As good as Nuvolari?

Guy Moll

…Enzo Ferrari thought so. Mark Hughes tells the story of a short but spectacular career

Pescara 1934. The Coppa Acerbo: 20 laps of the 16-mile circuit that runs along the Adriatic coast and through dusty hillside villages. Crowds are lining the route, excited at the prospect of their beloved Alfa Romeos and Maseratis taking on the weird and wonderful new monster cars from Germany. Even light drizzle can’t dampen their passion as the race begins. Rudolf Caracciola, Luigi Fagioli and Hans Stuck immediately demonstrate the savage power of the new-age silver machines. Tazio Nuvolari’s Maserati and the Scuderia Ferrari-run Alfa P3s of Achille Varzi – soon using his silky skills and ice-cool temperamant to get in among the Teutons – and Guy Moll, represent Italian racing red.

A grand prix megastar of life-long standing, Varzi would have been familiar to the crowd. But intrigue would have surrounded Moll, the 24-year-old Algerian who had made such as sensational impact on the sport in just his second season of international racing. He’d gone head to head with Varzi several times already, locked horns as if he’d barely even heard of him.

Moll gets off to a slow start – it is a track that is new to him – but he’s fifth at the end of the first lap. The longer the race goes on, the more comfortable he becomes and his pace steadily increases. Helped by mechanical failure from Stuck’s Auto Union and a crash by Caracciola’s Mercedes, he is leading the race by half-distance, slugging it out with Fagioli’s Mercedes…

Enzo Ferrari’s direct experience of grand prix racing lasted from 1924 to ’88. He had a great feel for a great driver, someone who could pick out their qualities and analyse them. One man – Tazio Nuvolari – was his reference point: he personified the perfect racing driver. Ferrari picked out three others – in all those years – whom he felt worthy of comparison: Stirling Moss, Gilles Villeneuve and Moll. Of them all, Moll is the least known. His front-line career lasted less than two years and it was all so long ago; heroic deeds deep in the mists of time, a fallen young warrior long forgotten. But what a driver he was.

There’s been only one other Algerian grand prix driver: Marcel Lehoux. And he was present at Algiers on the day in 1932 that Moll made his racing debut in a small-time amateur event, driving a Lorraine-Dietrich. Lehoux was already a successful international racer, and he was deeply impressed by the attacking style and apparent fearlessness of the man 20 years his junior. He introduced himself and from that moment became his mentor.

Moll, born to a wealthy French businessman father and Spanish mother, had only just completed his college studies and was not yet ready to settle into the commercial life his family had mapped out for him. His appetite for adventure was well and truly whetted by the things Lehoux told him of the places he’d raced, the gypsy life a successful racer could lead.

Algeria was at that time a French province, and business and sporting links with Europe were far closer then than now – to the extent that European teams would travel to take part in the Oran Grand Prix as part of a ‘temporada’ of North African races. Lehoux decided to enter Moll for his second-ever motor race at this event – using Lehoux’s spare Bugatti T35C. He can’t have been disappointed: sensationally, Moll led the first few laps, holding off the faster T51 of the great Jean-Pierre Wimille before retiring with mechanical trouble. The performance of this confident youngster caused a real stir among the visiting Europeans. Lehoux loaned him the Bugatti again for the Casablanca GP a month later. This time he retired without making such an impression, but there was consolation for Lehoux; he won in the sister car.

As a taster for the following year, Lehoux entered Moll in the late-season Marseilles Grand Prix at Miramas, this time in a T51 he had traded his 35C for. In this, his first truly international race, Moll finished third, beaten only by Raymond Sommer and Nuvolari. As far as Moll was concerned, this clinched his future: he knew now he need fear no one. If it was astonishing that he should instantly compete on equal terms with the best in the world, it apparently wasn’t to him. No respecter of reputations and imbued with an enormous swashbuckling confidence, he had the mindset of a champion.

For 1933, Moll ordered himself a new Alfa Romeo Monza, a favourite with privateer racers. It wasn’t ready in time for the Pau Grand Prix, the race that went down in history because much of it was held in snow, so Lehoux instead lent him one of his T51s. Against a quality field that included Lehoux, Wimille and Philippe Etançelin, Moll led the first 15 laps before being passed by Lehoux and finishing second. The establishment was astounded – again.The Alfa arrived in May, just in time for Moll to enter the Nimes GP, where he finished third behind Nuvolari and Etançelin. A week later he drove it in his biggest race to date – the French GP at Montlhéry, against a full array or works teams – and finished fifth. At Reims for the Marne Grand Prix, he was leading when he realised that agonisingly he wasn’t going to make his fuel last for the final two laps and had to make a splash-and-dash. He finished thrid behind the duelling Etançelin and Wimille, only to be disqualified for receiving a push in the pits. He completed his season with a second place – to Lehoux – and fastest lap in the Monza Grand Prix.

It seems that Lehoux and Moll both had orders for P3s accepted by Scuderia Ferrari for 1934, but that Alfa Romeo then overruled the sale of its GP car to privateers. An accommodation was reached between the Algerian drivers and Enzo, whereby they became official members of Scuderia Ferrari. Whatever the financial and admin arrangements, it meant Moll was now driving for a factory team – alongside the great Varzi and Louis Chiron.

Moll’s headstrong bravery and garabaldino style were very much to the taste of Enzo, who used Moll’s presence to stir and agitate his established stars – a method that Il Commendatore was to employ to his dying days. He was therefore delighted by the outcome of Moll’s first race for the team: the MOnaco Grand Prix. Chiron looked all set for victory, having led from the moment his jumped start – rather than the starter’s flag – had defined when his home race was underway. Two laps from the end, though, Louis lost concentration at Station Hairpin, ran wide and hit a straw bale. The car wasn’t badly damaged and he was able to manoeuvre himself back into the race – but not before Moll had blasted by with not a moment’s hesitation and zero respect for Chiron’s senior status. “That day,” Enzo recalled in his autobiography, “Moll revealed the style of a great champion, asserted his personality as a driver and vindicated my faith in him.”

Just to help the infighting process along perhaps, Moll was allocated the team’s best engine for the Tripoli Grand Prix. There remain suggestions that, with the P3s being the fastest cars there, the drivers prearranged the finishing order so as to benefit from the big-money lottery and that, in the race’s late stages, the order of Varzi, Chiron, Moll was as discussed. If true, perhaps it was pride, or a realisation that he didn’t need the money, that caused Moll to step up his game and attack Chiron mercilessly. He got past with one eight-mile lap to go and set about catching Varzi. Up to the final corner preceding the main straight Moll got a run on his team-mate, but Varzi was ruthless enough to cut across his bows, forcing Moll onto a sandy strip at the track’s edge. Still Moll wouldn’t give up and, using his superior straight-line speed, closed as they raced for the line. It was a photo finish but Moll had failed in his bid by just 0.2 sec. The moment they got out of the cars, Moll was in Varzi’s face. Tempers frayed as he accused his senior team-mate of dangerous driving. Just as in the cockpit, Moll was demonstrating that he subjugated himself to no-one, despite his youth and inexperience. Enzo recalled: “Beneath the coating of oil and brake dust on their faces, the bitterness could be seen. These were not team-mates, but individuals racing each other.” You get the strong impression that he very much approved.

The mind-games continued in the lead-up to the Avusrennen, around the 12-mile blast comprising two stretches of autobahn linked by banked turns at either end. It called for raw horsepower, low drag and unblinking, fearless nerve. It was the race that saw the first of the Nazi-backed überwagens in action, with a three-car entry from Auto Union. Knowing of the scale of the challenge, Ferrari had one streamlined version of the P3 built, with bodywork designed by an aircraft designer. It was also fitted with a 3.2-litre straight-eight rather than the standard 2.9. Varzi was assigned to race it, but he pronounced it “undriveable” after a test on the autostrada. Moll, though, didn’t need to be asked twice: he would race the streamliner, with Varzi and Chiron in standard cars. Ferrari had been right to be concerned about the German challenge as Stuck roared off into a big early lead. Moll was soon up to second, his unstable machine flying down the straights at 175mph – quick, but around 15mph short of Stuck’s car. But Stuck knew he would be stopping for tyres. For Moll there was no such plan, and when Stuck’s stop overrran, Moll went in front – and stayed there, recording the race’s fastest lap of 129mph on the way. In his first three races for Scuderia Ferrari, he had won two and been beaten by ).2sec in the other. On tracks he had never seen before…

Keeping him on his toes, Ferrari used him only as a reserve in the French Grand Prix. He took over Felice Trossi’s car and finished a close third despite gearbox problems. Then it was on to the Coppa Ciano at Montenero. Here he was gaining the upper hand in a furious dice for the lead with Varzi when he suffered a puncture – fortunately when quite close to the pits. Once under way again, he began cutting into Varzi’s lead.

Enzo takes up the story: “I decided to give him the signal of slowing down for it was not good practice for members of the same team to engage in such a battle and carry it even to the point of provocation. But as Moll approached and I displayed the signal, his car went into a terrifying 180-degree skid. As he spun, he changed down and – here is the astonishing part – made a sign to me that he had understood (my signal). I’d never seen such coolness and self-assurance to split the reasoning in two under superhuman stress. I realised, from that moment on, the greatest risk he would have to face would be in the inferiority of competitors… in defending themselves against his greater skill and daring.”

Moll dutifully finished second, consoling himself with fastest lap. Again, such a performance needs to be given the extra perspective of this being his first visit to the 12.5-mile circuit and its 50-plus bends through the mountains and along the corniche.

Three weeks later came Pescara.

Moll pits first, and when Fagioli resumes after his stop, the Mercedes retains the lead. With no more planned stops, it is all down to speed in the remaining laps. Moll moves up a gear, begins driving at a different rate to everyone else. Lapping at over 90mph on lap 16, with four still to go, brings him to within 29sec of Fagioli. The crowd stirs; at this rate he is going to catch the leader. On the next lap, though, he spins and stalls. He gets going but now his task is yet more desperate. He passes through the village of Cappelle and on the following Montesilvano straight starts to catch the Mercedes of Ernst Henne, whome Fagioli has just lapped…

In Chris Nixon’s Racing the Silver Arrows, Henne recalls: “He caught me at a point where the road was very narrow. I could see that he wanted to pass, but he had only to wait for two to three kilometres and the road was very wide, wide enough for three or four cars to run side by side. But Moll would not wait. We were doing about 270-280kph (168-174mph) down this very narrow road. In those days the Prancing Horse badge of Scuderia Ferrari was positioned right at the front of the Alfa’s bonnet and I could see it out of the corner of my eye. I was just waiting for the terrible moment when Moll’s fron wheel would collide with my rear. But then he seemed to change his mind. I looked in my mirror and suddenly saw his car swerve violently and go out of control.”

Some say they touched, others that Moll was blown off course by a strong gust of the scirocco. At that speed, even if he’d caught the initial slide, not even Moll had a hope of getting the lock back off in time for the counter-slide – though, according to Henne, he almost did so. The Alfa found a ditch, overturned and made a crazy path along it, taking out saplings as it went, bouncing off a bridge and coming to rest against a wall. Moll died shortly afterwards.

The impatience of youth? Inexperience? The inferior skill of a rival? Too damn brave? Or just plain bad luck? Ferrari said that Moll resembled Nuvolari in his aggressive spirit, in the calm assurance with which he drove and in the equanimity with which he was prepared to face death.” While Nuvolari faced it for two decades, Moll for only two years, Ferrari recognised that greatness has nothing to do with time frames; it’s there or it’s not. Moll possessed it.