11 February 2020

Fascinating F1 Facts: 70 - A company with a lively history

There was a time when the Agip name was everywhere in Formula 1. It the fuel sponsor of Ferrari and the name was often to be seen on yellow trackside hoardings, with its six-legged fire-breathing black dog logo. It was as emblematic of Italy as Ferrari’s prancing horse, Maserati’s trident, the Lamborghini bull or the celebrated Martini stripes. Between 1974 and 1995 it was an integral part of the Ferrari story, before Shell took over. There were dalliances with other teams, notably Benetton, but then Agip faded from F1.

It is a story that began back to 1925 when Benito Mussolini seized power, changing his title from President of the Council of Ministers to Head of the Government on Christmas Eve 1925. He immediately began to enact nationalist and protectionist reforms in his role as “Il Duce”, creating the machinery of a modern dictatorship, based on the promise of future national renewal. Rival political parties were banned, the press was manipulated to promote Fascist truth over anyone who criticised the regime and power was concentrated in the hands of the party. As part of this approach, Mussolini launched a national petroleum company. The Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli (AGIP) was the result. The company did well early on but the war left many of its facilities damaged or destroyed. The first post-war Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi, leader of the Democrazia Cristiana party, asked Enrico Mattei to oversee the closing down of the business.

Mattei was the son of a carabiniere. He worked in the tannery business before the war, setting up a chemical company producing oil-based emulsifiers for the tanning and textile industries. When the war came he joined a partisan group in the mountains around Perugia before moving to Milan to escape arrest. He was then put in charge of the Christian Democrat partisan forces but was then caught in October 1944 and was lucky to escape two months later. When the fighting ended in 1945 he was appointed a member of the National Liberation Committee.

Rather than close down Agip, Mattei concluded it was better to rebuild and expand. De Gasperi agreed to support his efforts and this led to the establishment of Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi SpA (ENI) to combine all state-owned petroleum, gas and petrochemical companies into a single corporation, with Agip as one of the divisions. Mattei was put in charge and remained so, expanding the business from oil and gas to machinery manufacturing, textiles, finance and even acquired the newspaper Il Giorno. But then in October 1962 he was killed when his Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris private plane came down in a storm, close to the village of Bascape, on approach to Milan’s Linate Airport. The pilot Irnerio Bertuzzi, a celebrated war hero, and a Time-Life photographer called William McHale were also killed. A government inquiry concluded that the plane had crashed because of the storm, but there were suspicions that this was not the truth. There have been a number of investgations since which have proved conclusively that the plane was blown up, but no-one knows who was responsible. A French former secret agent Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli claimed that the explosion was an operation conducted by the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE), France’s secret service, while Tommaso Buscetta, an informer on the Italian mafia, said that it had been responsible.

In the years that followed under Eugenio Cefis, who was also accused of having been involved in the crash, ENI was used by the government as a holding company for different businesses, including more chemical companies and mineral firms. The decision to sponsor Ferrari in 1974 gave the firm enormous exposure and it expanded further, but it became increasingly unprofitable and had to reorganised in 1983 by Franco Reviglio. It was floated in 1992, although the government remained the primary shareholder. A year later Agip was engulfed in the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, with the chairman Gabriele Cagliari admitting that he had bribed government officials. He was later found in his prison cell with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. This was ruled to be suicide, although there were a number of incongruous elements, including facial bruising, that did not quite fit the story.

After the scandal Agip was put under the control of Franco Bernabei, who sold off more than 60 subsidiary companies, preparing it for full privatisation. This resulted in the loss of the Ferrari sponsorship contract as Shell was willing to pay prive twice as much. The IPO went ahead but by 2003 Agip had been reacquired by ENI, which although privatised as well, remains under the control of the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance by virtue of shares it holds through the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA investment vehicle.

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