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Tracing the roots of Enzo Ferrari

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A trip down Enzo Ferrari lane (2:25)

Laurence Edmondson goes on a journey through Enzo Ferrari's founding Modena locations. (2:25)

MODENA, Italy -- For more than 2,000 years, the Via Emilia has connected Rimini on Italy's Adriatic coast and the city of Piacenza in the north. Completed in 187 BC, the Roman road draws a diagonal line across the country, dividing the Apennine Mountains to the south and Italy's fertile plains to the north.

The original Via Emilia has been lost to centuries of human development, but the road is still traceable on modern maps under the name 'SS9'. Heading in the direction of Piacenza, it runs through a string of Renaissance cities -- including Bologna, Modena and Parma -- and for the most part remains distinctly Roman in its ruler-straight direction.

Sat in rush-hour traffic on the approach to Modena, there's little else to marvel at than the complete lack of corners. There is no evidence of the Hannibalic War that waged in this area before the road's original construction, no evidence of the two Roman legions that were decimated by Spartacus' rebel army in 72 BC, and no evidence of the French invasions that forced the Duke of Modena to flee in the early part of the 18th century.

But one name from history is almost inescapable in this part of the world: Enzo Ferrari.

Alongside Luciano Pavarotti, he is Modena's most famous son. But unlike the tenor, Ferrari has had a physical impact on this region. From souvenir shops and restaurants trading off his name to suppliers of his famous company, 30 years after his death you are never far from a connection to Enzo Ferrari in this part of the world.

That's just as well as it's the roots of his legacy that brought me to Modena earlier this year. By the evening, that legacy will have extended even further with the launch of the all-new Ferrari F1 car for 2020, but in the meantime I have roughly eight hours to trace the history of motoring's biggest icon.

Ferrari have loaned me a Portofino road car to complete the trip, which, in this part of Italy, helpfully doubles as a free parking pass for locations where I wouldn't normally be allowed to stop and film. It's Ferrari's entry-level car (albeit one worth over £200,000), but still comes with a distinct ability to turn heads and prompt questions from curious locals. But awkward conversations in broken Italian aside, it's the perfect tool for the job.

Modena: Where it all began

In tracing the history of Enzo Ferrari, there is only one place to start. To the south of the train track that runs through the north of Modena, the Museo Enzo Ferrari is split between two buildings. One is an ultra-modern structure sculpted from glass and yellow cladding, the other is an old workshop with the words OFFICINA MECCANICA ALFREDO FERRARI across its frontage. The latter belonged to Ferrari's father, Alfredo, and operated as a small foundry supplying cast iron to the Italian national railway. It was also the birthplace of Enzo.

Like so much of Enzo Ferrari's life, his birthdate has an unusual story behind it. Look online and it's listed as Feb. 18, 1898, but according to his birth certificate it was Feb. 20. The story goes that his arrival in the world coincided with a vicious snowstorm in Modena and his father's trip to the registry office was delayed by two days. But regardless of the date, his birthplace is now a point of pilgrimage for loyal Ferrari fans and has been restored to pristine condition and converted into a museum.

Inside, a number of Ferrari engines are on display as well as a rotating collection of race and road cars in the ultra-modern wing of the museum. The collection ranges from a single-cylinder prototype for the team's 1992 F1 engine to the car that took Ferrari's 100th F1 win in the hands of Alain Prost in 1990. But arguably the most interesting artefacts relating to Enzo Ferrari are found in the display cabinets around the side of the room, including a pair of his distinctive dark glasses and a sample of his handwriting -- notable and instantly recognisable by the vivid purple ink he always used.

Just 1 kilometre south of Ferrari's birthplace is a large four-storey townhouse on Largo Garibaldi. It's the next stop on my tour, but would more fittingly be the last. In a small bedroom on the first floor of the building, Ferrari passed away in the midst of a heatwave on Aug. 14, 1988. His death came one day before a national holiday and was not immediately reported in the national media, allowing for a private funeral at which he was buried in the family tomb at the San Cataldo Cemetery.

The tomb stands tall in the middle of the cemetery, with the famous surname inscribed in capital letters above the entrance. The epitaph reads "Ad maora ultra vitam" -- towards a greater life beyond.

A concrete car park

But Modena is more closely linked to Ferrari's early life than to his death, and just around the corner from the Largo Garibaldi townhouse is one of the most important addresses in his story: 11 Viale Trento e Trieste.

Originally a stable for draught horses, the address and the 19th-century building that once stood there was purchased by Ferrari in 1930 with the help of a million lire loan from a local bank. It was primarily used as an early base for the Scuderia Ferrari racing team, but doubled as the Ferrari family home for nearly four decades and continued to serve as a private office for the 'Old Man' until the final few years of his life.

It was from that building that Ferrari race-prepped pre-war Alfa Romeos and made his name in the racing world as a team owner. It was also in that building that the prancing horse was first painted onto the bonnet of a racing car, although the exact details of that story are still shrouded in Ferrari mythology.

The story goes that the logo initially belonged to an Italian fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, who flew with it in World War I and shot down 34 enemy aircraft. Ferrari's older brother, Dino, worked on the ground crew of Baracca's squadron, but died from disease during the war along with Ferrari's father, Alfredo.

Baracca was shot down in 1918, and legend has it Enzo Ferrari met his father, Count Enrico Baracca, five years later after competing in and winning a race outside Ravenna.

"From the meeting another followed with the mother, Countess Paolina," Ferrari later wrote. "It was she who told me one day, 'Ferrari, put the prancing horse of my son on your racing car. It will bring you luck.'

"I still keep the photograph of Baracca with the dedication by the parents in which they entrusted me with the emblem. The horse was, and has remained, black, but I myself added the yellow background, this being the colour of Modena."

Other than Ferrari's account of the meeting, there is very little evidence to support the story, and some historians argue it was made up by Ferrari to add a deeper meaning to the now-famous logo. One reason for the scepticism is that there was a period of nine years between the meeting and the first appearance of the prancing horse on a Scuderia Ferrari car and another is a theory that it was not a Baracca family crest at all but in fact the horse of Stuttgart that Francesco Baracca had added to his war plane after shooting down a German fighter using the same logo. Regardless of its provenance, the logo became a permanent fixture on the engine covers of the Alfa Romeos run by Scuderia Ferrari in the 1930s and made a return when Ferrari started producing his own cars from 1947 onwards.

Yet Ferrari was not one for sentimentality. In 1986, just a couple of years before his death, he agreed to a proposal from Modena's urban planner to demolish his legendary workshop and turn the plot into a multistorey car park. The concrete monstrosity that emerged at 11 Trento e Trieste has been subject to complex legal disputes for over 30 years, but was recently saved from its own demolition by Ferrari's son, Piero, who stepped in to keep it standing.

Part of Piero's reasoning was that his father had agreed to give the address over to the municipality of Modena to improve parking facilities for the walled old city and that it was his wish for the multistorey car park to be constructed to do just that. Had the original workshop survived, it would likely be one of the main tourist attractions in Modena, but Ferrari's willingness to see it demolished is perhaps no surprise given that his race team would routinely cannibalise the previous year's cars to build new ones. One of Ferrari's most famous quotes remains: "What's my favourite Ferrari? It's the one that has yet to be built."

Maranello: the heart of modern-day Ferrari

Despite having run Alfa Romeo's racing cars with considerable success for nearly a decade, the original Scuderia Ferrari based out of Modena was closed down on Jan. 1, 1938, as Alfa Romeo took its racing affairs in house. As part of the agreement, Ferrari continued to run the renamed Alfa Corse racing department but signed a contract that prevented him from setting up a car manufacturer under his own name for a period of four years.

It was out of that agreement that Auto Avio Costruzioni was formed at 11 Viale Trento e Trieste in 1939. Ferrari had lasted just over a year as an employee of Alfa Romeo and set out to make his own car company, albeit in unstable times as war swept across Europe once more. In 1942, amid concerns Modena would become a target for Allied bombing, Ferrari moved his headquarters to nearby Maranello after buying a plot of land and receiving permission to purchase and renovate "a large metal shed". On the official documents, the company is still listed as Auto Avio Costruzioni, but it also has prominent Scuderia Ferrari lettering on it. The four years was up, and the prancing horse was about to reemerge on the scene.

The resulting building at 4 Via Abetone Inferiore has barely changed in its 70-year history. If it weren't for the metre-high signage above the entrance, the two-storey building would appear unremarkable from the outside. Its design is based loosely on the style of a traditional Emilia-Romagna farm building and was limited to a low-rise structure due to a shortage in steel during its wartime construction.

Yet the factory's modest entrance has become a point of pilgrimage for Ferrari fans around the world, and since 1947 some of the world's most desirable road cars have rolled out of its archway and past the gatehouse. Those lucky enough to gain access to the factory beyond find a high-tech facility to rival any other manufacturer around the world, but with time ticking away, 4 Via Abetone Inferiore is just a short stop on my journey south of Modena. But the road name gives a hint at the next destination, and it's still a good 90-minute drive into the Apennine Mountains.

The Abetone Pass

A ski resort situated 1,388 metres above sea level, Abetone is my final destination before a quick blast back to Reggio Emilia to catch the launch of the SF1000. The roads leading up to it are favoured by modern-day Ferrari test drivers as they offer challenging corners and mixed road conditions -- plus very little traffic to get in the way.

But there is also a historical reason for this trip south. Sat at the top of the mountain range is the Abetone Pass, which forms a small stretch of the Circuito delle Tre Province. That road-based circuit is significant as the time trial that was hosted there in mid-August 1931 was the last event Enzo Ferrari entered as a racing driver.

Ferrari had enjoyed a successful career behind the wheel, but by the late 1920s it had become clear he was a cut below the very best. In July 1931, his wife, Laura, told him she was pregnant, and with that news he decided the make the time trial at the Circuito delle Tre Province his last.

To go out with a bang, he gave himself a fighting chance in the fastest car at his disposal: an Alfa Romeo 8C Monza. His top driver, Tazio Nuvolari, was demoted to a six-cylinder Alfa Romeo 1750, and Ferrari might have fancied his chances as Nuvolari was not well acquainted with the roads.

According to Richard Williams' biography, 'Enzo Ferrari: A Life', the pair set off on a reconnaissance lap before the start with Nuvolari at the wheel. What emerged from that drive was a remarkable first-hand account by Ferrari of Nuvolari's skill behind the wheel.

At the first corner, I was certain that Tazio had taken it badly and that we were going to end up in a ditch," Ferrari wrote. "I braced myself for the shock. Instead we found ourselves at the beginning of the straight with the car pointing down it.

I looked at Nuvolari: his rugged face betrayed not the slightest emotion, not the slightest sign of relief at having avoided a 180-degree skid.

At the second bend, and again at the third, the same thing happened. At the fourth or fifth, I began to understand how he managed it, for from the corner of my eye I noticed that he never took his foot off the accelerator but kept it pressed flat on the floorboards.

Bend by bend, I discovered his secret. Nuvolari went into the bend rather sooner than would have been suggested to me by my own driving instinct. But he went into it in an unusual way, that is to say, suddenly pointing the nose of the car at the inner verge just where the bend started.

With the throttle wide open -- and having, of course, changed down into the right gear before that terrifying charge -- he put the car into a controlled four-wheel skid, utilising the centrifugal force and keeping the machine on the road by the driving force of its rear wheels.

Right round the whole of the bend, the car's nose shaved the inner verge and, when the bend came to an end, the machine was pointing down the straight without any need to correct its trajectory.

It's no wonder that in his later life, when asked who the greatest driver of all time was, Ferrari simply said: "Nuvolari".

Despite his car advantage and the fact Nuvolari snapped his throttle cable in an accident early on, Ferrari finished in second place 32 seconds adrift of his star driver. Whether it was the imminent arrival of his son or the realisation that he was not on the same level as the very best, Ferrari never raced in competition again, turning his focus to what he did best: the management of the Scuderia Ferrari.

Back in the year 2020 and having traced part of the original Circuito delle Tre Province, it was time to head back down the mountain pass in the direction of Reggio Emilia. There is no doubt that the legend of Ferrari is still very much alive in this part of the world, and a great deal of the history is still visible.

But if Enzo Ferrari were still alive today, he would no doubt only be interested in the next car. Only interested in how the SF1000 will match up against the Mercedes W11 and how the team intends to resolve the problems it faced in preseason testing.

His legacy stands as both an inspiration for and a huge pressure on the modern Formula One team. But as a self-confessed "agitator of men", Enzo Ferrari wouldn't have it any other way.