,000 people was expected and less than 20 days were left to organise the event. “We thought of viability, parking, and refreshment booths. I can’t even recall how many letters I wrote to mayors of the area to organise a suitable track.” The duel would be an acceleration race divided into six parts. Engineer Carlo Chiti from Alfa Romeo shared some data about F1 cars with us. It was obvious that over a short distance, the cars would be victorious while over a longer distance the planes would have the upper hand. In the end, it was decided that the race would be run for a distance of 1,000 meters”.
“We were expecting good weather that day, but the visibility was 15,000 meters with dense fog. Even Aviano, the alternate venue, was covered in fog. So we decided to opt for the Grosseto airport as the venue.”
To maximise his chances of success, De Vincenti suggested a slight trick. “The afterburner of the F-104 ensured 60% extra boost, but with the normal procedure of departure, over five seconds are lost before unleashing its full power. And they couldn’t afford to lose so many seconds. By playing a little game with the throttle, though, it was possible to create enough back pressure and fire the afterburner when the brakes were released.”
The best time for the fighter planes was achieved by De Vincenti: 18.05 seconds. Among the F1 drivers, Villeneuve was the fastest with a time of 16.55 aboard his Ferrari 126 CK. In the second run, he did 17.80. Piquet, the then newly crowned world champion completed his run in 17.75 (18.05 in second attempt) with his Brabham BT 49C. Giacomelli, in his Alfa Romeo 179C, did it in 19.98 seconds. “From the plane, the single-seaters looked like small mosquitos flying at the speed of a bullet. Especially in the first 300 meters they were mind-bogglingly quick. But then, the boost of the afterburner would kick in and the planes would catch up pretty quickly.”
On balance, thanks to the additional load of fuel for the fighter jets, the F1 racers won five times out of six. “It was an extremely significant experience for everyone. Even for the audience. And there weren’t just 10,000 – in fact there were at least 60,000 people, or as per some estimates, almost 100,000. The crowd was everywhere. It looked crazy – especially when Villeneuve started spinning his car, people went berserk and swarmed around him like bees. From what I can tell, Gilles was fascinated by the whole experience, and it was quite evident that he was passionate about fighter planes.”
- FERRARI F2003GA
- EUROFIGHTER TYPHOON
Longitudinal rear engine – 2,997cc 90-degrees v10
Power: 845bhp @ 18,300rpm
Double camshaft, four valves per cylinder
Dry sump lubrication system
Rear Wheel Drive
Semi-automatic sequential 7-Speed Transmission, electronic control
Honeycomb composite materials with carbon fibre
Independent front suspension, double rear wishbones, push-rod, rod spring axle unit
Independent rear suspension, double rear wishbones, push-rod, rod spring axle unit
Front and rear ventilated carbon disk brakes
Dimensions and weight
Front track 1,470mm, Rear track 1,405mm
Length 4,445mm, Width 1,796mm
Kerb weight 600kgs
Top speed of over 350km/h
Two Turbofan Eurojet EJ200
Dry drive 13490 Lb x2
Afterburner thrust 20,000 Lbx2
Mauser cannon 27mm caliber
Thirteen Fixed hangers for a maximum of 6500kgs of external loads (auxiliary tanks, air-to-air missiles for radar navigation or infrared, etc.)
Single-seater twin-engined fighter with structure made from composite materials, plastic, aluminium and titanium
Two seater version for training
Maximum load allowed -3/+9 G
Dimensions and weight
Wing opening 10,950mm
Kerb weight 11,000kgs
Maximum weight at departure 23,500kgs
Speed of Mach 2 (2,495km/h at 10,975m)
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