The Italian engineer Mauro Forghieri, who has died aged 87, was the last man capable of designing a complete world championship-winning Formula One car, from its chassis and suspension to its engine and gearbox. In his two decades as the technical director of the Scuderia Ferrari, Ferrari’s racing division, Forghieri was responsible for the cars that took John Surtees, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter to world titles, and for those with which Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve won races from Monaco to Monza, and Spa to São Paulo. In all, his Ferraris won four drivers’ championships, seven constructors’ titles and 54 grands prix.
Put in charge of the technical side of the company’s entire racing operation by EnzoFerrari at the end of 1961, when he was a mere 26, Forghieri was also responsible for a series of sports cars that won multiple victories in the great endurance races of the day: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Targa Florio, the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours.
A tall, bespectacled figure, often to be seen conferring with drivers and team personnel at test sessions and races, Forghieri got on well with the Scuderia’s star drivers, and managed to negotiate relationships with a succession of sporting directors who came into the job with varying degrees of qualification and aptitude, always under pressure for success from the Italian public as well as from the intimate figure who had given his name to the cars. Like many leading figures at the company, from the top down, Forghieri was equally capable of displays of emotion, his rows with Enzo Ferrari often audible through the walls of the Old Man’s office, but he remained a figure of stability through changes of era and cast.
This might have something to do with the fact that he was born in Magreta, a village outside Modena, the city in Emilia-Romagna where Ferrari had set up his team in 1929, and was the son of a man, Reclus Forghieri, who had worked there since before the second world war. Reclus’s own father had been an early friend of two young socialist politicians, Benito Mussolini and Sandro Pertini, but fell out with the future dictator over his espousal of fascism and took his family to France, from where he wrote articles for Avanti!, the newspaper of the Italian socialist party, until it was banned in 1926.
Reclus established himself as an engineer in Monaco before returning to Italy and taking a job at Ferrari’s new factory in Maranello, a small town near Modena, in 1939. Beaten up for his anti-fascist sentiments, he moved to Naples during the war to work on aircraft engines while his wife, Afra, and son, Mauro, remained in Modena. At the war’s end Reclus returned from Naples to his home town, making the journey by bicycle, and was welcomed back to his job at the Ferrari factory, which had been heavily bombed. His son would be an heir to the region’s deep tradition of design and manufacture.
Mauro had been the only boy in a school for girls run by Ursuline Nuns before studying maths and physics at college in Modena and mechanical engineering at the University of Bologna. At that stage, although he had spent time as an intern at Ferrari, aeroplanes interested him more than cars, and after a trip to the US he planned to return and work for the Northrop company, building gas turbine engines.
But in 1960 Enzo Ferrari, who had kept an eye on his progress, offered him a job. Just over a year later, after most of the senior staff had been sacked for raising objections to the increasingly intrusive role played by Enzo’s wife, the young Forghieri was astonished to be given the role of chief engineer of the racing department, succeeding the great Carlo Chiti, whose cars had just won the 1961 F1 championship and who had been among the rebels.
In 1964 Forghieri’s cars took Surtees to the world title, followed by a decade-long drought in which not even Ickx, in the beautiful 312, featuring a spectacular spaghetti-like tangle of exhaust pipes emerging from its V12 engine, could repeat that achievement. Some consolation came in the performance of his shapely sports cars, particularly the 330 P3 and P4 coupes, which fought a series of thrilling battles at Le Mans against the might of the Ford Motor Company.
Towards the end of the decade, Forghieri’s visits to a wind tunnel and conversations with the Swiss engineer Michael May led him to introduce wings over the rear quarters of his grand prix cars, thereby creating downforce and increasing the grip of the rear wheels. His innovation led to the further development and universal adoption of such aerodynamic devices in F1 and elsewhere.
The arrival at Ferrari in 1973 of Lauda and a new sporting director, Luca di Montezemolo, reinvigorated the team, the young Austrian driver capturing the drivers’ title in 1975 and 1977 at the wheel of Forghieri’s 312B3 and 312T, both models propelled by a new one flat 12 engine. In 1979 the unlovely but effective 312T5 took Scheckter to a title that would be the team’s last for 21 years.
Like Ferrari’s previous designers, who came from a prewar tradition of racing on rough roads, Forghieri built strong cars. When drivers died at the wheel of his Ferraris – Lorenzo Bandini in Monaco in 1967, Ignazio Giunti in Buenos Aires in 1971 or Villeneuve at Zolder in 1982 – it was invariably as a result of other factors.
He had often contributed to the design of Ferrari’s road cars, starting with crucial refinements to the suspension of the legendary 250 GTO. After creating a mid-engined, four-wheel-drive coupe that would exist only as a prototype, in 1987 he accepted an offer to join Lamborghini, recently acquired by Chrysler, where he designed a V12 engine used by the Larrousse and Lotus F1 teams . In 1992 he joined the revived Bugatti company, based in Modena, helping to develop the EB110 supercar before setting up his own design consultancy.
Throughout his later life he amused himself by designing furniture and jewelery and by restoring his house, the 18th-century Villa Clementina, near Modena. On his birthday this year, he was made an honorary citizen of his home town. “During my career,” he told guests at the ceremony, “I had many opportunities to work elsewhere. I refused because it would have meant leaving Modena.”
He is survived by his second wife, Elisabetta (formerly Maurizzi), and by Alessandro and Michele, two of the three sons from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.