Profile: Geki

Nationality Italian
Date of Birth October 19th 1937
Date of Death June 18th 1967
Teams Rob Walker Racing (1964), Team Lotus (1965-66)
Races Entered 3
Races Started 2
Best Result 9th (Italy 1966)

Over the course of motorsport’s rich and varied history, there have been many examples of drivers altering their names as they began their careers in the sport. For instance, the triple world champion Nelson Piquet was originally known as Nelson Soutomayor, as per Brazilian naming customs. The same can be applied to Ayrton Senna, who dropped his paternal surname of “Da Silva” as his career began to take off in the UK. A promising Finnish driver on the cusp of making his Formula One debut was advised by the former world champion Keke Rosberg that he should shorten his name, citing that it would cause problems with pronunciation. Jyrki Järvilehto therefore became known as J.J. Lehto for the duration of his Formula One, CART and sportscar career. But much rarer still is the racing pseudonym, of which there are only two verified instances of in Formula One history (three if “Jean Max” is included). There was “Gimax”, and the man who is the subject of this profile, “Geki”.

Giacomo Russo was born on October 19th, 1937. Very little is known of Russo’s early life, save that his family was considered to be one of the wealthiest in the Milan area. His father is believed to have owned a textiles factory. The Russo family lived near the Autodromo Nazionale Monza, then, as now, one of the oldest and fastest racing circuits in the world. A post-war reconstruction plan for Italy saw the circuit renovated and reopened for motorsport in 1948. The early Italian dominance of the fledgling Formula One series in the early 1950s, with Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati machines driven by such drivers as Giuseppe Farina, Luigi Fagioli and Alberto Ascari no doubt had an influence on many young children in Italy, and Russo was no exception. However, it is known that his family disapproved of this, seeing their son as an eventual heir to the textile company, and attempted to dissuade him of this passion.

geki

Russo was a relative latecomer to racing by the standards of today, being 21 when he lined up in a Stanguellini single-seater on the Monza starting grid on May 3rd 1959, for his first ever motor race. Formula Junior was a brand new series mandated by the CSI, presumably as a response to the lack of Italian success in motorsport since the heydays of the early 1950s. The Stanguellini chassis, of which over a third of the field was comprised of, was based on the iconic Maserati 250F, the highly-successful Formula One chassis. Powered by a Fiat engine, it was very obviously the car of choice for the new series. The entry list though lists a “Geki (Giacomo Russo)”. Desperate to keep his family in the dark regarding his hobby, Russo entered the race under a pseudonym, a pseudonym he would use for the rest of his career.

There are two possible strands of thought regarding the choice of “Geki”, however neither of them can be verified. The first possibility regards the etymology of “Geki”, as the word itself is Japanese, translating to “strike”, which sounds plausible in a motor racing background. The second idea is that Russo chose to shorten his name, Giacomo being shortened to “Giaco”, and then Geki being produced from a further contraction. However, it would appear that the rationale of this name choice has long since been lost to the ethers of time. Interestingly enough, Geki was not the only driver in the field that day running under a pseudonym. The entry list and results for the race record a “Pegaso” and a “Madero”, both of whom were Italian. Also of note in this field was future Formula One race winner Lorenzo Bandini.

The race, held over 12 laps of the fearsome combined road course and oval circuit, was a lively affair won by Nino Crivellar. Incredibly, for his first ever motor race, Geki finished 6th, out of 9 finishers. This success motivated the young Italian to enter further Formula Junior events over the course of 1959. In his second Formula Junior outing on May 31st, at the Pergusa circuit in Sicily, Russo went one better by finishing 5th. A month later at Monza, 9th place was his reward, splitting fellow pseudonym-using drivers “Maduro” and “Elde”. The streak of top-ten finishes continued at Messina in late August, this time 8th. His final two outings in Formula Junior were much tougher affairs, a 14th at Valleunga and a 11th at Syracuse in the autumn of 1959. Ultimately, Geki finished his debut season joint 16th in the championship, with four points to his name. But much greater success was to follow on November 22nd.

With the inaugural Formula Junior season having come to a close, the 8th annual Coppa Madunina was held at Monza. Two 20 lap heats were run on the 10km combined circuit, with a further 20 lap race comprising the final. It was this day that Geki produced the best performance of his short career to date. A qualifying run was held to determine the grids for the heats, where he secured the pole for Heat 1. The heat was a much tougher prospect, Geki finishing 2 laps behind in 7th, but he had done enough to qualify for the final. Lorenzo Bandini dominated the other heat and ran away with the final, finishing some 35 seconds ahead of the next car, that of Geki himself! A 2nd place finish was the perfect way to cap off a promising debut year in motorsport.

With the beginning of the new decade, Geki resolved to continue running in Formula Junior. But first, he would compete in a special race on January 6th. The II Corsa Sul Ghiaccio A Cortina d’Amprezzo, aka the Ice Race, was a race typically held to open the Italian motorsport season. Held in the Southern Alps, it was a daunting day which promised rich rewards for those daring enough to take part. Three heats would take place, then a pair of semi finals to set the field for the final. Drawn in heat one, Geki successfully navigated the course to take 5th place. In the second of the semi finals, the young Italian secured one of the eight spots in the final by virtue of finishing 2nd. The final however, was a total disaster which produced the first DNF of Geki’s career, which was not the way he would have wanted to start the new season.

Geki's former Stanguellini Formula Junior car.

Geki’s former Stanguellini Formula Junior car. (dlg.speedfreaks.org)

A month later, Geki was off to Cuba to participate in the Cuban Grand Prix, as part of an eight-car assault on one of the event’s support races by Scuderia Madunina. This was the opening round of the Campionatio A.N.P.E.C./Auto Italiana d’Europa, a sister championship to the Italian Formula Junior, with a more international tilt. In the immediate wake of the Castro revolution, it was held on a pair of military bases on the outskirts of Havana. Geki’s category involved one race at each circuit, with the final results decided on aggregate. The first of the races was a tough affair, but he resolved to bring his Stanguellini home in 7th. Much better was to follow in the second race, where he completed a 1-2 finish for his team alongside Bandini. His 7th and 2nd brought him a 3rd place finish overall, a brilliant way to shake off the disappointment of the Ice Race. However, the remainder of the championship did not bring such reward again, failing to qualify for most of the other rounds. This being said, he was able to dig deep and finish 8th at Messina in the summer, which combined with his points from Cuba left Geki 14th in the standings, appropriately with 14 points. This may have been the only championship where Geki finished ahead of the great Jim Clark.

Much closer to home, Geki chose not to compete at the first race of the domestic season, instead bringing his trusty Stanguellini-Fiat to the second round of the season at Cesenático on April 17. It was here that he began to prove that his recent form was no fluke. A 2nd place in his heat propelled him to 3rd in the main event. He backed this up with an 8th place at Salerno. The Messina round was a combined ANPEC and Formula Junior event, meaning his 8th there also counted in the domestic championship. As a result, Geki finished joint 4th in the final standings with 14 points, sharing the position with future F1 race winner Giancarlo Baghetti and more importantly, outscoring his sparring partner Bandini.

There was a further series run to Formula Junior specifications in Italy. This was the Prova Addestrativa, or the Formula Junior Qualification series. The format of these events were simple: two races with the final results decided on aggregate. Therefore to have a chance of winning, drivers needed to be on the top of their game. Having chosen to miss the first three rounds of this championship, Geki showed up for the fourth round, held at Monza on May 15th. As one of the entrants of the superteam Scuderia Madunina, great things were expected. Geki hustled his car to 3rd in the first heat before narrowly squeaking a victory in the second heat. It was the first time the young Italian had seen the chequered flag first in his career, but due to the aggregate system, this was not enough for overall victory. Therefore he had to be content with 2nd, behind team-mate Rosari Nicolette. But make no mistake, a marker had been laid down by the young man for Milan. He would not appear again in the series until the 9th round of the season, once again held at Monza. On July 3rd, Giacomo “Geki” Russo was peerless, winning the first race by some 26 seconds, and doubled up in the second race, adding a further 17 seconds to his aggregate time. A mere 14 months into his racing career, Russo could now add an overall race win to his resume. There would be a three month gap until the final two rounds of the Prove Addestrativa, and Geki would contest both of these. He finished 3rd at Monza at the start of October, and secured a 7th at Vallelunga at the end of the month.

1960 had been a year of success and consolidation, culminating in an overall race victory. In between contesting junior series, Geki attracted much attention by finishing a fine 2nd at the support race for the Monaco Grand Prix that year, which was already one of the crown jewels of Formula One and motorsport. It was time to build upon this momentum further, and make a bid for the various Formula Junior titles in 1961. It is presumed that Geki’s family had found out about their son’s extra-curricular activities by this point in his career. Indeed, it would have been highly surprising if they hadn’t, in the wake of his success. Despite this, Geki and race promoters alike had grown accustomed to the pseudonym, and so it is most likely that a quid pro quo solution saw Russo keep his pseudonym for racing purposes. This, however, was not the only upheaval Geki faced as the racing season drew closer.

In the world of Formula One, the Italian mainstays Ferrari and Maserati had been caught napping in the late 1950s by the onslaught of the rear-engine revolution, where British manufacturers had begun to dominate the sport. The junior categories were not immune to this, and whilst the Stanguellini-Fiat combination was still a proven and reliable bet, it was based upon a design almost a decade old. The new junior chassis from Lotus were the talk of the town, and the writing was on the wall for the Italian manufacturers. They had to evolve or face extinction. However, Scuderia Madunina and Geki stuck with their trusty car, aiming to take the fight to the British chassis, whilst also battling OSCA and a number of smaller Italian manufacturers.

In addition, the Formula Junior structure appears to have been slimmed down, with just one Italian series taking place in 1961, no doubt an CSI effort to reduce the costs of motorsport. The first round of the Italian Formula Junior series took place on March 13th at Monza, and it initially appeared that the British threat had not only been overstated, but it was non-existent! Every single car entered for this race was of Italian origin, and the day turned into a thrilling battle between rivals Bandini and Geki. They left the rest of their heat for dead with only 0.2 seconds splitting the duo at the flag, in favour of Bandini. The rest of the field was over half a minute behind. The final was similar, once again Bandini edging out Geki by a tiny margin, whilst the pair outclassed the other finalists.

However, come round two at Cesenatico, a hoard of Lotus and Cooper chassis joined the championship. Given the amount of entries, three heats had to be held in lieu of the previous two heats. Geki hustled his ageing car to 2nd in his heat, but was a complete non-factor in the final, as the Lotus duo of Jo Siffert and David Piper outpaced the field. Geki ended up a lapped 5th at the flag, whilst Siffert was over a minute ahead of the fastest Italian chassis driven by Giancarlo Rigamont. In an effort to take stock of the situation, Russo chose to skip the third round of the championship, giving him and his team a week to work out what to do. In mid-April at the enormous Circuito del Garda, where racing had recently resumed after over a decade, Geki placed 3rd in his heat, but was over 90 seconds behind Siffert’s leading Lotus. A similar story resulted in the final, a distant 3rd place finish, almost three whole minutes behind the leaders. Interestingly, Colin Davis gave Siffert a much tougher time in the final, finishing only six seconds behind the Swiss driver, in an Italian Taraschi-Fiat combination. Whilst it appeared that race wins would be out of the equation, with a 2nd, a 5th and a 3rd all banked, Russo was beginning to pile up some serious points in the championship. He would be helped that, as an Italian driver, he would be able to contest every round of the championship if he so wished. The advanced British chassis with their foreign drivers would clean up if they were racing, but travel costs and other commitments meant that their entries would be few and far between.

At the Valleunga round at the end of April, an all-Italian contingent got to enjoy themselves as the Lotus and Cooper entrants stayed away. Crucially however, whilst Geki recorded another 5th in the final, he was almost a minute behind the victor. His trusty Stanguellini was helping him pile up the points, but the car was just too old to really press for the victories. It is presumed that some time between April and mid-May, in conversation with his entrant, the decision was made on the old adage “if you can’t beat them, join them”, and a Lotus 18 was purchased. At Monza on June 2nd, Geki rolled out his new toy onto the grid, bringing the only British chassis to the field that day. Despite this advantage, the day did not go to plan. Renato Pirrochi just edged out the Lotus to take the win in the heat, whilst the final saw Geki having to retire the car after 12 laps. What should have been a great debut ended in ignominy, with only the fastest lap in the final providing any comfort to the young man from Milan. A week later at Teramo produced a 5th in the heat, and 2nd in the final. Despite having a Lotus at his disposal, the Lotus 18 had been superseded by the new Lotus 20, of which Siffert drove to victory. Things looked grim from a title perspective but in actuality, Siffert was ultimately ineligible for the Formula Junior title.

More frustration followed at the end of June, where at his home track Geki failed to qualify for the final, being involved in an tangle with Bob Anderson. By now, it was clear that although the Lotus 18 was a major step up from the 250F-derived Stanguellini, the Lotus 20 was the must-have accessory on the grid. At Collemaggio on July 9th, Geki made the final but lasted only 5 laps until the Ford engine cried enough. A season that had started out so brightly was in danger of fizzling out. There was only one option that would get Russo and his team back to the front. Having purchased a brand new Lotus 20, Geki arrived at Messina on July 23rd, the penultimate round of the championship, brimming with optimism. This optimism was misplaced unfortunately, as the Milanese driver could only finish 7th in his heat, whilst in the final a pair of Kiwis, Angus Hyslop and the future Formula One champion Denny Hulme, ran away with the race, Russo finishing best of the rest in 3rd. The final race of the season took place on August 27th and in a change to the format, it became apparent that heats were removed in favour of a single 35 lap race to cap the season. Not only did Geki now have the same equipment as Siffert, but also his great rival Bandini had rocked up with his own Lotus 20. A three-way dogfight for the lead was promised, but it appears that this did not materialise. The Swiss driver dominated the race, finishing some 30 seconds ahead of Bandini, who in turn was nearly 40 seconds ahead of Geki. Once again, Russo could not get the better of Siffert.

However, Geki’s string of points finishes in the early part of the season had built a cushion that would not be decimated, as whilst the ineligible drivers such as Siffert were taking points away from Geki, ultimately they were also taking points away from Geki’s nearest rivals, Gianfranco Moroni and Franco Bernabei. The end result was Giacomo “Geki” Russo: 1961 Formula Junior champion, having not clocked a single race victory. A strangely unsatisfying way to win your first championship, but make no mistake, Russo had delivered the goods. With the reduction of Formula Junior categories that year, and the process of obtaining the troublesome Lotus 18 chassis, this was the only category Geki raced in all year. He did not enter the 1961 Monaco GP support race, where a year earlier he had turned many eyes and minds with his performance around the Principality.

The 1962 Formula Junior season began in early April at Vallelunga and for reasons unknown, Geki and Scuderia Madunina entered the old Lotus 18 chassis. One could presume this was the swansong for this chassis. As defending champion, great things were expected, and Geki duly produced a masterclass performance in an elderly chassis, finishing 2nd in his heat, and 3rd in the final. Choosing to skip the second and third rounds of the championship proved to be a mistake however, as a new rival for the Formula Junior championship made himself heard. Odoardo Govoni already had a 5th from the first round of the championship. With Geki absent from the next two rounds, Govoni finished 2nd and 3rd, establishing himself as a title contender. It is known that Geki had placed an order for the Lotus 22, the brand new chassis being produced in Norfolk, but evidently production was slipping behind because at the Circuto del Garda on May 1st, the old Lotus 18 was wheeled out once again. It must be noted that the second, third and fourth rounds of the Formula Junior championship were held within six days, and Govoni was not present for the fourth round. Trouble struck in Geki’s heat where he failed to finish. For some reason, perhaps linked to him being the reigning champion, Geki was still admitted into the final, whereupon he hustled the 18 to 5th position. A good performance maybe, but this was not the title defence he would have wanted. Even worse was to come at Monza on May 13th, where the entry lists records a DNA for Geki and Scuderia Madunina, a event where Govoni took his third podium of the season. It appears that the Lotus 22 had arrived in Italy, but possibly had been caught up in customs. This however does not explain why Geki did not simply enter the old 18 for one final race. It was now neck and neck between the upstart Govoni and the reigning champion.

Geki is wheeled to the pits at Monaco in his Lotus 22, c. 1962. (John Hendy)

Geki is wheeled to the pits at Monaco in his Lotus 22, c. 1962. (John Hendy)

A month later at Caserta, Geki finally got to race his new car in anger. But once again, victory eluded the Milanese driver, with 3rd in the heats translating to a 5th in the final. Govoni picked up yet another podium finish. It had been almost two years exactly since his first and at present only overall victory. Govoni was now leading the championship standings, ironically doing exactly what Geki had done a year previously, consistently points-scoring his way towards the title. Something needed to be done to break Govoni’s momentum, and at Monza on June 29th, Russo struck back in the best way possible. Having been pipped to 1st in his heat, Russo then engaged in a titanic duel with French driver Jean Lucienbonnet in the final, coming on top by just 8 tenths of a second. Finally, Geki had secured his second victory. Govoni kept his points-scoring streak alive with another 5th, but arguably the momentum was now with the Milanese driver. At Pergusa in mid-August, Geki led all the way, lapping everyone in the process. Monza a month later produced a 3rd, whilst Govoni could only muster a 6th. However, this marked the end of the championship for Govoni, as he did not enter another race. The championship would not leave Geki’s house for at least another season, a fact he capped off by winning the last two races of the season easily. The final standings showed how close it had been, Geki only held a six point margin over Govoni. After missing the 1961 running, Geki also took part in the Monaco Grand Prix support race, this time finishing 6th.

During the summer, Geki had struck up a friendship with the journalist Gino De Sanctis who, as can be seen from his surname, had links to the Italian manufacturer of the same name. Lotus and Cooper had long since outclassed the home manufacturers, but De Sanctis had been working on a new chassis which would utilise the dominant Ford powerplant, in lieu of the Fiat engine which had previously been used. Somewhere along the line a deal was struck, and after the Pergusa round all of Geki’s results, including the two race wins at the end of the Formula Junior season, came from behind the wheel of a De Sanctis-Ford. It would be this combination that the newly double Formula Junior champion would use to defend his crown in 1963. However, the first race of the new season did not go to plan. Around the twists of Vallelunga, Geki dominated his heat, but he could only clock five laps in the final where in a very uncharacteristic mistake, he crashed his new mount, leaving him with a repair bill and the credit of fastest lap. Slim reward for the reigning champion. Having effected repairs during the week between races, he was part of a large field which descended on the Cesenatico circuit on April 14th. With three heats having to be held to accommodate the entry list, Geki squeaked a victory in his heat but he, along with the rest of the finalists, were no match for a 21-year-old Austrian in a Cooper-Ford. Jochen Rindt easily took victory, having already announced himself with pole at Vallelunga. However, Rindt was not running a full season, and so would not pose much threat to Geki’s chances of completing a hat-trick of Formula Junior titles. Indeed, it seemed if anything would prevent this happening, it would be the champion’s new car, which was still proving troublesome.

Gearbox gremlins robbed the champion of victory at Bologna a week later. It had been a inauspicious start for a combination expected to dominate the category. However, it all came good on home soil, as Geki romped away with victory at Monza at the start of May. This seemed a false dawn though, as a week later a driveshaft failure in his heat at Circuito del Garda ensured he would not make the final, losing valuable points to his competitors. Once again the champion bounced back, taking three straight victories, at Monza in late May, Vallelunga at the beginning of June, and Caserta at the mid-point of the year. Even with this run of form, the reliability of the car was still suspect, as another driveshaft broke at Monza during the ninth round of the championship. Despite this, his four victories and a 2nd at Cesenatico had established a commanding lead in the points standings. With three rounds to go, the hat-trick was most certainly on.

Collemaggio saw another DNF for Geki, but this time it was of his own making, a crash in the final costing him valuable points. Presumably this crash had done severe damage to the car, as for the penultimate round of the championship at Pergusa, Geki entered a Lotus 27 with a Ford engine. The new car proved troublesome, with a valve problem ensuring he would not qualify from his heat. With the final race of the season, and what would prove to be the final Italian Formula Junior race ever held, Geki was back in his De Sanctis. He dominated his heat, but was pipped in the final by Corrado Manfredini. It didn’t matter however, as the young man from Milan secured the Formula Junior title once again, achieving a historic hat-trick of titles. His brace of victories in the middle of the season built an insurmountable lead. This was just as well as, in addition to his four wins and two 2nd places, Geki had also racked up six DNFs, four of which were through mechanical maladies. If the teething troubles with the car could be resolved, the combination of Giacomo Russo, De Sanctis chassis, and Ford power could be just about unbeatable in 1964. Alongside his Formula Junior season, Russo once again participated in the Monaco GP support race, yet again finishing 6th. However, on August 18th 1963, Geki received his first taste of F1 competition. A non-championship race was held around the Pergusa circuit in Sicily, and given he had raced just a week earlier in the Formula Junior round, Geki entered a Lotus 27 into the event. The race itself, which involved 16 starters, was an uneventful affair aside from a horrendous accident involving the British racer Trevor Taylor, who was lucky to escape with only minor injuries. Geki lasted 14 laps before the Ford engine expired. Interestingly enough, there is confusion regarding the entry list, with some sources suggesting that Geki entered the race under his full name.

Change was in the air as the end of 1963 eased into the beginning of 1964. The powers-that-be came to the realisation that Formula Junior was now playing two roles, firstly being a series for young drivers making their first steps into single-seater competition, but the series was now also the only international single-seater series below F1. With costs spiralling and young drivers struggling to compete against established competition, the decision was made to abolish Formula Junior, and reintroduce the Formula 2 and Formula 3 categories, with the former being positioned as the stepping stone to Formula 1, and the latter as the junior series. Geki chose to compete in both, and with Italian F3 more or less being a continuation of Formula Junior, the possibility of winning a fourth consecutive championship presented itself to the Milanese driver. He joined Scuderia Sorocaima and would once again drive a De Sanctis-Ford. Rumour has it that Ferrari were preparing to offer Russo a contract to race for the works team in F2. However, this proved to be just that, a rumour.

The first race of the new Italian F3 series was held at Monza in early April. Geki immediately sent out a message to his competitors by winning his heat and the final. A month later, once again at Monza, Geki replicated his April performance. Two wins from two rounds was a defining statement of intent. Due to the strange calendar, a third round was held at Monza just four days later, though the organisers needn’t have bothered, given Geki rattled off a third straight win in the final. Eventually an undisclosed DNF ended Geki’s winning streak at Caserta in late-June, though not before easily winning his heat. Normal service seemingly resumed at Monza a week later. However, Geki would have to fight hard to win this round, as he was beaten by the Brabham of Silvio Moser in the heats. Moser would only last 8 laps in the final before crashing, leaving the path clear for Geki tor record his fourth win of the season.

A long summer break followed, longer than first anticipated as the Pergusa round scheduled for August was cancelled. The F3 field reconvened at Vallelunga in mid-September, where once again the reigning champion was untouchable. A week later at Monza, Geki secured his sixth win of the season, with only Ernesto Brambilla putting up a challenge on track. It was obvious now that Geki was going to win the inaugural F3 championship. Unfortunately, the season ended on a sour note at Monza on October 18th, where battling for a record-breaking seventh victory, his gearbox seized with a few laps to go. A glance at the final standings underlines just how dominant Russo was in 1964, as his 72 points were more than twice as many as that of Mario Casoni, who finished 2nd in the standings.

Geki also chose to compete in the International Formula 2 series with his new team, this time driving a Milan-built Wainer 63 chassis with a Ford engine. The first race of the new series was held in Buenos Aires, and whilst Geki proved competitive in his heat, the final was a much tougher prospect, one that the car could not handle. A retirement on lap 20 ended his hopes for points. At Rosario a week later, Geki achieved a podium finish. The Argentinian tour continued to Cordóba, where once again the Wainer let its driver down with a mechanical DNF. Returning to Buenos Aires for the final Argentinian round, Geki survived a tough heat to finish 4th in the final. However, the records of this race are inconclusive, as it is suggested that Geki used a Lotus 27 instead of his Wainer. The series moved to Germany for a race on the Nürburgring Südschleife. Here, Russo drove a Fiat Abarth 232 in lieu of the Wainer. Unfortunately, in a field containing reigning Formula One champion Jim Clark and a number of other F1 stars, Geki proved uncompetitive, only managing a lapped 9th. At the fearsome AVUS a month later, Geki could only secure a 11th on aggregate, after failing to finish his second heat. Geki would contest two more F2 events with little success. At Reims in July a valve failure put him on the sidelines, whilst at Vallelunga a recurring oil pressure problem ruined his day. All in all it had been a trying season, which also highlighted the problems of Formula Junior, as the once dominant champion was nothing more than an also-ran for much of his time in F2.

During 1964, Geki came into contact with Rob Walker, founder of the legendary Formula One privateers Rob Walker Racing. Whilst the glory days of Stirling Moss and Maurice Trintignant battling the factory teams for victory in the late 1950s and early 1960s had long since passed, the team remained a well-respected entrant, running a selection of Brabham, Cooper and Lotus cars. Having purchased a pair of Brabham BT11 chassis mid-season, one of which was run by the team’s full-time driver Joakim “Jo” Bonnier, the second chassis was available for hire. Jochen Rindt had hired the car for a one-off entry at the first world championship Austrian Grand Prix, beginning his short but ultimately successful F1 career. Having seen one of his rivals break through to F1 (Rindt’s performance at Zeltweg got him noticed by the works Cooper team, who duly signed him for a full season in 1965), Geki was eager to do the same. With his impressive racing CV coupled with his wealthy background, it was no surprise that a deal was made for Geki to drive the second BT11 at the Italian Grand Prix, on home soil at Monza. This was his chance to impress the F1 paddock. With the experienced Bonnier as his team mate, and a solid car underneath him, the omens looked good as the weekend approached.

After the tragic events of the 1961 grand prix, the organisers decreed a maximum of 20 cars would be allowed to start the Italian GP from there on in. 25 cars were entered, which would mean five unlucky drivers would fail to start the race. Already experienced with the BT11, Bonnier safely put himself into the field with a time good enough for 12th. Unfortunately, Geki was unable to get up to speed, and could only produce a lap of 1:44, 23rd fastest, more than a second slower than Jean-Claude Rudaz, who was the slowest qualifier. Rudaz would not even make the race, as his engine blew shortly after making the grid. This meant that the 21st fastest car would be promoted into the race, that of Maurice Tringtinant. As a result, Geki was eight tenths of a second away from his first Formula One start. Unlike Rindt a race before, he would not get the chance to showcase his talents on the main stage.

Geki racing his De Sanctis-Ford at Monza, during the 1965 Italian Formula Three season.

Geki racing his De Sanctis-Ford at Monza, during the 1965 Italian Formula Three season.

Geki entered 1965 with mixed feelings. He was now a quadruple junior champion, but he had badly fluffed his Formula One audition. Geki decided to put the disappointment behind him, and looked towards securing a fifth consecutive junior title. The 1965 F3 season could not have started better for the reigning champion, with two straight victories at Monza and at the Imola facility in Bologna. With almost two months to wait until the next round of the championship, Geki decided to mothball the De Sanctis, and arranged the purchase of a BWA chassis. The new combination however was untried, and it showed at the two rounds at Monza at the end of May. Geki struggled through the heats, and failed to finish either final. Effectively, swapping the De Sanctis for the new car turned out to be a self-inflicted blow. The De Sanctis was wheeled out for the next couple of rounds, but it had seemingly turned back into the unreliable machine it was a couple of seasons earlier, and more DNFs resulted. Eventually, Geki dumped the BWA and the De Sanctis, and contested the final round of the season in a Wainer chassis, and was the class of the field around Vallelunga, dominating his heat and the final. His three victories were his only points scores of the year, and they propelled him to 3rd in the championship. Andrea de Adamich had outscored the champion by one single point, and Ernesto Brambilla pipped Geki by 0.2 points! But the margin did not matter. The quadruple junior champion had finally been vanquished, and it was largely of his own making.

Like the previous year, Geki contested a number of F2 races. He provisionally entered a BWA-Lancia combination at the Nürburgring Südschleife at the tail end of April, but he and the car never appeared in the paddock. His other three F2 entries ended up being a waste of time and money. The F2 round at Vallelunga in mid-May saw Geki enter a Brabham BT16, but the car retired with mechanical trouble in the first heat, which was not repairable in time for the second heat. Later in the year, he entered the Grand Prix of Albi with a BWA-Cosworth, completing 41 laps until the brakes failed. Finally, he entered an F2 race at the end of October in Sicily, using his Wainer-Ford. The race promised much, given Geki had managed a front row qualifying start. However, his race lasted barely a few corners before he and the polesitter Clay Regazzoni tangled, putting both out.

1965 was also the year Geki made his first appearance at Le Mans. His success in Formula Junior and Italian Formula Three had attracted the attention of Autodelta, Alfa Romeo’s competition department. They asked Geki if he would like to partner Carlo Zuccoil in an Alfa Romeo Giulia for the endurance race. The legend of Le Mans was already an enormous draw, and Geki did not need to be asked twice for his answer. Competing in the GT1600 class, Geki was installed in the car for the first stint. It would unfortunately be a brief outing, as the car suffered a problem with an oil pipe after just two hours of competition, a problem that was found to be terminal. The car managed 22 laps, and that was that.

Despite the disaster the previous year, the F1 door was not firmly closed, and with the Italian Grand Prix once again on the horizon, Geki resolved to find a car and try once again to make the race. As it turned out, the works Lotus team had brought along a third car for the race, a 25 chassis usually used as a backup for the 33s used by Jim Clark and Mike Spence. Determined to show the F1 paddock what he was capable of, Geki secured a deal to race the 25 at Monza. In better news, the organisers had decided that the 20-car limit was no longer necessary, and that all entrants would qualify. 23 cars showed up to qualify on the Saturday, and when the session was over, Geki had recorded a lap time of 1:41.7, good enough for 20th place on the grid. Giacomo “Geki” Russo was about to start his first championship Formula One race. Once the green flag dropped on Sunday, Geki chose to take it easy for the first couple of laps, neglecting to get involved in the slipstreaming with the rest of the field until he was comfortable with the car. From then on in, he steadily moved up through the field, his local experience at Monza serving him well. On lap 20, he even managed to crack the top 10 by poking his nose in front of Richie Ginther’s works Honda for a lap, before slipping down to 12th and 13th, places he would yo-yo between for the rest of his race. Having made it to lap 36, running 13th of the eighteen remaining cars, his transmission seized. The home boy’s day was done.

The Alfa Romeo Giulia (#63) of Geki and Gaston Andrey heads the sister car of Lucien Bianchi and Bernard Constan during the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring.

The Alfa Romeo Giulia (#63) of Geki and Gaston Andrey heads the sister car of Lucien Bianchi and Bernard Constan during the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring.

The early part of 1966. would see Geki clinch his biggest victory yet, however it came in a race where ultimately, the winners did not matter in the grand scheme of things. Autodelta decided to enter a brace of Giulias into the 12 Hours of Sebring, the premier American endurance race. Geki was pared with the Swiss driver Gaston Andrey. In a race marred by the tragedies of Bob McLean, who perished in a inferno when his Ford GT lost control and crashed into a telegraph pole, and the deaths of four spectators when the Porsche of Don Wester spun at high speed into the area where they were standing, Geki and Andrey nursed their car to finish 14th overall, and first in class. There would be no celebrations afterwards when the full details of the tragedies were revealed to the drivers. This was not the only major sportscar event Geki and Autodelta would enter that year however. The Targa Florio, held around the mountainous areas of Sicily, was one of two open-road Italian sportscar races held since the early days of motorsport, and after the demise of the Mille Miglia after the tragic events of the 1957 running, it was now the sole open-road race in Italy. Consequently, the Italian works teams would use it as a race to showcase their prowess, and Autodelta were no exception. Geki drove a Giulia alongside Teodore Zeccoli in the event, held on May 8th of the year, to 13th place overall having managing nine laps of the circuit.

His sportscar commitments aside, Geki resolved to run a partial schedule in Italian F3 this season. Having decided to rejoin Scuderia Madunina, running a Wainer-Ford, the first race of the season, held at Imola, was an abject disaster, with the former champion only managing nine laps in his heat until he uncharacteristically spun off. A few weeks later at Monza, a 3rd place in the heats ultimately counted for nothing when the Ford engine in his car detonated on the second lap of the final. A week later, another mechanical failure sidelined Geki in the final. At the Monaco GP support race, which had been turned into a fully-fledged F3 round, Geki could only manage a lapped 13th in his heat, which ended up not being enough to qualify for a race which he had starred in during previous editions. Yet more strife followed at Vallelunga a week later, where after dominating his heat, an oil leak put paid to his chances in the final. On June 9th, Geki was finally able to record a finish, with a 6th in the final at Vallelunga. Even this was a disappointment given he had easily won his heat. Caserta a few weeks later produced the ignominy of finishing stone dead last in the final, whilst a week later an enormous field descended on Monza, where Geki could only muster a lapped 16th. He could not get past the first lap at Mugello in mid-July. Pergusa and Imola were slightly kinder to the former champion, producing an 8th and a 5th, but it had been a dismal year in a category which he had dominated previously.

Geki racing the Lotus 33 with a bored-out Climax engine during the Italian Grand Prix, 1966.

Geki racing the Lotus 33 with a bored-out Climax engine during the Italian Grand Prix, 1966.

Having done well enough in his first F1 start a year earlier, Geki was invited back by Lotus to race at Monza once again. This time, he would be able to use the Lotus 33, which was only one season removed from taking Jim Clark to his second world championship. However, with the sea change in engine regulations ushering in the three-litre era of Formula One, he would have to make do with a Climax engine that had been bored out to two litres, putting him at a disadvantage from the get go. The organisers had also had a rethink, and reinstated the 20-car limit for the grand prix. 22 cars descended on Monza to qualify for the race. Geki resolved himself and set a lap time of 1:39.3, which was seven tenths faster than former world champion Phil Hill in the troublesome Eagle chassis built by fellow racer Dan Gurney, and over a second ahead of the BRM of the young New Zealander Chris Amon. The Milanese driver had done enough to scrape onto the final row of the grid, but with the only car setting similar speeds to him being Gurney in the second of the homebuilt Eagles, it looked like Sunday would be a long day of graft.

The race started well, with Geki being able to pick off Gurney and Jo Bonnier on the first lap. One of the frontrunners was Geki’s old rival Bandini, and a fuel pipe problem consigned him to run behind Geki until the car finally broke down on lap 32. With Gurney retiring a few laps into the race, Geki settled down to his lonely run. Up at the front, reigning world champion Jim Clark was struggling once again with the heavy and unreliable Lotus-BRM combination that the works team was running for the 1966 season, and slid down the field to 13th. This meant that Geki was able to catch and slipstream Clark, and on lap 21 he sealed the deal. Clark put up no resistance and continued to drift backwards, trying in vain to nurse his car to the finish. With further retirements from cars in front of him, Geki found himself running in 9th by the time Ludovico Scarffiotti took the chequered flag for his first and only victory in Formula One. Five laps behind and last of the classified runners he may have been, but Geki had achieved his first finish in Formula One. Had Peter Arundell’s engine failed a lap earlier than it did, 8th place was for the taking. No matter though, Geki had done well in an outdated and underpowered car.

With the advent of 1967, Autodelta were developing a new prototype, the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33. Eager to showcase its new challenger, a T33 was entered in the 1967 Targa Florio. Geki was chosen to drive alongside Nino Todaro. Unfortunately, the duo ended up in a race-ending tangle with the Austin-Healey Sprite of Rauno Aaltonen and Clive Baker on the seventh lap. Once again, Geki decided to run the Italian F3 championship, and immediately put the frustrations of 1966 behind him with a masterful performance at Monza in early April, finishing 2nd in his heat and winning the final in a De Sanctis-Ford. A 2nd place followed at Vallelunga, after which Geki took the bold decision to replace his De Sanctis with a Matra MS5. Unlike the terrible BWA, the Matra was immediately competitive out of the blocks, securing Geki a 2nd at Imola, and a 3rd and 4th at the next two rounds at Monza.

The following round of the championship was to be held at Caserta, one of Geki’s favourite hunting grounds in the junior series. Scheduled for June 18th, it looked like a good result was on the cards, as Geki hustled his Matra to 2nd in his heat. In the final, Geki slipped backwards through the field. Suddenly, on lap 9 of the race, the cars of Beat Fehr and Andrea Saltari collided, coming to rest broadside to the oncoming drivers. Franco Foresti skidded on oil and crashed shortly afterwards. The three stricken cars were on a blind section of the track, considered to be the fastest point of the lap. Seeing no marshals anywhere near the accident scene, Fehr made the fateful decision to run up the track towards the oncoming cars, attempting to warn them of the accident ahead. A group of cars, including Geki, were now heading towards the carnage.

The aftermath of Geki's fatal accident at Caserta in 1967.

The aftermath of Geki’s fatal accident at Caserta in 1967.

The series of events which occurred a few seconds later are still disputed to this day. Some sources suggest Geki lost control of his Matra attempting to avoid Fehr. The car left the road and piled into the wall of a electrical substation at unabated speed, bursting into flames as it came to rest. Geki was thrown from the car, perishing instantly. He was four months shy of his 30th birthday. It is also known that Fehr was hit and killed by a car at the scene, with several sources suggesting Fehr was hit by Geki’s Matra. However, the multitude of conflicting reports of the tragedy, and the absolute lack of marshals/course workers at the scene, likely mean that the full truth will never be known. In a further tragic twist, the car of Romano Perdomi, who raced under the pseudonym of “Tiger”, also crashed heavily at the scene. He was gravely injured, and had to be cut free from the wreckage of his car by his own pit crew, as the local fire brigade was woefully unprepared for such a disaster. He sadly succumbed to his injuries a few days later. With the series of accidents wiping out almost the entire field, the race was stopped,, and ultimately cancelled. The race director was initially unaware of the carnage, and only learnt of it when Massimo Natili, one of the four remaining competitors still running, informed him after the red flag was shown. When word of the tragedy and the absolute lack of marshalling reached the media, the outcry was such that this would prove to be the final race held on the streets of Caserta.

The devastated Italian F3 championship was cancelled, with Geki announced as the posthumous champion. A round of the 1968 Italian Formula Three championship, held at Monza on June 2nd, was renamed the “Grand Premio Geki”, in honour of the local hero, the five-time junior champion, the master of Monza, who was cut down in his prime. Giacomo “Geki” Russo is survived by his wife, and his two daughters.

Sources
Formula2.net, LiveGP.it, Motorsport Magazine, dlg.speedfreaks.org, Grandprix.com, StatsF1, The Autosport Forums, Motorsport Memorial