6 March 2019

A weary enthusiast. Fascinating F1 Facts: 96

Fraire is a small place on the main road from Charleroi south to the French border. The town has been bypassed now, but at the top of the hill as one leaves is the Mattozza garage, where you can fill up, buy bits and bobs and have your car serviced. The name is proudly above the door.

As the name suggests, the family has its roots in Italy. Viglielmo, the patriarch, was born in Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a picturesque cliff top village in the province of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region, not far from Pescara. But like the celebrated Bianchi clan, he decided to move to Belgium and in 1933 first appeared in the big local motor racing event, the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay. In the same year he raced in the Spa 24 Hours in an Alfa Romeo. He reappeared at Chimay two years later but then disappeared back to Fraire to build up his garage business.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1954, Mattozza reappeared at Chimay with a Grand Prix car that he had built himself. At the time the Grand Prix des Frontieres was a fairly big non-championship F1 event and was won that year by Prince Bira in a Maserati. Mattozza appeared with a car he called the VM Monoplace. It was powered by a 2.5-litre V8 Tatra engine, which had enjoyed some success in Eastern Bloc races in that era. Tatra was a Czech company, the earliest car manufacturer in Central Europe. It decided to build the engine after World War 2 in order to test and develop it for a limousine it was planning for the Russian market. The V8 appeared in a sleek sports car and was then tried in a proper single-seater, although only a couple of cars were built. Neither left what was then Czechoslovakia, although the VM Monoplace bore a strong ressemblance to these machines from behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps Mattozza acquired the drawings from the East... who knows? There are various theories about Mattozza's car, but it may have been based on one of the Tatra sports car of the era, stripped down and turned into a racing car, something which was not unusual at the time, with all the BMW 328 derivatives that were seen racing on the circuits of Europe.

Whatever the case, this was very much a one-man-band, the result of a passionate individual who wanted to have his own Grand Prix car - and made the dream come true. Well, almost... Getting the car finished on time for the annual big race at Chimay was quite an effort and there were a couple of all-nighters involved but Mattozza duly arrived, set up his operation in the paddock and, no doubt, had a few curious visitors drop by to take a look. But Mattozza was weary and, as there was time to spare, he decided that he would have a quick nap before practice for the Grand Prix des Frontieres began.

He was so tired, in fact, that he did not wake up until there were just a few minutes of practice remaining and there was insufficient time to get the car out on to the circuit to set a time. The bitterly disappointed driver obviously did not have the money the travel to other events and had little chance of an invitation to enter a Grand Prix. The following year Chimay was switched to sports cars and so the VM was never seen again, although it is said that Mattozza converted the car into a sports car, which was used in local hillclimb events. Mattozza's son Richard competed in races and rallies in the 1960s and 1970s, while his grandson Sebastien was a professional bicycle racer a few years ago.

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