In 1903 a Frenchman called René Hanriot, a merchant from Châlons-en-Champagne, aged 35, drove a Clément automobile in the infamous Paris-Madrid road race, which was stopped in Bordeaux after a series of fatal accidents. Hanriot made little impression that day, but in the years that followed he won various big races and finished second in the prestigious Circuit des Ardennes. For a few years he was a regular on the Grand Prix scene, but then aviation came along and he discovered a new passion. He set up his own company to manufacture aeroplanes, based at the Aérodrome de la Champagne at Bétheny, alongside the main road north out of the city of Reims. He also opened a flying school and in 1912 one of the pupils to pass through the school was a 24-year-old Italian by the name of Francesco Baracca. He was a cavalry officer in the 2nd Reggimento Piemonte Cavalleria, one of the most famous units in the Italian army.
Once he had his licence, Baracca went back to Italy and was transferred to the new Battaglione Aviatori. Italy did not enter World War I until April 1915 and at that point Baracca was sent back to Paris, to be trained to fly the new French-built Nieuport 10, a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. This was not much use as a fighter aircraft and it was not until the Italians received the Nieuport 11 a year later that they could begin to engage with enemy aircraft on the Italian Front.
Baracca was the first Italian to shoot down an enemy plane – a Hansa-Brandenburg flown by an Austrian pilot. More and more victories followed and after his fifth triumph he officially became an ace. The tradition at the time was for the aces to decorate their planes with a crest or an emblem and Baracca chose a black prancing horse on a white background. There are various stories as to why he chose it: the first is that it was the regimental badge of the 2nd Reggimento Piemonte Cavalleria, which makes sense; but there is a second argument that he picked the symbol because he had shot down a German plane, which carried the coat of arms of the city of Stuttgart, a black prancing horse on a yellow background. Perhaps it was both. In May 1917 Baracca took command of the 91st Squadron, which was equipped with new SPAD VIIs. All the planes carried his prancing horse and in the months that followed he became a national hero. By September his total of confirmed victories had risen to 19 and by the start of 1918 it was at 30. It seemed that Baracca was invincible, but then in June 1918 he failed to return from a mission. His body was recovered a few days later when an Italian advance revealed his downed plane. When the war ended, a few months later, he was still Italy’s highest-scoring ace of the war with 34 victories.
Five years later, in June 1923, Count Enrico Baracca, Francesco’s father, was guest of honour for a motor race on the Savio circuit, near Ravenna. This was a fast triangle of public roads south of the city and it was won by a 25-year-old called Enzo Ferrari, driving a factory Alfa Romeo. Baracca presented Ferrari with the trophy and later Enzo visited the family and met Baracca’s mother, Contessa Paolina. She suggested that he use the prancing horse logo on his racing cars. Ferrari was an Alfa Romeo driver at the time and the company had its famous Quadrifoglio – the four-leaf clover badge – on its cars. Scuderia Ferrari was not established at the end of 1930, seven years later, but it was still the Alfa Romeo factory team and it was not until July 1932 that Ferrari put his own version of Baracca’s badge, with a yellow background, on his cars for the Spa 24 Hours. The two Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 MMs were driven to a 1-2 victory by Antonio Brivio/Eugenio Siena and Piero Taruffi/Guido d’Ippolito.
Oddly, the Prancing Horse also features in the Porsche logo, along with the word Stuttgart. It is a little known fact that the Ducati motorcycle company also used the Prancing Horse in the late 1950s and early 1960s because the company’s chief designer Fabio Taglioni came from the village of Lugo, where Baracca was born.