Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: BlackJack’sBriefs
Editors note: This article was submitted as an OTD. However, after reviewing it, it was felt that it warrants to be moved to a feature article.
Fourteen years after the early death of Jean Bugatti, on this same day, in 1953, Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, and Juan Fangio were amongst the ‘pall-bearers’ who pushed a car chassis bearing the coffin of motor-racing legend, Tazio Nuvolari, in the mile-long funeral procession in Mantua, where Tazio was born, lived and died. Known as ‘The’ driver of the pre-war era, he won every major race available (except the Czechoslovakian GP), and was described by Ferdinand Porsche as: ‘the greatest driver of the past, present and future.’ He was also nicknamed Il Mantovano Volante – and Il figlio del Diavolo…
He was also noted for his grim determination and dogged persistence culminating, after a crash had broken his right leg, in having all three pedals adapted to be operated by his left foot… and he drove in the following race with the right leg in plaster. Indeed, on many occasions he drove when most men would have been home in bed, if not in hospital.
Nuvolari initially raced motorcycles during the 20’s, winning Italian championships in 1924 & 1926, and a European championship in 1925 as well as the Rome, Garda, and Tripoli GPs, amongst others, for Bugatti, in 1927-28… and the Mille Miglia (with Battista Guidotti, for Alfa Romeo) in 1930 before, in 1931, concentrating entirely on cars. In Alfa Romeo, and sometimes a Maserati, in the next seven years he won: the Targa Florio (x2); the Coppa Ciano (x5); the Modena GP (x3); the German, Milan & Nice GP (x2 each); and the Monaco, Italian, French, Tunis, Alessandria, Nimes, Belgian, Pau, Bergamo, Biella, Turin, Penya Rhin, Hungarian, & Naples GP, and the Coppa Acerbo, and the Mille Miglia, once each… Tazio also won the Le Mans 24hrs… and the Tourist Trophy, in an MG K3 Magnette… Late in 1938 Nuvolari joined the mighty Auto Union team and won three GP before the outbreak of WWII.
But those are just the statistics…
In the 1930 Mille Miglia, where cars were dispatched at one minute intervals, Nuvolari was leading the race despite being behind Achile Varzi on the road. In the dark of night Nuvolari tailed Varzi for tens of kilometres, at speeds up to 150 km/h (93 mph) with his headlights off, thereby being invisible in Varzi’s rear-view mirrors; ultimately switching on his headlights just before overtaking ‘the shocked’ Varzi near the finish at Brescia and scoring the event’s first win at over 100 kph.
In the 1932 Targa Florio Tazio requested a riding mechanic who was lighter than himself and accepted an inexperienced young man who Tazio informed he would call out whenever they approached a difficult bend, to take cover under the dashboard, so as not to unduly alarm him… Mabelli said afterwards: “Before the start, Nuvolari told me to go down on the floor of the car every time he shouts, which was a signal that he went to a curve too fast and that we need to decrease the caŕs center of mass. I spent the whole race on the floor. Nuvolari started to shout in the first curve and wouldn’t stop until the last one.’
In 1925, after a severe crash in a one-off drive in the Monza GP, he was ordered a month’s detention in hospital. But.. he had previously signed with Bianchi motorcycles, and had been allowed a temporary release to race for Bugatti. Not wishing to disappoint Bianchi, he left his bed on the fourth day, to the consternation of his nurse and the indignation of his doctor. Trussed up in bandages he couldn’t move a step, let alone bend down. He certainly could not mount a motorcycle in that straightjacket condition.
As ever, Tazio, full of resources, called the head doctor and demonstrated, with a few sketches, the exact position his body must take on a racing motorbike. “Now please do me the favour of undoing all these bandages and then do them up again in this position.”
Trussed up like a mummy he was loaded into a car, conveyed to Monza, and lifted onto his Bianchi bike. With a broad grin on his face Tazio set off… and won the grueling 200 miles race at an average speed of 80mph.
In a French GP at Pau Nuvolari’s petrol tank caught fire; located as it was at the back of his car, he was blissfully unaware of the flames. After several laps he finally grasped the frantic signals from the pits and groundsmen. After a quick decision: to stop meant envelopment in flames; to continue might endanger other competitors: Tazio gambled. Driving his car towards a grassy patch on the course, he jumped out at 100mph. The car wrapped itself around a tree, and ‘il figlio del diavolo’ was picked up with some broken bones and the usual concussion – the fifth of his career…
Tazio had a fierce dice with his friend, and archrival, Varzi, at Monaco in 1933 but his engine blew on the last lap. Feverishly chased by fire marshals he tried to push the burning car to the line, but was disqualified.
Nuvolari is often reported as having been involved in a race-fixing scandal at the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix by, along with Achille Varzi and Baconin Borzacchini, conspiring to fix the race in order to profit from the Libyan state lottery which drew thirty tickets before the race – one for each starter – and the holder of the ticket corresponding to the winning driver would win seven and a half million lire, double the sum awarded to the winner of the race.
However, this story is believed to be a work of fiction created by Alfred Neubauer, the team manager of Mercedes- Benz at the time and a well-known raconteur with a penchant for spicing up a story. Some of the facts in Neubauer’s version do not hold true with documented records of events, which point to Nuvolari, Varzi and Borzacchini agreeing to share the lottery prize should one of them win, as opposed to Neubauer’s claims of race fixing.
For Le Mans in 1933 Nuvolari shared a car with Raymond Sommer, who wanted to drive the majority of the race as he was more familiar with the circuit, and Nuvolari would likely break the car. Nuvolari countered that he was a leading Grand Prix driver and Le Mans was a simple layout that would not trouble him, to which Sommer backed down.
After establishing a two lap lead their fuel tank developed a hole, which was plugged by chewing gum whilst in the pits. Several pit stops were necessary, to continually replace the makeshift repair, as it came undone several times during the race, and Nuvolari drove from then until the end of the race, breaking the lap record nine times and winning by approximately 400 yards (366 m) – after twenty-four hours…
Tazio totally dominated the 1933 Tourist Trophy in a supercharged MG K3 Magnette. Afterwards he was asked if he liked the MG’s brakes. He replied he couldn’t really say, as he hadn’t used them that much.
Tazio Nuvolari’s MG Magette K3 hounding Tim Rose–Richards’ Alfa Romeo in the International RAC Tourist Trophy, 1933.
For 1935 Nuvolari had wanted to join Auto Union but Varzi (or maybe the German drivers… reports vary…) vetoed the partnership so he tried to rejoin Ferrari, whence he had previously departed to drive for Maserati, and was bluntly turned down. However, it is claimed, Mussolini stepped in… and Enzo was obliged to back down…
In a four-year-old Alfa Romeo P3 (3167cc, 265 hp), against the German might of five Mercedes-Benz W25 (3990c, 375 hp) and four Auto Union Tipo B (4950cc, 375 hp), Nuvolari scored his most impressive win (known as ‘The Impossible Victory’), thought by many to be the greatest motor-racing victory of all time.
Tazio was 134 secs. behind, in sixth place, after the mid-point pitstops but, after just one lap he was back into second place and chasing von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes. On lap 14 the lead was 86 secs., on the next lap 88, then 77, 63, 47, 43, and 32 secs. Von Brauchitsch started the last lap with a seemingly uncatchable 35 seconds lead but the high pace had destroyed the tyres and the Mercedes suffered a double puncture.
The astonished German crowd could only see the Italian car take the flag as winner. Some even thought he was a back-marker, and remained looking back along the track for the Mercedes… When the dust had settled this was known as Nuvolari’s greatest race (as Fangio’s similarly was in 1957) because with his old Alfa he had beaten eight new German cars to the line. The rain showers had helped to even the horsepower advantage a bit – but even so, Tazio had still set a new lap record…
Apparently the huge 300,000(?) crowd, expecting a German victory in the German GP, after a stunned pause, applauded Nuvolari – while representatives of the Third Reich were less than pleased… the officials at the finish line having already started to raise the flag of the Reich, and prepare the celebration.
A short clip of Tazio’s win in Germany, 1935…
However, in 1936-37 the Alfas fell further and further behind, although the Americans went mad about him when he won the Vanderbilt Cup in 1936 – a cup almost as big as himself, for he was only 5ft 6in and weighed about eight stone – and $32,000, and Tazio’s relationship with Enzo Ferrari soured and, having experienced a one-off drive for Auto Union, in 1938 Tazio ‘retired’ – but was summoned back from his ‘holiday’ by Auto Union… at the end of 1938, winning two races, and then one more in 1939, before WWII halted proceedings.
In 1937 and in 1943 Nuvolari lost two teenage sons and now his own health started to deteriorate after a lifetime of absorbing noxious fumes which invaded his entire body.
In 1946 Tazio, at the age of 54, won the Albi GP in a Maserati, and he raced in the Milan Grand Prix using only one hand to steer – the other holding a bloodstained handkerchief over his mouth. In Turin, in the lead at the end of the first lap of the Coppa Brezzi, he passed the pits on the second waving the steering wheel of his Cisitalia D46, which had come off in his hands. He did another lap driving the steering-column but then had to stop for the inevitable repairs… and ended 13th. The story went around the world and added popularity to his already formidable myth.
In 1947 he was about to win his third Mille Miglia when a storm drowned his engine, but he still came in second – and collapsed. In 1948 he had a final try but, while comfortably leading this gruelling event he was forced to retire, and was again exhausted… which is hardly surprising… as he had taken off as if he was still 20 years old, rather than 56. In Pescara he was leading, at Rome he was 12 minutes ahead, in Livorno 20 minutes, at Florence half an hour. His driving was still superb… but the car was breaking up. First it lost a mud guard, then the bonnet, then the bolts holding the seats in. Finally, in Reggio Emilia a broken leaf spring pivot destroyed the hopes of a happy ending to the last of Nuvolari’s epic drives.
After that Tazio’s career slowly wound down and his last competitive appearance was in 1950 at the Palermo- Montepellegrino hill-climb, in which he came first in class and fifth overall. His health worsened and a stroke in 1952 virtually paralysed him. A second, the following year, took his life…
It is said that ‘half of Mantua’ watched or followed the corsage on it’s mile-long procession to the cemetery.
Tazio Nuvolari has had four cars named after him – the Cisitalia 202 spider ‘Nuvolari’; the Alfa Romeo Nuvola, the EAM Nuvolari S1, and the Audi Nuvolari Quattro; and Maserati offers the colour Grigio-Nuvolari from their custom palette.
Nuvolari was one of the early proponents (if not the inventor, according to Enzo Ferrari) of the four-wheel drift technique. And an Italian pay-TV channel dedicated to motor sports is named NuvolariTV.
When Tazio was only 20 he purchased the parts of a Bleriot airplane which he carted home and proceeded to reassemble… but the engine would never rev fast enough to get the thing airborne. Undaunted, legend claims he used some kind of pulley-system to hoist the machine to the roof of his parents’ house. As his father looked on, allegedly unperturbed, Tazio ordered the guy-rope to be severed… and he landed at the bottom of the building, on a haystack. Spilt fuel ignited, and the haystack was eliminated. Tazio apparently escaped – with a smile…
During WWI he tried to get work as an ambulance driver… but, again according to legend, his driving was considered too dangerous…
Who is the greatest driver ever?
The fastest? The most dedicated? Most naturally talented? These questions have been asked many times and some names regularly appear in the lists: Senna, Clark, Fangio, Villeneuve, Moss, Schumacher . . .
Most of the lists only include drivers of the post-1950 World Championship era and the great drivers of the 30’s, 20’s, and before, are invariably ignored. Obviously none of us know those drivers nor saw them compete, so how can we ever vote for them. I came across a lovely quote a few months ago that said: ‘If your favourite movie was made in your lifetime you haven’t seen enough movies…’ However, when reviewing the relative performances of drivers from the pre-war era, the lists invariably contain one additional name – a driver with such a speed, car control and dedication that he surely could have also challenged the post-war Greats.
The name of that driver is Tazio Nuvolari.
Any readers who might be anywhere near Mantua, Italy, this weekend might like to know the Museo Tazio Nuvolari will be laying a 60th Anniversary laurel wreath on the monument of Largo Pradella at 11:00 tomorrow, the 12th…
A TV history – even if you cannot understand Italian, the quality of the archive footage is fascinating…
Another, shorter, clip, of Tazio’s win in Italy, 1938…