The Nuvolari legends

The Editor Investigates the Strategy, Methods and Personality of the Greatest of All Grand Prix Drivers

The late Tazio Nuvolari was, in my estimation, the greatest of all racing drivers. It is natural that around such a famous and successful figure all manner of legends have been woven, some true, a few false, all of them underlining the virtuosity of the great little Italian.

One of my memories of Nuvolari is at Donington in 1938, when he set a practice lap-record of 2 min. 11.2 sec. before his Auto-Union had impaled itself on a stag. Caracciola had only managed 2 min, 14 sec. for Mercédès-Benz, but just before practice ended on the last day Lang got his Mercédès-Benz round in 2 min. 11.0 sec. Nuvolari, in his blue trousers and yellow jumper, sat in someone’s Chevrolet saloon, expressionless, subdued, calmly inquiring, by tapping his watch, for he spoke no English, how much time was left before the course would be closed. About a quarter-of-an-hour before the end of the practice period he signalled for his Auto-Union to be started-up. Slowly he pulled on his tight-fitting red leather helmet with the crash-pad across the brow, and that fabulous gold-tortoise mascot. Climbing into the cockpit he was soon setting about beating Lang’s time; it would be nice to record that he succeeded, but that would be one of the false legends.

But next day Nuvolari worked through the field, after leading until a stop was needed to change a plug, to win the Donington Grand Prix at 80.49 m.p.h., finishing 1 min. 38 sec, ahead of Lang, having survived the historic “oil incident” which put Hasse’s Auto-Union out of the race and delayed Seaman and Brauchitsch. He also made the fastest race-lap, in 2 min. 11.4 sec. And, remember, at this time Nuvolari was 46 years of age and the car he drove is accepted as about equal in speed to today’s Grand Prix cars and more precarious to control. I recall being both saddened and surprised at the apparent lack of exhilaration displayed by the winner as, in cloth cap with a coat over his overalls, he was driven to Derby in a Horch saloon by Dr. Feureissen — the victor of the race looked just a forlorn, subdued little man.

Nuvolari gained his early experience in the saddle of Fongri, Indian, Norton and Bianchi motorcycles and drove any cars he could lay hands on — Ansaldo, Chiribiri, S.C.A.T., Bianchi, S.P.A., until he began to get results, from 1927 onwards, with Bugatti and Alfa-Romeo cars.

As I have said, the Nuvolari legends are rife but one day someone will do our world a deep service, and probably make himself a fortune, by writing a history of the great driver — I only hope this will be done thoroughly, by an Italian with a true insight into the story-behind-the-scenes, when no doubt some of those legends will debunk themselves.

For instance, I find it hard to believe W. F. Bradley’s fascinating explanation (“Targa Florio,” Chap. 17) of Tazio’s escape in a Mille Miglia, when he used an escape-lane between two petrol pumps which were narrower than his car, by the expedient of tilting up onto two wheels at the crucial moment! Likewise, I am sceptical that he drove lap after lap with the fuel tank of his car in flames (article in Domenica del Corriere, reprinted in Motor Sport, October, 1953) at Pau before jumping out at 100 m.p.h., but I am prepared to believe that he beat his rival Varzi in the 1930 Mille Miglia by creeping up on him at night with lights out, thus taking the rival Alfa-Romeo driver unawares.

The differing temperaments of Varzi and Nuvolari — Varzi unspectacular, self-controlled, ice-cold, Nuvolari temperamental, given to throwing his car about in controlled slides, shouting and slapping the scuttle-side as he did so — resulted in bitter quarrels and caused Archille Varzi to leave the Alfa-Romeo team to drive a Bugatti — in French-blue overalls but at first painting his car flaming Italian red. Nuvolari beat Varzi in the Targa Florio of 1931, when mud caked the tired eyes of the lone Bugatti driver and Nuvolari, better protected by a mud-wing, came up on the last lap to secure a win for Alfa-Romeo, at 40.29 m.p.h., in a car capable of 115 m.p.h. This defeat on such a driver’s course Varzi never forgave, especially as Nuvolari easily out-drove him the next year, again running for Alfa-Romeo, at 49.3 m.p.h. Consequently, when Varzi met Nuvolari in the Monaco Grand Prix of 1933 fireworks were expected, and seen. Here we have drama in motor-racing which might have come straight from the pages of a novel. Varzi, sullen, calculating, out for revenge, sat in his Bugatti on the front row of the starting grid, Nuvolari, fiery, tense with nervous energy, prepared to take risks, in his Alfa-Romeo immediately behind him. For the first three laps Varzi led, then Nuvolari got by, only to be re-passed. Always they were close together, locked in furious combat on this most sinuous of round-the-houses circuits. Twenty laps from the end Nuvolari again led. Then, with but two laps left, Varzi deliberately over-revved coming out of the Gasworks’ hairpin and-slipped by the Italian car, to which Nuvolari responded by re-passing up the hill to the Casino. The last lap! Both drivers abandoned any caution about rev, limits and, forcing his Bugatti to the extreme, Varzi led by a length, lapping in 1 min. 59 sec., or two seconds faster than anyone else. Nuvolari also employed “impossible” engine speeds, but smoke plumed from the Alfa-Romeo’s bonnet, for an oil-pipe had broken and lubricant was spraying on the hot exhaust. Ignoring signals that his car was on fire, NovoIari drove on past men waving fire extinguishers, peering through the smoke, until the engine failed. Then the driver jumped out and pushed the Alfa-Romeo to the pits. Against his wish the bonnet, was raised by someone fearful of fire. Nuvolari didn’t even trouble to push his car to the line to claim a place Varzi went on to avenge his Targa Florio defeats! Yet the outstanding aspect of this grim duel, to my mind, is that, in a 100-lap race in which Nuvolari led for 66 laps and Varzi for 34, clearly neither driver baulked the one behind, easy as this would have been on the Monaco circuit and bitterly as each felt about the other.

Nuvolari’s greatest race? I leave that to his historian-yet-to-be, but unquestionably his virtuosity was never better displayed than in the German Grand Prix of 1935. On that epic occasion, as many of you know so well, Nuvolari defeated the-new Mercédès-Benz cars at the wheel of an out-moded P3 Alfa-Romeo. With the Germans on their home ground at the Nurburgring, fielding such drivers as Rosemeyer, Caracciola, Brauchitsch, Fagioli, Chiron and Stuck, Nuvolari’s task looked hopeless. After five laps he was no higher than 6th and one Alfa-Romeo had retired. Yet we had counted without the sheer driving skill of the little Italian. Speeding-up, Tazio took Rosemeyer, Chiron, Brauchitsch and Pagioli in the next three laps, and on lap 10 went past Caracciola’s 430.h.p. Mercédès-Benz to lead the race. (The 3.8-litre Alfa-Romeo of this era developed perhaps 305 b.h..p.) Then, bitter blow after such an exhausting drive, the fuel supply system failed and Nuvolari’s pit-stop cost him 134 seconds while churns were used, against 47 seconds for a good Mercédès-Benz refuel. That put him back to 5th, but in one lap the Italian overtook Caracciola, Rosemeyer and Fagioli, to run 69 seconds behind Brauchitsch, who now held the lead. The leading Mercédès-Benz set up a lap record of 80.73 m.p.h. but, no doubt, fearful for his tyres, Brauchitsch then eased up. Whereas Nuvolari forced his P3 Alfa-Romeo round faster and faster, his fastest lap being at 79.3 m.p.h, he was making up 16 seconds a lap but was 35 seconds behind on the last lap. Then Brauchitsch suffered a tyre burst — fate had taken a hand — and Nuvolari won by 159 seconds front Stuck’s Auto-Union. He would in any case have beaten Brauchitsch had his pit stop not gone awry and who is to say that the phenomenal lap-speeds he extracted from his out-moded Alfa-Romeo did not cause the German to drive too fast and overheat his tyres? It is interesting that the rivals Varzi and Nuvolari came together again in later years, in the Auto-Union team. Mystery man from a wealthy Italian family Varzi, like Nuvolari. commenced racing on two-wheels, successfully riding a Sunbeam motorcycle, and started with cars about 1928. After wins at Nice, Alexandria, Monterrero, Tripoli, Penya Rhin and in the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio races in Alfa-Romeos, Auto-Union signed-on Varzi for the 1935 season. He quickly became accustomed to these rear-engined cars, quicker it would seem than did Nuvolari who after trying one in practice at Masaryk in 1935 did not race in the German team until the 1937 Swiss Grand Prix, and then unofficially, Tazio taking over a year to get the feel of an Auto-Union, which he drove officially from 1938 onwards. Varzi won at Tunis and Pescara and was 2nd at Tripoli and 3rd at Avus in 1935, and 1st at Tripoli, 2nd at Milan, Monaco and Berne, and 3rd at Pescara and Budapest in 1936, before failing health caused him to retire until after the war. Nuvolari won the Italian and Donington Grands Prix in 1938 and the Yugoslavia Grand Prix in 1939, when he was 2nd at Eifel, for the Germans. But it is debatable whether Auto-Union, any more than Alfa-Romeo, would have countenanced both these drivers in their team at the same time.

Staunch supporters of the “Mantovano-Volante,” will be quick to recall how, at Penya Rhin, Nuvolari in his Alfa-Romeo beat Caracciola’s Mercédès-Benz and how he finished second to Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union in the mist at the Eifelrennen (“a dishevelled little figure, absolutely drenched through with rain and slush, and as he drew into his pit he removed a muddy sponge from his mouth, which he had used to wipe his vizor and goggles,” says George Monkhouse in his nostalgic book “Grand Prix Racing”). That was in 1936, in which year Nuvolari defeated both German teams at Budapest, and Auto-Union (Mercédès-Benz were non-starters) at Milan, and gave a stirring and typical display in the Coppa Chino at Leghorn, overtaking everyone in Pintacuda’s 8-cylinder Alfa-Romeo, which he took over after his 12-cylinder Alfa-Romeo had broken its transmission when that car was a minute behind the leading Auto-Union!

Yet another race in which Nuvolari’s skill, applied experience and sheer virtuosity as a driver were demonstrated was the Ulster T.T. of 1933. The Italian champion had won this race in 1930 at the wheel of an Alfa-Romeo and driven in the 1931 T.T. When the M.G. Megnette team, led by Lord Howe, had gone to Italy for a successful onslaught on their class in the Mille Miglia, Nuvolari had tried one of the cars and expressed a keen interest in it. When he found himself without a car for the 1933 T.T. he asked the advice of George Eyston and, Whitney Straight falling ill, the late Cecil Kimber, who headed the Abingdon factory in those days of the “real” M.G., placed an M.G. Magnette at Nuvolari’s disposal. The car offered to Nuvolari had been a team hack and although it was put into as good a condition as possible it did not receive as complete a rebuild as the other cars in the M.G. team. Nuvolari arrived alone from Italy, the late H. P. McConnell acting as his interpreter. Alec Hounslow, as a works mechanic of spare build, was detailed to ride with Nuvolari, for this was in the days of riding-mechanics. Nuvolari took one lap of the difficult 13.66-mile course to get the hang of the pre-selector gearbox, which was a form of gear-changing new to him, so that he forgot to press the clutch pedal to select a gear. Then, coming past the starting area, Nuvolari gave “thumbs-up” to Hounslow and proceeded to really motor, increasing his speed for the next six laps, until he went round at 78 m.p.h. He seemed scarcely to use his brakes, slowing the M.G. for the corners by side-slipping the car into them, in what we now knew as a power-controlled four-wheel-drift. He had broken the class lap record by a handsome margin!

During this run the tyres showed appreciable wear but after inspecting them the little man nodded his approval.

During this practice session the driver had been propped up with cushions. Now he demanded a proper seat made to his dimensions. He also sent the mechanics into Belfast to have a special quick-lift jack made up, capable of lifting the back of the car in a single movement. When the M.G. mechanics adjusted shock-absorbers with the car on jacks Nuvolari became impatient, demanding that Jacko jack-up the chassis

At flag-fall the M.G. Magnette of Hall and Nuvolari beat the Rileys in their class and Hall led the Italian for the first lap, but so fast was Nuvolari driving that Hall then waved him on, fearful for his engine at the beginning of this long sports-car race. But nothing caused Nuvolari to ease up — indeed, he lapped in 10 min. 45 sec., then in 10 min. 40 sec., then he put the 1,100-c.c, class lap record first to 77.09 m.p.h., then to 78.18 m.p.h. — and the leading 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo was getting round at just under 80 m.p.h. in this handicap contest!

This continued throughout the race, Nuvolari continually raising the class lap-record, cornering the Magnette in a series of controlled slides, cutting close in to walls and fences whenever he could. Passing a slower car on one lap close to Newtownards he may have erred slightly in judgment, but he recovered easily from the resultant wide slide. The handicap was heavy, however, and a record lap at 80.09 m.p.h. was rewarded only with 6th place. After 2 ½ hours, with Lewis’ Alfa-Romeo and Gillow’s Riley out and Rose-Richards’ Alfa-Romeo in the pits for replenishment, Nuvolari was in 3rd place, after 2 ½ hours driving at the highest speed he could extract from the car. Yet, in spite of this, when he came in to refuel in his turn, Nuvolari was cool and precision-like in his movements as he poured 18 gallons of petrol in from churns, then topped up oil (2 gallons) and water, tasks he accomplished so speedily that he was able to help Hounslow, who had changed the back wheels, change the front ones, for which separate jacks were used. Yet this pit-stop had never been rehearsed. Nuvolari didn’t know what Hounslow intended to do (yet he spilt no oil as the lowered rear jack moved the car) and they were away in 3 min. 9 sec.

Gradually Magnette No. 17 caught and passed other cars — Nuvolari was well-informed by his pit of who was next in front and each time that car was overtaken he would thrust an upraised thumb plumb in front of Hounslow’s face! Dixon’s Riley lost little or nothing to Nuvolari at its refuel, but stopped with a faulty exhaust system. Nuvolari seeing the Riley stationary “thumbed” Hounslow, knowing that only Hamilton’s M.G. Midget was between him and another T.T. victory. Hamilton’s pit-stop was badly bungled, the engine at first refused to re-start, and in all 7 min. 15 sec. were lost. This gave Nuvolari the race but there was a possibility that Hamilton would make good his loss and win on handicap. Signalling Hounslow to get right down in the cockpit Nuvolari drove faster than before, at 80.22 m.p.h., to Hamilton’s 750 c.c. speed of 76 m.p.h., at 80.35 m.p.h., at 80.48 m.p.h. Officials scattered in all directions as Nuvolari approached Newtownards but, tyres screaming, he slid the Magnette through. On the Comber straight Nuvolari overtook Hall, who was holding 112 m.p.h. and the latter hit a bank, buckling a wheel. That lap the Italian clocked a 10 min. 6 sec., or 81.15 m.p.h. Yet Hamilton began to gain on handicap, in three-quarters of an hour reducing Nuvolari’s lead from 47 sec. to 22 sec., while it seemed likely that the faster Magnette would require another stop for fuel. When the pit signalled that he led by only 3 seconds, Nuvolari responded by throwing his visor to the bottom of the cockpit, pulling clean goggles down over his eyes and pushing Hounslow, who had fully lowered his aero-screen, right down into the scuttle. The lap time dropped to 10 min. 2 sec., equal to 81.42 m.p.h., but the M.G. Midget was only four seconds slower, at 77.2 m.p.h. and now it led again, by ten seconds on handicap. Hamilton, however, needed fuel, but a lightning pit stop kept him in the lead. If Nuvolari was to win he had to wipe that out on the last lap. The only comment I need to make on his virtuosity is that he completed this lap, (after going onto the 2-gallon reserve fuel supply in the 30 ½-gallon tank) at 80.35 m.p.h., having overtaken the smaller M.G. at nearly 115 m.p.h. on the Comber straight, where Hamilton reached 108 m.p.h., to win by 40 seconds, at 78.65 m.p.h. Notice that in this intense lap Nuvolari broke no more records — there was so little fuel (about 1 ½ gallons) that the victorious M.G. Magnette had to be replenished before a smiling Nuvolari in his leather wind-breaker, sleeveless waistcoat and familiar garb, dared start on his lap-of-honour, while his tyres were down to the canvas. So he eased up after passing Hamilton — and how many other drivers would have the will-power to do so under such exciting circumstanced? That his engine had spluttered and stopped as the finishing line was crossed, due to an empty fuel tank, is just another legend to be debunked. Nuvolari’s average speed was only 0.06 m.p.h. slower than the fastest average in the race, set up by Rose-Richards’ Alfa-Romeo which finished third, and, as Barré Lyndon points out in his book “Circuit Dust”, had no handicap been in force, Nuvolari would have needed only half-a-mile start in 468 miles to have beaten the Alfa-Romeo outright. He broke the 1,100-c.c. lap record fifteen times and was only 1.88 m.p.h. slower the entire race than Lord Howe’s supercharged 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo had been in finishing 4th in the 1932 race the highest T.T. average speed up to that time.
And Nuvolari had scarcely driven an M.G. Magnette before he started in the race! Varzi and Nuvolari both drive again after the war. Varzi won at Turin and was second at Milan in1946 with a Tipo 158 Alfa-Romeo and in 1947 he was victorious at Bari, 2nd in the European and Italian Grand Prix, 2nd in the Argentine, and 3rd in the Swiss Grand Prix. 1948 saw him finish 3rd at Bari in a Cisitalia. The end came late one afternoon while practising at Berne in a slight mist, when, at a corner, he made the only real mistake of his career, and was crushed beneath his Tipo 158 Alfa-Romeo. Nuvolari made only a few appearances between 1946 and 1948, but these included winning at Albi in 1946 with a Maserati, several minor successes and a great drive in a Cistalia in two Mille Miglias, his Cisitalia finishing 2nd in 1947. His health was failing and in 1953, at the age of 61, he passed away. All Italy mourned these two great drivers, Archille Varzi unspectacular, Tazio Nuvolari just the opposite. How ironical that Varzi, who had never before had a serious crash, should die in the cockpit, while Nuvolari, who on at least two occasions rode and drove the trussed-up in bandages as a result of hectic bad accidents, died in bed! These two will never be forgotten where motor racing is discussed and to me the “Mantovano-Volante” remains the greatest racing driver the world has known. – W.B.