In his Cambridge days, my father went with some friends to watch the Donington Grand Prix in 1938. All he really remembered, he said, was Nuvolari, who won. “He looked tiny in that Auto Union. They were all sideways as they came past, but he took off the opposite lock earlier than the others — he knew just how much was enough. I remember, too, how he’d bang the cockpit side with his hand when he was being baulked.”
Once, over dinner in Manhattan in the ’80s, I mentioned that to the late Rene Dreyfus and his face lit up. “Yes, it was exactly that! He hated to be held up, he got … very impatient!”
Dreyfus was an enchanting man, as well as an extremely accomplished driver. It is not often one dines with a man who was Tazio Nuvolari’s teammate (both drove Alfa Romeos for Scuderia Ferrari), and later that evening I scribbled down everything I could remember of our conversation.
How had Dreyfus rated the drivers of the period?
“Well, it’s a little like Prost and Senna today,” he said. “Caracciola was technically the best, the most complete. But the greatest, without any doubt, was Nuvolari.”
You get this sometimes in grand prix racing, a man so ethereally skilled that his fellows — or most of them — concede that he is simply better than they. Michael Schumacher is in that position today. But far rarer is the driver with a presence to make the roof of your mouth dry. Nuvolari had it in spades, as did Fangio and Senna.
“You can’t create it,” Gerhard Berger said of Ayrton. “It’s there, or it isn’t In Serma’s mind, the only thing that existed was himself— he had to be first, and he was able to create a power. That’s the only word I can use. When he came into a room,everyone stared.”
Comparing drivers of different eras may be futile, for the demands of the job change as the sport evolves, but one constant remains, and no one has put it better than Frank Gardner: “In the end, it’s all a matter of more accelerator and less brake.”
Dreyfus thought that definition perfect for Nuvolari. First, what you had to understand about Tazio, he said, was that he drove in a manner quite different from any of his contemporaries. “He’s credited with inventing the four-wheel drift, but it wasn’t a conscious thing — nothing was with him; he did everything by instinct. He was strong for his size, with great stamina, but the races were very long, and the cars were wilful.
“In the case of Nuvolari, you had the impression of a man on an unbroken horse, but instead of fighting it, he let it run free. With him, there was no accepted ‘line’ around a circuit; he would turn into a corner early, aim at the apex, put the power down hard, and do the steering with the throttle, using his hands only for small corrections. It was his speed out of corners that was so exceptional. There was no point in trying to copy his technique, because no-one can borrow another man’s instinct. Only Tazio could drive like Tazio.”
His will to win is what those who knew him remember most, his sheer need to pass the car in front, be it for first place or 10th. And while he was always gracious in defeat, there is a gulf between a good sport and a good loser. Nuvolari hated to lose, but there is no cliche story here of the boxer looking to escape the Bronx tenement.He came from a landowning family; he raced because he wanted to race.
He did not start young, however. The First World War postponed his debut, on motorcycles, until 1920, by which time he was already 28. For 10 years he was a winner on both two and four wheels, but after 1930 he concentrated on cars, and though he drove for Bugatti, Maserati and Auto Union, his name will be forever synonymous with Alfa Romeo, with whom the majority of his successes came.
The early ’30s were years of glory for Alfa Romeo, and Nuvolari did most of the winning. First in the ‘Monza’ Alfa, then in the P3, he had innumerable victories, in both grand prix and sportscar races. By 1934, though, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were into grand prix racing, and the pattern of the years up to WWII was set
Alfa Romeo was nationalised in 1933, and the factory ceased racing, but the cars continued to compete under the banner of Scuderia Ferrari, which had already run Alfa’s racing programme for three years. From 1934, the Prancing Horse replaced the quadrifoglio of the works cars.
By the beginning of 1935, Nuvolari could see that little possibility existed of beating the German teams, and he would have joined Auto Union that year had not the move been vetoed by the recently-signed Achille Varzi. At a personal level, all remained well between them, but Tazio’s rival refused resolutely to be his teammate again. It was not until 1938,following the death of the sublimely talented Bernd Rosemeyer and the enforced retirement of Varzi, that Nuvolari finally went to Auto Union.
Every great driver has his day of days, however. By 1935, the ageing P3 had become wholly uncompetitive with the German cars, but at a circuit like the Nürburgring, genius could always claim its own reward. If Nuvolari was lucky in anything in his life, it was that he competed in an era when driving ability could compensate for an inferior car.
“What you have to remember about those times,” Dreyfus said, “is that the cars had almost no grip, almost no brakes. Therefore, cornering speeds were set much more by the driver than by the car. I was also a member of Scuderia Ferrari at that time, and thought! was a pretty good driver, but Tazio would pass me in corners, travelling at a completely different speed as if he were on a dry track, and for me it was raining!”
Nuvolari won the German Grand Prix in 1935, leaving an expectant Nazi reception committee po-faced. Pressuring Manfred von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes on the last of the 22 laps, he took the lead after the Karussel, and crossed the line to near silence from the stands. Some delay ensued before a recording of the Italian national anthem could be found.
Spasmodic victories with the Alfa Romeo 12C-36, including the first Vanderbilt Cup race, on Long Island, came Tazio’s way over the next two seasons, and in 1938 and ’39, now driving Auto Unions, he won at Monza, Donington and Belgrade. The latter result was appropriate because it was the last GP of era, running on the very day Great Britain declared war on Germany.
By the end of hostilities, Nuvolari was in his fifties, but he continued to race. In the fullness of his years, he was not at peace with himself, for both his sons had fallen victim to tuberculosis while still in their teens, and he looked to cauterise his grief in his beloved cars. Although in failing health himself, his essential genius remained, and twice more he dominated the Mille Miglia, losing victory each time through car problems in the late stages. He won for the last time in a Sicilian hillclimb in 1950, and was thereafter too weak to compete again.
In the course of his long career, Nuvolari crashed countless times, broke countless bones. Apparently immune to fear, he was cynically well aware of the perils of racing. “When he was going to the Targa Florio in 1932,” said Enzo Ferrari, “I gave him a return ticket. ‘Everyone says you’re good businessman,’ Tazio said to me, ‘but you’re not. You should have bought a one-way ticket only when your driver is leaving for a race, you should always consider that perhaps he’ll come back in a wooden box.”
Some say that Nuvolari prayed to die in a racing car; he said he did not wish to languish in a bed. Yet, weakened by tuberculosis, he suffered a stroke in the summer of 1953, and died at home, in Casteldario, on August 11. “Bury me in my uniform,” he said to his wife the evening before, and he went to the grave in the familiar blue trousers and yellow shirt with TN’ monogram and tortoise emblem.
“He was the kindest of men,” Dreyfus said. “Completely unpretentious, very funny, wonderful company. In the Italian Grand Prix of 1935, you know, I handed my car over to him after his own had failed, and he finished second. Afterwards he refused any of the prize money, insisting it should all go to me. ‘It was your car, and you allowed me to race it,’ he said. That was all I wanted.’ No, no, there has never been anyone like Nuvolari.”