Tazio Nuvolari 1892-1953
IT’S CLAIMED THAT AFTER SEEING Vincenzo Lancia’s race win at the Circuito di Brescia, a very young Nuvolari became ‘hooked on speed’.
Lancia’s victory in a Fiat certainly made an impression on a young man whose own life would generate much adulation; Ferdinand Porsche rated him as the ‘greatest of all time’ whilst Fangio considered him the most ‘legendary of champions’.
There is little doubt Nuvolari captured race fans hearts with his abilities and often extreme bravery. His total disregard for personal safety was apparent at an early age, testing a home-made parachute from the roof of his parents’ house near Mantua, Northern Italy could have finished any ideas of motorsport.
During WW1 Nuvolari became an ambulance driver to and from the front line although stories abound that he lost this job as a result of driving too fast and dangerous for official liking. Married in 1915 to Carolina Perini, post-war motorcycle racing was the next challenge for 28-year-old Tazio, his bike career would go on to span 124 races with 49 victories plus 40 fastest laps taking the Italian 350cc Championship on a Bianchi.
Opening a car dealership in his home village of Castel d’Ario in 1922 did little to slow Nuvolari or the tales of his exploits; at Monza motorbike GP, a crash in practice resulted in fractured legs with plaster casts.
On race day his mechanics lowered him onto the bike, Tazio won but unable to dismount he was lifted from his machine postchequered flag. In 1924 Nuvolari’s first victories on four wheels arrived aged 32; Bianchi had constructed a 2 litre race car which Tazio piloted at the Tigullio Circuit. Class wins at Savio and Polesine followed the same year in the 1.5 litre Chiribiri Monza. Nuvolari was getting noticed and victor Enzo Ferrari confessed postrace ‘this little man put the squeeze on me, at one point I thought he would take victory from my fabulous 3 litre Alfa Romeo’.
It was Vittorio Jano who offered an opportunity to test the legendary Alfa P2 at Monza, Tazio lapped at 3 minutes 32 seconds, quicker than works driver Antonio Ascari. All his good work was undone when a serious crash wrecked the Alfa and put Nuvolari in hospital. Upset Jano pledged it would be a long time before a second chance would be offered in a works car but 12 days later Tazio discharged himself, returning to the circuit. Getting astride his 350cc Bianchi race bike again required the assistance of his mechanics yet Nuvolari went on to take victory on a rain soaked track winning the Grand Prix of Nations. Bianchi entered their Type 20 in standard road trim for the inaugural Mille Miglia in 1927 with Tazio at the wheel. In an all Italian field of 77, only 54 would complete the gruelling 1000-mile race, the Bianchi finished 10th. With a factory drive not likely, Tazio started his own team and purchased a pair of Bugatti Type 35’s in partnership with Achille Varsi; another bike racer from Bianchi.
The pair became great friends and the greatest of rivals on two and four wheels, especially when Varsi purchased an Alfa P2 hoping to gain an advantage over Nuvolari. In 1928 the Bugatti brought Tazio’s first international win at the Grand Prix of Tripoli; Varsi finished 3rd in only his second car race. Nuvolari struggled throughout 1929 but after finally signing for Alfa he found himself alongside his rival Varsi both in new 1750 6C’s for the 1930 Mille Miglia; a race that elevated both to household names but one became a super-star.
With both drivers desperate to win, the team were forced to request they hold station, fearing losing both as they pushed boundaries passing each other. With time running out Nuvolari switched off his headlights when gaining on his rival, whilst Varsi thought the win was his.
Once in position the second Alfa’s lights illuminated the darkening skies and Nuvolari blasted passed on his way to victory; the press and the public loved it. A strained relationship developed within the team but victory in the RAC TT race in Ulster ensured Tazio and team boss Enzo Ferrari continued together.
In 1931 regulations for Grand Prix car racing dictated races should be of ten hour duration and a two driver format allowed for personnel swops in the event of mechanical failure with points scored adjusted. Piloting the Alfa 8C resulted in a 2nd at the Belguim GP, then 11th at Montlhery France won by Varsi and Louis Chiron in a Type 51 at the home of Bugatti. Varsi had also won the previous year’s Targa Florio in a P2 Alfa, one event Nuvolari wanted to add to his CV. By piloting the marques 8C to victory on the original Grand Circuit of 146kms in 1931 Tazio achieved something that eluded his motor racing inspiration (Vincenzo Lancia) decades before; a feat he repeated in 1932.
Le Mans in 1933 saw super charged Alfa 8C’s take all podium spots; Nuvolari shared with French rising endurance racer Raymond Sommer winning by just 10 seconds and 400 yards from Chinetti and Gunsburg after 233 laps.
When the relationship with Enzo became fraught, a deal was struck with Maserati. Tazio also entered the Tourist Trophy race in Ulster winning comfortably in a supercharged MG K3 Magnette; when asked what he thought of the brakes on his car the reply was ‘don’t really know, I didn’t use them much’. At the Circuit of Pietro Bordino in Alessandria Northern Italy, driving a privately entered Maserati, Nuvolari pushed too hard and crashed on a wet track hitting a tree and shattering his leg; doctors considered amputation but Tazio’s wife Carolina persuaded them otherwise. Whilst in hospital a plot was hatched to enter the Avus-Rennen race a month later; the high speed banked circuit had seen Varsi take victory the season prior.
Tazio told his mechanic they were leaving for Germany in the Maserati. ‘As spectators?’ The reply ‘no to race’ and so the team rigged up a stirrup for his broken leg whilst Nuvolari developed a technique of operating 3 pedals with one foot; he finished 5th. Ferrari offered an opportunity to return to the Alfa family which was taken forcing Varsi’s move to Auto Union keeping his old rival at a distance.
How much this inspired Nuvolari to what many consider his finest hour would be speculation but the German Grand Prix of 1935 saw 300,000 spectators at the Nurburgring to witness one of motorsports greatest moments. Tazio’s obsolete P3 Alfa was light, certainly, but even after engine work to increase the 3.2 capacity it lacked the performance of the five 375 hp Mercedes 4 litre W25’s entered and four Auto Unions of five litre capacity.
Not helped by a poor start or two minutes lost refuelling many reports speak of Nuvolari driving beyond the limits of the car throughout the race and victory in the Nazi’s home event. 1936 saw victory at Long Island and the Vanderbilt Cup with Alfa from 8th on the grid; the event was won by Bernd Rosemeyer in 1937 just prior to his death chasing a Land Speed Record on the autobahn.
His seat in the Auto Union was taken by Nuvolari and victories at the British and Italian GPs followed. 28 years of inhaling exhaust fumes were taking their toll on Tazio’s health but he was victorious at the final GP prior to WW2 in Belgrade. The 1947 Albi GP in France was the Italian’s final GP win in 1947 although he continued to compete until the end of the decade. A career spanning 229 races, 92 victories, 38 class wins, 59 fastest laps and 14 major accidents.
Tazio Nuvolari died August 1953, buried in his race suit within his family tomb. The inscription above the entrance reads ‘You will ride with even more speed on the streets of Heaven’.
from p. 19 of issue March 2017
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