On 11th October 1928, Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Borja Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, 17th Marquis of Portago was born in London. The son of a Spanish nobleman and an Irishwoman, the young Alfonso grew up in Biarritz, while his father fought with General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Comfortably off, he was able to dedicate his time to various sporting disciplines and was good enough to be part of the Spanish Bobsleigh team for the winter Olympics and took part in major horse races, such as the Grand National. He liked danger and women in equal measure and when, in 1953 in New York, he met the Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti who offered him the chance of being a co-driver in the Carrera Panamerica, Alfonso jumped at the chance.
He fell in love with motor racing, to the point that he acquired a car from Maranello to compete in Sports Car races. In 1955, Enzo Ferrari sold him a Formula 1 car, which he destroyed in a crash in the International Trophy at Silverstone, breaking his leg. He raced for the Scuderia five times in world championship events, his best result being a second place at Silverstone in 1956, when he handed the wheel to his team-mate Peter Collins. He continued as a Scuderia driver for the start of the 1957 season, during which he finished fifth in the Argentinian Grand Prix, but then, on 12th May, during the Mille Miglia, came the tragic accident at Guidizzolo, during which Portago lost his life, along with his navigator Edmund Nelson and ten spectators.
“He was a man of extreme physical courage, which took him from the bobsleigh tracks to the race circuit, from a horse racing course to who knows what other sporting arena where there were risks to take,” Enzo Ferrari wrote of him in his book ‘Piloti, che gente,’ “He didn’t know how to back away from danger: after his first racing accident in England, his efforts and ambition grew even more. He was overall, an unusual man, always with the reputation of being an international playboy, I’m not sure how well deserved, always regarded as some sort of magnificent vagabond, because of his shabby appearance, his dubious standards of hygiene, his long beard, his very long hair, his immutable leather jacket and lanky gait. He definitely made a great impact on the ladies, and I remember one particularly tall and beautiful one. But I remember him as someone who, behind the rough exterior, was a gentleman. He was a good road driver and had asked and managed to also drive single-seaters.”