The Glorious Obsession Of Mario Verga
by David Tremayne
He had a loving wife and a young daughter, whom he adored. And a successful silk printing business that provided him with a satisfactorily opulent style of living. But Mario Verga also lived with a mistress, a dangerous, psychopathic woman with a history of ill treating the countless men who became infatuated with her. At 44, the aristocratic-looking Italian was in thrall to that siren, the water speed record, to the point of obsession.
Verga was always a man in a hurry. On the morning of his death he scooted from his business premises, the Val Mulini in Como, to Sarnico, near Lake Iseo, at a average of 80 mph that had the passenger in his Alfa Romeo sports car cringing every inch of the way.
Born in Milan, he was an impulsive fellow, and his reaction on seeing his first boat race had been an immediate declaration that he could do better. He didn't the first time he tried, but kept his word shortly afterwards, driving a Maserati-engined hydroplane called Lario 1. For many seasons of competition he was known as The Eternal Second, and thrilled crowds with bow-to-bow duels with rival and friend Ezio Selva. When he married medical student Liliana Burlazzi in 1950 he retired briefly, but when he returned to the water in 1952, the year in which Britain's John Cobb died in his jet-powered Crusader challenging the water speed record on Loch Ness, Verga struck paydirt. Now his boats were called Laura, in honour of his baby daughter. Many enthusiasts recall the domination of Alfa Romeo's 159 straight-eight Grand Prix engine, which took Nino Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio to World Championships, but few know that the same engines enjoyed fabulous success on water too, and that in Verga's hands they came within an ace of winning the speedboat world's greatest prize.
Laura 1 used a 159 engine, and with her Verga became World Champion in the 450 kg class.
With the similarly-powered Laura II, flame red, 17 feet long and weighing 800 kg, he set a class record of 125.67 mph, boosting it later to 140.73. By 1953 he was World Champion at that level, too.
In September 1953 Massimo Leto di Prioli, a Milanese racer, drove his Molinari hull to a new world outboard water speed record of 83.473 mph. Later he would push that beyond 100 mph.
That, and Verga's speeds, prompted the Italian Motornautical Federation to offer a prize to whichever Italian could break the unlimited record which stood at that time to Stanley St Clair Sayres of Seattle, who in July 1952 had taken his ironically named Slo Mo Shun IV to 178.497 mph. The Federation offered a handsome five million lire, stipulating that the hull, engine and fuel, like the driver, had to be of Italian origin. At today's exchange rate it may not seem much, but more than 40 years ago it was a sound incentive, and there were three men prepared to accept the challenge: Achille Castoldi, Selva and Verga.
But first Verga had more winning to do. That December these three musketeers ventured to America, and in Miami Beach's Orange Bowl Verga boosted Italian prestige further by winning the International Grand Prix. His reward was a kiss from Regatta Queen Barbara McCririck, and the $7500 Baker Palladium Cup. 75,000 spectators turned out.
Verga's Roman invasion didn't quite finish with the racing, for the Americans had one more lesson to learn. Two days later, Verga was on the water again as the four-day waterfest concluded with a series of free-for-all solo runs down the Haulover Beach's Inland Waterway track. While Castoldi nursed sponson damage and a cracked cylinder liner, Verga sped with minimal fuss each way through a measured mile, establishing a new world record of 131.680 mph for the 151 cu. in hydroplane class. Even though the Alfa straight-eight only actually displaced 91.5 cu. in, it endowed Laura II with the highest water speed ever seen in Florida, and shattered the old record of 81.264 mph.
"I wasn't really ready for a record try," Verga told newsmen afterwards. "But I was satisfied that I could show what the boat could do. I didn't want to change the propeller because we're going to race in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday. But I think the boat can go about 155 mph when it's ready."
Tribulations on his initial run, and the ultimate success, were both highly apposite training, given that his limited future now revolved exclusively around his new dream to become the World's Fastest Man on Water.
Of the three contenders, Castoldi scarcely needed the money for he was already a wealthy man. His wife, the Marchioness Francesca Ridolfi Castoldi and their close friend Count Enrico Cappellini, supported him in the construction of a large aluminium craft called Mercedes, which was powered by an 1800 bhp Alfa Romeo aircraft engine.
Like Verga with Laura II, Selva opted for one of Alfa's superb straight-eights from the singular Grand Prix cars, and had it installed in Moschettiere IV.
Verga's was the most resourceful solution, for he chose not one but two of the Alfa engines, geared together. He set a quadruple-pronged attack in motion, and as Liliane recuperated from typhus fever and both of them recovered from a fire in their apartment in Milan, Carlo Timossi began fashioning an elegant three-point hydroplane hull in his boatyard on Lake Como, manufacturing its skeleton from high-tensile Lamiera marine plywood. When finished, Laura 3 was 22.6 ft long and just over eight wide, finished in flame red with a narrow black and white stripe running the full length of the smooth aluminium body cowlings which were crafted by the Stella Coachworks of Como. Alfa Romeo's Quadrifoglio racing department prepared the engines, and was responsible for installing them, in-line, in a tubular spaceframe chassis which then slotted into the Timossi hull. Propeller expert Carlo Radice, from nearby Monza, provided the means of transmitting all that power.
The result was a beautiful scaled down version of Slo Mo Shun IV, and with close to 800 bhp in a craft weighing less than 2500 lbs, Verga was under no illusions. By the time Laura 3 was launched, he had seen Selva pull out of the race after declaring the single-engined Moschettiere too much of a handful, while Castoldi had achieved very impressive speeds said to be close to 200 mph, but had also withdrawn after Mercedes' propeller shaft sheared at 160. Verga was thus left as the sole challenger.
Laura's first trial took place in July 1954 in private on a small lake called Pusiano. After reaching 100 mph on part throttle, he returned to the shore and reported to his faithful mechanic, Enrico Fracchia: "She is a wild beast, like a strong and wilful horse! It's going to be a job to tame her!"
By August Verga had averaged 153 mph after unofficial runs at 145 and 162 mph on Lake Iseo. Mindful that an American-Italian documentary film company and a Swiss photographic agency were anxious to see returns on their investments, he knew that his time was approaching and an official attempt on Sayres' record was dialled in for August 28. He allowed himself to be pressured into running when Laura 3 was unready, and in the morning's hot conditions he stood puffing nervously on his umpteenth cigarette and downing a double Scotch for good measure as Fracchia carried out final preparation. Moments later he expunged his nerves with a blast up to 170 mph, but then one of the engines suffered the consequences of poor cooling, and the attempt was over almost before it had begun.
In September Laura 3 was back on the water, but repeatedly the left-hand sponson appeared to drag on the water. Frustrated, Verga let Selva have a run, and he confirmed the problem. Neither of them could steer the boat in a straight line. They tried different propellers, hoping to counteract the phenomenal torque of the twin Alfas, but to no avail. Then a near miss with a small fishing boat, which occurred when Verga was running at low speed with the bows well raised and the transom down in the water, added further to the series of misfortunes.
By October the problem with Laura's attitude persisted, but Verga refused to give up, telling friends: "I'm not afraid, because I am as confident in this boat as I am in myself. It's a trial of strength, but we are going to do it."
A local wind called Il Tivano often blew the surface of Lake Iseo into the small wavelets, or popple, that were ideal for a fast boat riding on two sponsons and the boss of its propeller. But now the lake tended to be flat. Perhaps that was why Laura didn't want to run properly. Fracchia slightly altered the angles of the planing surfaces, and at the same time made those on the left side steeper than those on the right to counter the lopsidedness. With greater hydrodynamic lift, both he and Verga felt they could solve the problem. The changes were completed on the evening of October 8, as Verga dined at the Motornautique Club in Como.
The following morning he rose at six, kissed Liliane and Laura goodbye, and left at seven for half an hour of business at the Val Mulini. After stopping off again at the Motornautique Club he picked up a friend and they sped to Sarnico, averaging that 80 mph on their way to the Riva boatyard. There, Fracchia had already been working since the small hours, putting the finishing touches to Laura 3.
On arrival, Verga found that Il Tivano was blowing again, but his funds were low and his patience short. Moreover, in Britain Donald Campbell's jet-propelled Bluebird K7 was nearing completion, and promised to hit speeds Verga could only dream of. Reverting to the original planing angles was a luxury he could not afford, and around midday he determined to waste no further time and roared off down the course to embrace his destiny.
At an estimated speed of 190, Laura 3 bounced twice, careered along with its nose rising ever higher, then took off and barrel-rolled back on to the water. The hapless Verga was catapulted from the cockpit, and had no chance. He was dead when they lifted him aboard the rescue boat.
Thus ended tragically one of the most gallant, yet least publicised, chapters in water speed record history. Today, Alfa-engined hydroplanes hold world and national records in the two-litre class, thanks to the power of the Twin Spark units, but nobody has ever come so close to outright glory for the marque as Mariolino and his beautiful flame red prop-rider did that sad day on Lake Iseo.
[This article first appeared in the Alfa Romeo house magazine, Veloce]