Creating Ferrari's First Championships

By emphasizing logic, quality, and reliability, Aurelio Lampredi redefined Maranello’s engineering approach. The results speak for themselves.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 1
(l-r) Technician Luigi Bazzi, Enzo Ferrari, and Aurelio Lampredi assess a Tipo 500 four-cylinder engine on the test bench.
May 30, 2019

Aurelio Lampredi enjoyed a remarkable, and unique, career. At the age of 27, he was working on the design of one of the most elaborate and advanced aero engines created in World War II, an inverted W18 of 40 liters capable of producing more than 1,800 horsepower. When he retired in 1977, it marked the end of a 22-year career in which it was said he designed more than 100 engines for a mass producer of cars. Yet he was most famous for the scant eight years he spent with a small builder of racing cars a quarter-century earlier.

That small builder was of course Ferrari, which Lampredi first encountered in the autumn of 1946, a time when it was still a maker of fine grinding machines transitioning into manufacturing cars. Ferrari possessed a design for a sports car by Gioacchino Colombo, who created it during a hiatus from his employer Alfa Romeo. Based on Colombo’s design, Giuseppe Busso—another Alfa man—was overseeing the creation of the first Ferrari sports cars, one of which first raced in May 1947.

Fresh from his work with Reggiane-Caproni on that W18 aero engine, and a brief stint at Sertum, a small Milanese motorcycle maker, Lampredi arrived at Ferrari’s Maranello factory in September 1946. He was second in command of the drawing office, responding to Busso’s directions and working with the draftsmen.

“During my third month there,” Lampredi recalled, “I handed in my notice because I realized we would never get on with each other. We had completely different outlooks. To me the number-one priority was reliability. I came from the aeronautical industry where reliability was a matter of paramount importance. Here there was a tendency to improvise.

“Ferrari would not accept my resignation,” he added, “and kept me there for three more months. After six months, however, I resigned again. This time Ferrari let me go, provided I was prepared to come back if he should need me. We came to an agreement on several conditions, one of which was that if I were to come back I would be totally independent of Busso and have unlimited powers within the scope of my own work. A possible improvement of my salary was also mentioned.”

ALTHOUGH NOT YET 30, Lampredi saw no reason to undervalue the experience he had already gained. Born in Livorno, a port city near Pisa on the Ligurian Sea, he was the son of the head of a small engineering manufactory. After earning an engineering degree at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, he apprenticed at Livorno’s Odero-Terni-Orlando, known as OTO, which in the run-up to war was making heavy artillery.

From 1937, Lampredi said, “my first job was with Piaggio at Pontedera, working on radial engines in the design department. I then joined Reggiane-Caproni in Reggio Emilia, between Parma and Modena, where we produced the 18-cylinder inverted-arrow engine with direct fuel injection and an automatic three-speed centrifugal supercharger. I was part of engineer Del Cupolo’s team, and I must say he was a brilliant man, both as an engine designer and as a mathematician.”

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 2
Lampredi (on left) and Gioacchino Colombo, creator of Ferrari’s first V12 engine.

After his resignation from Ferrari, Lampredi moved to Milan, where Luigi Fabio Rapi was directing the design of Isotta Fraschini’s radical postwar car. The Monterosa featured all-independent suspension and a rear-mounted V8 engine; the latter and its four-speed transmission were the focus of Lampredi’s work. The car was a magnificent effort but only a handful were produced.

“After seven months,” he recalled, “I received a phone call from Enzo Ferrari announcing that there had been a number of developments within the company and that the conditions I had set before leaving could now be complied with. I went back to Maranello, where we discussed my assignment down to the smallest details and eventually reached an agreement.

“However,” Lampredi continued, “Ferrari pointed out that I was young and had no experience in racing-car design. I would therefore be assisted by a consultant. He mentioned the name of Gioacchino Colombo. I answered that I was delighted. Although I had never met him personally, I certainly knew him by reputation. I told Ferrari I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

“The man actually turned out to be a disappointment,” he concluded. “He was a genius in his own way, but someone who always found a way out, no matter what. ‘If something doesn’t work,’ he used to say, ‘you just throw it away and make another one.’ My idea was that each plan should be carefully assessed before implementing it. I was firmly against plunging into things headlong, with the risk of losing time, money, and credibility.”

Colombo arrived in January 1948 and remained, as a part-time consultant, for three years before returning to Alfa Romeo. He recalled that “Lampredi, who enjoyed very high esteem with Ferrari, had to guarantee continuity during my absences from Maranello. I must say that even though our relations later were less than cordial, in this first period at Maranello the collaboration with Lampredi, still a young man, was very enjoyable. Frequently after work we ended the evening together in a local trattoria, talking about engines until late at night.”

By this time, Ferrari had begun competing in Formula 1 races with its original, Colombo-designed 1.5-liter V12, boosted by a single Roots-type supercharger. This 125 GP was largely the work of Giuseppe Busso, before his return to Alfa, and three of the new cars were ready for the Italian GP at Turin on September 5, 1948. The first car was given to Prince Bira for the race, and the two newer Ferraris were driven by Giuseppe “Nino” Farina and fast Frenchman Raymond Sommer, who placed third behind the winning Alfa Romeo and a Maserati. Bira and Farina retired.

While commendable, this was not a promising performance. “Almost from the very beginning,” recalled Lampredi, “we realized that the 125 GP didn’t work and needed attention. Colombo made a twin-camshaft head which, among other things, caused such serious overheating that in several events we had to remove the bonnet and the side panels to cool the engine. The rear suspension was another problem.”

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 3
Lampredi and his own V12 at the 1951 Turin Salon.

This referred to independent suspension by classic swing axles, which all too easily gave the short-wheelbase Ferrari terminal oversteer.

On the plus side, the up-and-coming Alberto Ascari, with his mentor Luigi “Gigi” Villoresi, deserted Maserati to drive for Ferrari in June 1949. This was a positive for Lampredi: “Ferrari decided to take on two official works drivers—a fairly well-known quantity called Villoresi and a lesser-known driver, the same age as me, called Ascari. I soon struck up a friendship with both men, especially Alberto.”

In fact, Lampredi was a year older than Ascari, as they noted when they found that the engineer was born on the same date—June 16, 1917—as Ascari’s wife, Mietta. “We certainly enjoyed some fabulous birthday dinners on that day!” Lampredi exclaimed.

On July 3, Ascari put a stamp on his arrival by winning the Swiss Grand Prix. This was a major landmark: Ferrari’s first-ever victory in a major national Grand Prix (even if it came during a season in which Alfa Romeo was resting its team).

Nevertheless, the French Talbot-Lagos, with their 4.5-liter six-cylinder normally aspirated engines, were annoyingly successful rivals, often getting on the podium and sometimes even winning thanks to their ability to run non-stop through a race. Using fuels with a high alcohol percentage, the 1.5-liter GP cars had to refuel once or even twice.

Given that the Talbot could charitably be described as an antiquated design, the potential seemed great for the creation of a modern 4.5-liter Grand Prix car. Even if it only equaled the power of the blown 1.5-liter machines, it would prevail with its superior fuel economy.

This was the proposition put to Enzo Ferrari by Lampredi. The same advice was given Ferrari by Sommer, who had driven both the Talbots and the GP Ferraris, and, before the war, the 158 Alfas, as well.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 4
Alberto Ascari pilots a 375 F1.

“In fact it was a very easy job to convince Ferrari, especially as the supercharged car couldn’t be driven…out of the garage,” Lampredi recalled. “Further impetus was provided by the fact that, at that time, Ferrari did not have a large naturally aspirated engine. We had the 125 1,500 cc, later upgraded to 1,900 and eventually to 2,000 cc. Ferrari, however, already had a larger engine in mind.”

This was needed for more imposing sports-racing and even production Ferraris. To finance his all-new V12, Enzo Ferrari turned to his tire supplier Pirelli, requesting—and receiving—a grant of some $20,000 for this purpose. The amount seemed so small to Piero Pirelli that he double-checked to make sure that was all Ferrari really needed.

WORK ON THE NEW ENGINE began in the summer of 1949. Although he kept the general concept of Colombo’s V12, with its single overhead cams on each bank and rocker arms, Lampredi created an engine of his own. He gave roller tips to his rocker arms to give them better durability and allow the cam lobes to be narrow. Instead of opposing each other directly, the valves were slightly offset longitudinally to allow their rocker arms to be straighter rather than cranked. A single, triple-roller chain drove both camshafts, and the developed 1951 version featured two spark plugs per cylinder.

Lampredi expanded Colombo’s cylinder-center distance from 90 mm to 108 mm to provide room for bigger bores, which he fashioned as wet steel cylinders that screwed into the heads, eliminating troublesome head gaskets. In the crankcase, he doubled up its flanks to give added stiffness; this was a Lampredi trademark, learned in his work at Reggiane-Caproni. The crankshaft was particularly rugged. Racing versions utilized dry sumps, with a triple-gear scavenge pump, while road applications went with wide wet sumps.

Although 4.5 liters was the eventual target, the engine was first raced at 3.3 liters, for two reasons. One was that Ferrari liked to develop big engines from smaller ones. The other was that the existing drive line was only able to cope with the torque of the new V12 in 3.3-liter form.

“A 3,300 engine was the ideal starting point,” Lampredi explained, “because, apart from a few details, all its features could easily be upgraded without having to add any extra weight.”

The V12 first raced in 3.3-liter form in June 1950, at the Belgian Grand Prix. Its next step, with enlargement of the bores, was 4.1 liters; this configuration reached the test bench later in the summer.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 5
(l-r) Piero Taruffi, team boss Nello Ugolini (behind), Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, and Lampredi at the ’51 Spanish GP.

“A number of events occurred which affected Ferrari’s physical condition,” said Lampredi. “He was ill and left Maranello for Viserba [near Rimini on the Adriatic]. While the single-ignition 4,100 was being installed on the test bench, I received a typical seaside-resort postcard, showing a girl sunbathing and the words ‘The sun’s tender touch’ printed across the front. Ferrari’s message, on the back of the card, was, ‘Hoping the 4100 will be a tender touch to Alfa Romeo.’

“Some days later we tested the engine, and Luigi Bazzi thought the test bench was out of order as the power recorded seemed too high,” continued Lampredi. “The test bench was stripped and reassembled twice until he was convinced that the power reading was correct. All doubts dispelled, I drove to the Maranello post office and sent Ferrari a cable: ‘Tender touch to Alfa Romeo is possible.’ I also added the engine’s power output. Three hours later, Ferrari was back at Modena, in perfect physical shape.”

The 4.1-liter V12 produced 335 bhp at 7,000 rpm—more power than any Ferrari yet built—but without chassis improvements the power would have been unusable.

“I had never seen a chassis before entering Ferrari and that, ultimately, proved to be my good fortune,” Lampredi recalled. “You really only needed to read up on the subject and acquire the necessary data to understand that Busso and Colombo’s illustrious past could not solve the problems we were faced with. Proving that the car’s stability and handling could be improved by adding 50 kilograms of lead to the chassis side members was evidence of the fact that my unbiased approach to the problem was a definite advantage, although I must admit it involved a lot of hard work.”

Indeed, in all his time with Ferrari, the engineer was not known to take a holiday.

“I developed the de Dion axle with parallel trailing arms so that the axle itself would not act as a torsion anti-roll bar,” Lampredi continued. “I also produced the twin-piston brakes, with a centrally located fulcrum and leading and trailing floating shoes. And I introduced the four-speed rear gearbox, built in unit together with the limited-slip differential I had designed.”

This completed the 375 F1, which developed 350 bhp in 4.5-liter form for the final race of the 1950 season, the Italian GP at Monza. There, in speed it was breathtakingly close to the Alfas, and placed second behind one of them after a hammer-and-tongs battle of attrition and car-swapping.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 6
Ferrari’s 500 F2 won the World Championship in 1952 and ’53.

This set the stage for 1951. Bolstering Alfa Romeo’s defense was none other than Gioacchino Colombo, the original creator of the Tipo 158—now Tipo 159—that won the first three European GPs of the year. The fourth was the British GP at Silverstone, and July 14 turned into an historic day for Ferrari as Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s 375 F1 defeated the Alfas for the first time.

Ascari proved it was no fluke by winning the subsequent German and Italian Grands Prix. Only a miscalculation on tire preparation by Ferrari at the Spanish GP allowed Alfa to take the final win of the season. The World Championship went to Alfa’s Juan Manuel Fangio, with Ascari and Gonzalez ranked second and third, respectively.

More than friends, Lampredi and Ascari were becoming partners in the race to rise to the top. After winning at Monza in 1951, the driver gave the engineer a photo with the following dedication: “I am Ascari inasmuch as you are Lampredi. But you are Lampredi inasmuch as I am Ascari.”

“There was no need for Ascari to have full engineering knowledge,” said Lampredi. “He would either tell you, ‘The rear suspension seems too stiff’ or ‘That right-side tire seems softer than the left-side’ or ‘It’s oversteering’ or ‘It’s understeering’ or, sometimes, but rarely, ‘This engine’s going to blow up.’ We’d check it out, find that he was nearly always right, and modify to correct accordingly.”

Lampredi and his team upgraded the 375 F1 for 1952 with new four-throat Weber carburetors and more penetrative bodywork to consolidate Ferrari’s margin over Alfa Romeo and address the threat from Britain’s V16-powered BRM. When Alfa dropped out of F1, however, race organizers throughout Europe decided to invite Formula 2 cars, instead. Thus, the existing Formula 1 was abandoned in 1952 and ’53, with the World Championship awarded for success in designated races for the unblown 2.0-liter F2 cars.

A last moment in the sun for Lampredi’s 375 F1 was the 1952 Indianapolis 500. Ferrari sold three of the latest cars to Indy teams and entered a fourth for Ascari to drive. This was an “unofficial” entry in which Lampredi was the moving spirit. He realized that, with their better fuel economy, the Ferraris could have fewer pit stops that gained a potentially race-winning advantage.

The works car was the only one of the four to qualify, helped by a batch of the latest four-throat Webers that Lampredi brought as hand luggage from Milan. Although Ascari and the red Ferrari earned the respect of Indy regulars, after 100 miles they had to retire when the hub of the right rear wire wheel failed.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 7
Lampredi’s 2-liter, four-cylinder engine powered the 500 F2.

Lampredi didn’t leave Indianapolis empty-handed, though. He noticed that the wheels of many Indy cars had three-eared knock-off caps instead of the two-eared original that was universal in Europe. Three ears offered a better chance of presenting the mechanic with a hittable ear when the car came to rest. Soon Ferraris had such knock-offs, the first of their kind in the Old World, and they soon spread to rival racers.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK to early 1951, the contests for Formula 2 cars were continuing; no one could then foresee the dramatic developments that would thrust F2 into the limelight the following year. Ferrari’s customers were then using the 166 F2, a handy if heavy marriage of the Tipo 166 sports-car engine with the F1 car’s chassis. This was one of his ad hoc adaptations that Ferrari called “immoral.”

Lampredi was in his office at Maranello one Sunday morning, as usual, in early June when an important decision was made. He and Enzo Ferrari had been debating the sort of engine to build for the 2.5-liter unblown limit that was being discussed for the 1954 Formula 1. Such an engine could be used, in 2.0-liter form, in the meantime for Formula 2.

Ferrari and Lampredi had considered uprating to two liters the failed supercharged 1.5-liter four-cam V12, and had even built and tested such an engine. But this was a heavier solution when lightness and agility were needed. In 1950, John Heath’s Alta-engined HWMs had pressured the works team of 2-liter Ferrari V12s, and had done so with only four cylinders of moderate output.

Enzo Ferrari appreciated that a four-cylinder engine offered torque and weight characteristics that were well suited to the twisty street circuits that predominated in European racing. After mulling it over he plumped for the four, as he told Lampredi that June morning. The engineer forgot his plans for the Sabbath afternoon, reached for T-square and triangle, and, in a few hours, had sketched the essentials of the Tipo 500—destined to be one of Ferrari’s most successful engines, and the progenitor of many more.

“The 500 was born as a racing car,” said Lampredi, contrasting it with his big V12 which was also used in Ferrari passenger cars. “I did everything possible to improve the engine design. I gained useful experience by accepting an invitation from Mondial, the motorcycle manufacturer, to do some work for them as a consultant. I took the job not for money but because I would be working on a single-cylinder engine. I would have the opportunity of acquiring a lot of experience in a short time, which I would then be able to put into our own engines.

“I used to go to the Mondial laboratories in Milan between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. and I would stay there until midnight,” he noted. “Ferrari eventually got to know of this and I realized he wasn’t at all keen on the idea, but he never spoke to me about it.”

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 8
Lampredi designed a 2.5-liter V6 for 1954’s all-new “Squalo” F1 car.

Some have described the Tipo 500 as a “simple” engine; it was anything but. Lampredi lavished all his skill and ingenuity on this, the first Ferrari engine he designed entirely from scratch. He carried over to it the concepts of a double-walled crankcase and screwed-in cylinder liners that were successful in his V12. Benefitting from his work at Mondial, he rejected the wide valve angles of the Italian school in favor of a 58-degree included angle to create a more compact combustion chamber.

Lampredi carried over Colombo’s hairpin-type valve springs but with an entirely new valve gear that he was to use on all but one of his in-line engines. Above each valve was a steel-tipped, light-alloy follower with a circular top, into which was set a large-diameter roller. Pressing up against this circular top were two relatively light concentric coil springs, whose only task was to keep the roller in steady contact with its cam lobe; the function of controlling the follower was separated from that of closing the valve. This unique valve gear virtually eliminated cam and valve problems from the Ferrari lexicon.

Although dual ignition from two magnetos was used, said Lampredi, “Our real problem was the ignition system—7,500 revs was the ceiling. I always used to tell the drivers they could do what they liked with the gears because, no matter what happened, the engine would not break. I also used to tell them that they couldn’t rev the engine above 7,500-7,800 rpm even when going flat out because of the poor ignition.”

This was good enough, as it turned out, especially as the four-cylinder engine weighed 348 pounds against the 2.0-liter V12’s 440 pounds.

Thanks to Ferrari’s close cooperation with Weber, the Tipo 500 received carburetors that gave a straight path from atmosphere to chamber, gaining a ram effect for the fresh charge. Individual carburetors were used as well as the first twin-throat Webers, of which two prototypes fed the 2.5-liter version of the new four powering the Ferrari that practiced for, but did not race in, the ’51 Italian GP. However, this strategic entry by Enzo helped the ruling body confirm its choice of 2.5 liters for World Championship racing in 1954 and beyond.

With a chassis that used the new technologies he had introduced in the 375 F1, Lampredi’s Tipo 500 dominated the 1952 and ’53 seasons, bringing Alberto Ascari two World Championships. In Ascari, the Ferrari had the driver it needed, as Lampredi remarked: “Engines either run well or they break down. The only characteristic of a good racing engine is that it never breaks down. It never stops. This has always been my principle, but without Alberto that principle might never have been publicly affirmed.”

Taking part in 104 races, the “Starlet,” as it was known, retired with engine trouble in only 15, proving Lampredi’s point. It won 29 races, finished second 18 times, and placed third nine times. After Spa in 1953, Ascari had won nine championship races in a row. He also broke all records by setting the fastest lap in six races in succession—all the 1952 GPs and the first of ’53.

Photo: Creating Ferrari's First Championships 9
Ferrari’s Squalo was no match for the dominant Mercedes-Benz W196.

FOR FORMULA 1 IN 1954, Lampredi designed a completely new chassis with Ferrari’s first space frame, ball-joint front suspension, side-mounted fuel tanks, and a new transaxle mounted behind the de Dion tube. Known as the Squalo (Shark), it was as fast as the new Maserati 250F but not always able to cope with the straight-eight-powered Mercedes-Benz W196.

Lampredi produced new versions with improved cylinder heads and new crankcases designed to reduce power loss caused by oil churning. “The valve springs performed well up to 10,000 rpm,” he recalled, “but the weak spot remained the ignition.”

Worst of all, Ferrari lost Ascari to the new Lancia F1 team. “Mercedes too had their troubles, and Fangio coped with many a crisis,” said Lampredi. “On the other hand, we couldn’t count on such a strong team as theirs in those days. The German team had people like Fangio, [Stirling] Moss, and [Piero] Taruffi, while Lancia had Ascari, Villoresi, and [Eugenio] Castellotti. The head of our team was [Maurice] Trintignant, a good driver but certainly not up to the level of the others. We lacked men rather than cars at that time.”

This was perhaps harsh on drivers like Gonzalez and Mike Hawthorn, the latter winning in a Squalo in Spain when the Mercedes had cooling problems.

During this stressful period, Lampredi had to suffer the imposition by Ferrari of other engineers. One was Valerio Colotti, who tackled the question of the Squalo suspension before leaving for Maserati to design the 250F. Another was Alberto Massimino, who created the 1955 Tipo 555 Super Squalo by giving it a less radical rear suspension and more conventional frame. “As technical director, Aurelio Lampredi barely tolerated this outside interference,” wrote Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri, “but it was typical of Enzo Ferrari’s management system.”

In parallel, Lampredi created sports-racing cars in this new genre. Fours were the 2.0-liter 500 Mondial, the 3.0-liter 750 Monza, and the 3.5-liter 860 Super-Monza. The latter two were exceptionally successful, the Monza also commercially, with the sale of 30 such racers. Cylinders were added to create the Tipo 118 LM six of 3.7 liters and the Tipo 121 LM of 4.4 liters. Although neither of these greatly distinguished themselves in brief careers, the latter produced 360 bhp at 6,000 rpm, which made it the most powerful sports-racing engine of 1955 by a margin of 60 horsepower.

For possible F1 use, Lampredi also produced an in-line six of 2.5 liters, but this never reached prime time. It was intended for use on fast circuits, while for slower ones like Monaco he designed and built a vertical in-line twin, the Tipo 116. It had his usual design features, albeit with a less elaborate valve gear operating four valves per cylinder. Although it would have been installed in a smaller and lighter car to suit, its vibrations—so severe that they damaged the test bed’s bracing—ruled it out of consideration. This was among the last of the 38 engines that Lampredi designed for Ferrari, as his time in Maranello would come to an end in July 1955.

“While we were about to begin a rather ‘lively’ meeting, Ferrari was called to the phone,” recalled Lampredi. “He came back saying that he had to leave for Turin straightaway. Later, I heard rumors that the Lancia D50s were to be handed over to Ferrari. One Monday morning, on returning to work from a race at Aintree [July 16], I was summoned to Ferrari’s office. We sat and talked for some time and by 2:00 p.m. I was a free man once more.

“I called Fiat, who had invited me to get in touch with them if ever I were to decide to leave Ferrari,” he continued. “The following day I was at Mirafiori. I discussed my position with Prof. Valletta and Ing. Bono and we quickly reached full agreement on everything.”

On July 26, in a somber ceremony, six Lancia D50s were handed over to Enzo Ferrari. He would modify the model into the car that Fangio drove to his fourth World Championship in 1956.

Almost immediately Lampredi was handed a fresh task by Fiat design chief Dante Giacosa. Fiat had a 1.8-liter four that needed a power upgrade. Lampredi, said Giacosa, “was given the problem to deal with. The problem was not simple since it involved replacing the previous head with a new one without modifying the rest of the [pushrod] engine. He skillfully produced a sophisticated and naturally more expensive design for a new combustion chamber which was very close to the hemispherical ones used for racing engines. The new chamber was excellent.”

Lampredi continued to oversee engine design at Fiat, keeping the company at the forefront of design for production cars with the launch of such classics as the 124 and 128, including the twin-cam 124 AC that introduced the patented concept of an adjustment shim on top of the tappet instead of under it. In the UK, Lampredi’s role was featured in a two-page spread which said, “He dresses with the expensive casualness of an English country gentleman. When he talks to you he draws with a wet felt-tip as if his mind could not work without the fluent movement of his fingers.”

In 1973, toward the close of his Fiat career, Aurelio Lampredi was named the administrator of Fiat’s Abarth arm. He died on New Year’s Day 1989, secure in his reputation as, in the words of Enzo himself, Ferrari’s “most prolific designer.”

Also from Issue 175

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  • Alloy-bodied 275 GTB
  • 2018 FCA Coppa GT competition
  • Ferrari and Michelotto go GT racing, Part 2
  • 2019 Sebring spectacular
  • Great Ferrari F1 wins
  • F1: Scuderia struggles
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