Raced between 1926 and 1958. Cortese was a driver of great stamina, quick and reliable, who drove one of the widest varieties of racing cars in history. In 1947 he had the distinction of being the first Ferrari works driver and the first winner in a Ferrari. He won the 1951 Targa Florio in a Frazer-Nash. He won the Italian 2L sports car Championship in 1956 driving a Ferrari 500 TR and finished in more Mille Miglia than any other driver: 14 between 1927 and 1956.
Born in Oggebbio, near Turin, he started racing in 1926 with an Itala. In his career which lasted until 1958, Cortese was seen as a driver with great stamina, quick and reliable, who drove one of the widest varieties of racing cars in history. Ever smiling, elegant and "sympathique" he was a first class driver, though he was always considered to only be semi-professional.
Raced Alfa Romeo and Bugattis in sports and GP racing. Raced for Scuderia Ferrari in 1930. Turned to Voiturette racing as a Maserati 6CM privateer in 1937. Works Voiturette Maserati 1938-39 racing Maserati 6CM and 4CL with several good results. Racing stopped for the war and when competition resumed, Cortese continued to race in local events.
In 1945, he was invited to drive by Piero Dusio for Cisitalia in their 1100c car. Cortese raced the new car in Turin and at a few other places. During the Egyptian Grand Prix, held in Cairo in 1946, Cortese beat Alberto Ascari who was then seen as the fastest of the Italian drivers. Ferrari took note of this and invited Cortese to drive the new 125 in 1947.
He had the distinction of being the first Ferrari works driver and the first winner in a Ferrari.
On May 11, 1947 the first two racing Ferrari, 01C driven by Cortese with a race number of 128 and 02C driven by Nino Farina appeared at a small race meeting at Piacenza. By coincidence, one of Ferrari's 815's, 021, was also taking part. Farina crashed his car twice in practice and in the race itself, Cortese retired with a defective fuel pump.
Farina refused to start the race, claiming that 01C was a faster car and that he should drive it. His request was refused and his services were promptly terminated. Ferrari asserted that Cortese was the best suited for driving of a new car because of his style and technical skills.
At the beginning of the race, the engine of Cortese's car would not reach its maximum performance due to an overfilled sump. He pulled into the pits and the mechanics took out the sump plug and drained the excess oil from the system. Cortese rejoined the race, now going much faster. However the engine started to misfire as either the diameter of the fuel pipe was too small or the fuel pump was beginning to fail. Anyway Ferdinando Righetti, driving an 1100cc Fiat, was the race winner.
Franco Cortese avenged his retirement at Piacenza taking a famous victory next time out for the fledgling Company. On May 25th at the Caracella Baths Circuit, (a street course used for the 9th Grand Prix of Rome), after some testing to cure the misfiring problem Cortese took the start. Ferdinando Righetti led initially in an 1100cc Stanguelli. Cortese took things steadily but then closed up on Righetti and forced him into running wide. Cortese then took his opportunity, passed Righetti on the inside and motored off into the distance for Ferrari's very first victory.
Just a week later Cortese won again, this time at the Circuito delle Terme di Vercelli on June 1st with 01C. There were six entries in the 1500 cc Sports car class and Cortese had an easy victory. The factory had only entered 01C for these last two races, seeing their concentration pay off. The race number was 22.
The Mille Miglia was next on June 21st and Cortese, this time paired with a mechanic, Adelmo Marchetti, left Brescia at 2.39 A.M. wearing the race number of 143. Near Fano, on the Adriatic coast, 01C's engine was switched off by Cortese when a cylinder head gasket failed and a valve spring broke.
After having raced Ferraris for several years he moved to Frazer-Nash and gave the car a surprise victory at the 1951 Targa Florio. He won the Italian 2L sports car Championship in 1956 driving a Ferrari 500 TR. He became an Italian agent for some car component manufacturers.
Cortese finished in more Mille Miglia than any other driver: 14 between 1927 and 1956.