Formula One has never been short of larger than life characters. There are elements of a racing driver’s persona that set them apart from others, even other sporting folk. Perhaps it is because what they do is more dangerous than most activities, meaning they need to be fearless with an undiminished confidence. Then there are those racing drivers whose personalities seem altogether more fascinating, largely due to their own success; much has been said of the passionate and complex character of Ayrton Senna, the quiet and calm Juan Manuel Fangio or the playboy champion James Hunt.
But there was a driver whose success within Formula One is of no particular note – five starts, three retirements, one podium – whom, when considering the great many fascinating characters to have graced the sport, perhaps stands head and shoulders above them all.
Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton – to give him his full name – was better known as Alfonso de Portago and was about as close to true racing royalty as you can get. Being the 17th Marquis of Portago, he was perhaps only second to Prince Bira of Siam who competed in 19 races during the early 1950s. In Formula One circles however, Alfonso’s nobility was of no particular concern; his talent and the way in which he lived life, was.
Alfonso was the son of a Spanish nobleman and an Irishwoman named Olga Leighton. Born in London in 1928 he grew up in Biarritz, a chic seaside resort on France’s West Coast, while his father, Antonio Cabeza de Vaca, was fighting with General Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War.
When he was still a teenager De Portago won a $500 bet by flying an aeroplane under a bridge with supports barely separated enough to fit the aircraft’s wings. That probably tells you a lot about the man – a daredevil, a renegade, fearless or just stupid? He would perhaps go on to prove to be all four. Before his motor racing career even started he was a member of the Spanish Olympic bob-sleigh team and a very successful jockey in French steeple chasing. He even took part in Britain’s most famous horse race – the Grand National – on two occasions.
In 1953 the first signs of motor racing caught his eye. Alfonso was in New York attending the local motor show where he met Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, a three-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Chinetti liked what he saw in Portago and asked him if he would like to be his co-driver on the Carerra Panamericana – a terrifying border-to-border road race in Mexico . De Portago agreed immediately and bought a Ferrari sportscar from Chinetti as a result. Alfonso was hooked on cars and driving them very fast indeed. He made his racing debut in the Buenos Aires 1000km in 1954, partnered by Harry Schell where they finished second. He later concentrated on European racing, using a Maserati sportscar but for the 1955 season Enzo Ferrari himself sold Alfonso a Formula 1 car. It didn’t last long. The charismatic Spaniard demolished it at the International Trophy at Silverstone, breaking a leg badly in the process. Once he was back in action he returned to sportscar racing and at the end of the year was named as Ferrari’s fifth factory F1 driver for 1956.
As well as his new-found love of speed, Alfonso was rather fond of the ladies, and they were particularly fond of him; a tall, dark and handsome Latino racing driver who lived life dangerously and to the full. He could also speak four languages which certainly helped with many of his conquests both at, and away from the racing facilities of the international stage. Despite the numerous encounters of the female kind, this Spanish Lothario did marry, in 1949 when he was twenty years old to American former showgirl Carroll McDaniel. They had two children together but in May 1957 they were in the process of finalising a divorce so Alfonso could legitimise his invalid Mexican marriage to fashion model Dorian Leigh. However, de Portago, as perhaps a testament to his way of life, was also dating actress Linda Christian.
Alfonso’s 1956 season was short – just four Formula One races – and had just the one highlight amidst three retirements. His debut at the Reims circuit on the 1st of July for the French Grand Prix ended after just twenty laps with a gearbox failure but two weeks later, at the British Grand Prix, came his one and only F1 podium. After his team-mate Peter Collins retired his Ferrari on lap 64 with an oil pressure issue Portago was called in to hand his car over to his senior driver – as was the done thing is those early days. Collins went on to finish second – albeit a lap down on race winner Fangio – thus giving Portago his first, albeit shared, podium. He would take part in the final two races of the year, at the Nurburgring and Monza but both would end with disappointment. In Germany he once again handed his car over to Collins – who by now was fighting for the championship – only for Collins to crash into retirement. In Italy a tyre failure after just six laps spelled the end of Alfonso’s season.
1957 would see just the one Grand Prix start for Alfonso de Portago and, sadly, it would also see his death. He would compete in the year’s curtain raiser – the Argentinian Grand Prix – where he would share a fifth place finish with home town boy Jose Froilan Gonzalez on the 13th January.
In the four months between Round one in Argentina and the second race of the season in Monaco many drivers satisfied their passion and desire to race by competing in other, non-Formula One races around the world. One of them – possibly the most famous and terrifying of all races – was the Mille Miglia; the 1000 mile race on Italy’s public roads that would see hundreds of participants cover the route from Brescia in the North, head South to Rome and back again.
The 1957 event saw close to 300 cars entered, among them was the Ferrari F355S of Portago and his co-driver Edmund Nelson – the American who had introduced Alfonso to bob-sleighing. The race was going well for the Spaniard and the American. With the narrow bridge of Goito behind them, the tormenting twists of the Apennines forgotten, and the inviting ribbon of road through the Po Valley laying before them they were running third – behind fellow Ferrari runners Piero Taruffi and Wolfgang Von Trips.
Handicapped by lack of experience in the thousands of turns of Italy’s narrow, sinuous roads, De Portago drove harder than most, attempting to win by sheer determination.
With just 30 miles to go, while travelling at 150mph the tyre of his bright red Ferrari expired, exploding dramatically. The Ferrari became a wild animal, the prancing horse trying throw off it’s handler while Portago wrestled in vain to control it. The beast swerved violently, it’s tail hitting a bank at the left of the road before catapulting over a stream of spectators, cutting down telegraph wires and landing among the more timorous onlookers who, ironically, had stayed back for safety sake. Among the injured and dying, Portago and Nelson had been killed immediately. Portago’s body, like his car, was not in one piece.
It was noted at the time that the inevitable happened when Alfonso de Portago stopped alongside the course – some miles from the finish – ran to the fence, kissed Linda Christian, ran back to his Ferrari and drove on to his destiny, killing himself, his co-driver, 10 spectators, and the Mille Miglia; the great Italian motor race was never run competitively again.
Had he lived it’s very plausible that Alfonso de Portago could have gone on to be a very worthy Grand Prix winner and perhaps even Spain’s first world champion. He had style, he had class, he had talent and he had money, everything required by a modern day racer and certainly no hindrance in he 1950s. He was a devilishly quick driver, an aggressive driver, often referred to as a two car man due to the many burned-out brakes, clutches, transmissions, and wrecked cars for which he was responsible – he often needed several cars to finish a race. He was a cross between Spain’s modern day racing hero Fernando Alonso and James Dean; plenty of racing tenacity and talent but never without a leather jacket and cigarette.
Alfonso de Portago, the 17th Marquis de Portago, died on the 8th May 1957 in the one of motor racing’s darkest moments; his divorce from Carroll McDaniel was due to be finalised the very next day.