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“If you had to nominate two people whose names were synonymous with the word Modena, many would choose Enzo Ferrari and Don Sergio Mantovani…” Thus wrote Denis Jenkinson, an assiduous spectator at Modena, in his book “Jenks, a passion for motorsport”, in the chapter dedicated to the famous padre and entitled “Don Sergio, A delightful man”.
Don Sergio Mantovani is a modern parish priest (who carries the same name as the driver Sergio Mantovani, who recently passed away and drove in various Grand Prix races between 1953 and 1955), universally known as the “drivers’ chaplain”. His pastoral tunic, worn over his black clergyman’s suit, was a customary sight in the paddocks of Grand Prix races in Monza and Imola, and occasionally also abroad.
A native of Modena, Don Sergio was ordained to the priesthood in 1953: it was at that time that he began to spend time with the Maserati racing team, and was welcomed with great cordiality by the workmen. He then began to follow the “Squadra Corse” on the circuits too, establishing friendly relations with Jean Behra, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. In 1959 he was appointed to the Santa Caterina parish, beyond the bridge over the Viale Ciro Menotti, just a few hundred metres from Maserati’s Modena base. From an idea shared by Behra and Don Sergio stemmed the concept of establishing a nursery school dedicated to deceased automobile drivers, which was inaugurated in 1961 in the presence of Fangio, Moss, Von Trips, Trintignant, Adolfo and Omer Orsi of Maserati and Count Volpi of the “Scuderia Serenissima”. 1971 witnessed the inauguration of the Ara, a wing-shaped drivers monument which was the work of Modenese sculptor Marino Quartieri. Don Sergio Mantovani has worked tirelessly on behalf of his parishioners: in 1978 he built the new parish church, and in 1987 the “Casa della Gioia e del Sole”, an ultra-modern old people’s home endowed with the most modern equipment which can house 87 pensioners who are no longer self-sufficient, with a particular concern for the most needy. The great “Gigi” Villoresi lived here for the last three years of his life.
Don Sergio has always succeeded in establishing a special relationship with all drivers, who have found in him comfort for their fears and nurture for their faith. He also created special ties with Elio De Angelis, the unforgettable Italian driver who died on 15th May 1986 during a private testing session on the Le Castellet circuit, 18 years ago to this day.
When attending Elio’s funeral, Don Sergio met his father, Giulio De Angelis, who visited him a year later and donated an extremely valuable painting to the Parish of Santa Caterina in memory of his son. Only 15 days later, Giulio De Angelis, while in his villa in Sardinia, was kidnapped by a gang of Sardinian bandits. Don Sergio offered to serve as an intermediary between the family and the kidnappers, and in this capacity drove on certain nights hundreds of kilometres along the winding Sardinian roads, stopping from time to time in various places, for exchanges of information. After five months, an agreement was finally reached regarding the amount of the ransom. It was then that, at the risk of his own life and demonstrating courage on a par with his great faith, Don Sergio offered to take the place of the kidnapped man in the hands of the bandits. When payment arrived three days later, Don Sergio was released.
His ties with the De Angelis family had become very close and, thanks to the contribution of the family, Don Sergio began building a multi-purpose gymnasium that could be used either by parishioners, or by guests of the Casa del Sole. The new modern gym hall, inaugurated on 22nd November 1997, was dedicated to the memory of Elio De Angelis.
The De Angelis family gave Don Sergio the single-seater Chevron with which Elio had entered the international scene, winning the Formula 3 Monaco Grand Prix in 1978: this prestigious victory had been achieved in his year-old car, Elio having reverted to Formula 3 to recoup his stature following a poor early showing in the Formula 2 Chevron-Ferraris he was running that new season. His victory opened the doors of Formula 1 motor-racing to the gifted Roman driver, who subsequently won two Grand Prix races with Lotus, the Austrian in 1982 and at Imola in 1985.