The Great Grand Prix

In 1933 the world’s greatest drivers were embroiled in Chicanery of a different sort when they decided to fix the Tripoly Grand Prix. Mark Hughes investigates.

Achille Varzi, with fire in his belly but ice in his veins, was a very great and very proud driver. But he had little reason to be proud of one of his many Grand Prix victories, that of Tripoli 1933. It required the collusion of at least four of his major rivals, not to mention their accompanying team personnel. It wasn’t a race at all, in fact. It was a fix — an outrageous scam which left him and his cohorts substantially richer. It was carried off, it must be said, with a certain Marx Brothers burlesque when circumstances began deliciously to conspire against a prearranged plan. Ordinarily one might say no-one got hurt so where was the harm? Except, in this case, this rigged race was to cost someone his life.

It was a flawed plan from the start. Born of greed and 1 1 th-hour opportunism, it lacked contingency — always going to be needed on an engine-breaker of a track like Tripoli and with such a complex range of possibilities. When things began to go awry it was left to the improvisation of the five drivers in on the deal to achieve the desired result. Without the necessary co-ordination, the conspiracy was laid bare.

Tripoli — the capital city of Libya — was then an Italian colony, under the control of Mussolini. The dictator left it to one of his generals, Italo Balbo — a motor racing fan — to govern the place. The Tripoli Grand Prix; initiated in 1925, was for a few years of minor significance. To give it the prestige he deemed appropriate, Balbo arranged for the Mellaha circuit to be completely transformed for the 1933 race. The fantastic new track wound for eight miles around the desert oasis of Tagiura, and was immediately established as the world’s fastest road circuit. With the further inducement of good prize money and surreal levels of hospitality, the top teams of the time needed little persuasion to enter the upgraded event. Giovanni Canestrini, then editor of Gazzeta dello Sport, was Italy’s foremost motorsport journalist. It was he who made the suggestion to Balbo that a lottery would be a wonderful

way of gaining further fanfare for the race, an idea the General embraced with enthusiasm. Hundreds of thousands of 11-lire tickets were sold throughout Italy, with 30 finalists selected to attend the race. Once there, a sweepstake would give each one a ticket for one of the 30 drivers. The holder of the winning driver’s ticket would scoop 7.5 million lire (close to £500,000 in today’s terms). Beginning to see where this is going?

Enter the bald-headed Enrico Rivio. It was he who held Varzi’s ticket Who made the approach to whom cannot be said with certainty, but on the night before the race Rivio cut some sort of deal. Some say he approached Varzi directly at the great man’s hotel, offering to split the prize with him if he won the race, and that Varzi immediately contacted the only four drivers he deemed a threat — Nuvolari, Campari, Chiron and Borzacchini — and cut them in. Others have it that Canestini sought out Rivio and arranged that half the money would be split between them, the other half spread equally between the five drivers.

Although the Grand Prix immediately preceding this one — at Monaco — had been the first to assemble the grid based on practice times, such a system had yet to be adopted at Tripoli where the starting order was selected by draw. Skullduggery notwithstanding, practice had confirmed that the race would likely be a battle between the Alfa Monzas of Tazio Nuvolari, Giuseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini and the Bugatti Type 51s of Varzi and Louis Chiron. However, the speed of Sir Henry Birkin in a Maserati 8C-3000 (owned by former Le Mans winner Bernard Rubin but looked after by the factory) had caused a stir. Fine driver though he was, Birkin had not been expected to mix it with the established Grand Prix aces.

With the Rivio deal in place, Birkin’s speed became a thorny inconvenience. He was not a member of the established Grand Prix clique, so the others could not risk inviting him in on the deal — even if they had, he would probably have been outraged. Instead he was knobbled. In a preposterous last-minute rule change, undoubtedly pushed through on a pretence by the conspirators’ teams, each car was designated a mechanic who alone could work on that car, and that car only, at pit stops. Maserati had brought only one mechanic to look after both the works car of Luigi Fagioli and Birkin’s customer machine; this man was accordingly assigned to Fagioli, leaving Birkin to make his own arrangements. He managed to enlist the services of a local garage mechanic.

Race day was hot — over 100 deg F in the shade — as Rivio took his seat in the special lottery contestants’ grandstand. Among the 29 others were a butcher from Milan, a frail old lady from Florence, a post office softer, a salesman, a student. They sat with hope in their hearts and sweat in their palms, unaware the odds had already been stacked against them.

As Balbo dropped the flag, the privateer Alfa of Gazzabini briefly jumped into the lead from its advantageous grid slot, but was soon engulfed by the pack. Campari led but was passed on the opening lap by Birkin, already pressing hard and obliging the others to go faster than they would have liked to be sure of keeping Varzi’s car safe from mechanical harm. The circuit featured along, long straight within its eight miles where speeds of over 160mph were reached, pulling engines perilously close to their danger zones for long periods. There were 30 laps ahead of them — 244 miles — and Birkin’s early pace was in danger of scuppering everything.

Campari stayed in the Maserati’s tracks only until lap five before passing and was soon followed through by Nuvolari. Hopefully, they could smother the Englishman’s pace in this way. Borzacchini, in fourth place, began pressuring Birkin too. And Varzi? He was lying sixth, behind team-mate Chiron.

Then, disaster. Varzi’s car began misfiring and as he headed for the pits so Rivio’s millionaire lifestyle dreams seemed to evaporate in the heat haze. But the Bugatti mechanic changed plugs and magically all eight cylinders were back on song. While he was there, Varzi topped up with fuel. It was a few laps earlier than he’d planned to replenish, but if he played it carefully, he reasoned, he might be able to eke it out to the end. It would be marginal, but all was not lost Campari was now leading Nuvolari by 12s and Borzacchini had passed Birkin for third.

On lap 14 Campari was the first of the front-runners to make a scheduled fuel stop. Doubtless aware now of Varzi’s delay, he had to find away of losing time. Consequently the Alfa was stationary for an age, his mechanic seemingly working at half-speed. To onlookers of a cynical nature, it was the first real evidence that something might be afoot.

Nuvolari now led from Borzacchini, Chiron and Birkin. As the latter made his fuel stop he found to his dismay that the garage man nominated as his mechanic had turned out to be a drunk and was now asleep under a tree! Birkin set about changing his own tyres and replenishing his own fuel tanks. It was possibly when emptying a fuel chum into the car that he burned his arm on the Maserati’s exhaust. With Chiron losing time at his stop, Varzi now lay third, pressing as hard as he dared but still a long way back from the Alfas of Nuvolari and Borzacchini, even after they had made their fuel stops and continued at a relatively sedate pace.

Lap 27, only three from the end, and Borzacchini could be observed looking desperately over his shoulder, presumably wondering where Varzi had got to. He then did an extraordinary thing: cutting a corner too tight, he sent a marker drum flying through the air and burst his tyre. He trundled to the pits and retired, the reason given as ‘transmission’.

As Varzi charged to within 20s of Nuvolari he felt his engine begin to cut-out under cornering, obviously short of fuel. He had no option but to back off once more. It was only when Nuvolari noticed the Bugatti in the distance in front of him that he realised he was in danger of lapping Varzi and so made an impromptu pit stop. For fuel! His mechanic Decimo moved as though rendered senseless by the heat, and a stop that would normally occupy something less than two minutes stretched to well over four as Varzi at last breezed by into the lead:

At just this point Campari, who despite his earlier delays had been in danger of catching Varzi, also stopped at his pit. His mechanic spent forever examining a perfectly normal looking front suspension and the car was later retired with a trivial-sounding ‘loose oil tank’. It was almost a surprise that Groucho, Harpo and crew didn’t arrive at this point to further muddy the waters.

Nuvolari exited the pits trying to look like he meant business. He put the Alfa into long, over-the-top, time-consuming slides, trying desperately to look fast but go slowly. Despite his best efforts, however, on the very last lap Varzi’s car stuttered almost to a halt and Nuvolari was forced to pass again. Varzi fumbled to switch over to the Bugatti’s reserve tank, the engine caught and off he roared in one last desperate chase of those lire bills. Nuvolari was now on the final straight and, like Borzacchini earlier, looking over his shoulder. Pulling up just short of the pits he got out of the car wringing his hands and screaming he was out of fuel. This after two fuel stops when everyone else had made one! No matter, Decimo rushed out and sloshed some more into the tank. Varzi, by this time, was bearing down on them, albeit not at full speed. Chiron, curiously, sat right behind him and declined to overtake, perhaps unaware that he was a lap down but making things look even more suspicious nonetheless.

Anxious to keep up the pretence of a race to the finish, Nuvolari fired up his car and accelerated towards the finish line, just gently enough to allow Varzi to sweep by and cross the line 0.2s ahead. Birkin, the innocent hem, took third some distance back. Among those congratulating Varzi as he stepped exhausted from the car was a bald-headed man.

That evening Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini are said to have sat together in their hotel drinking the most expensive champagne. Just three colleagues relaxing after a hard-fought race…

An emergency meeting of the sport’s governing body was called the following morning in which the President accused the five drivels of having fixed the race, and called for each to have their licences withdrawn. But it blew over — Nuvolari, Varzi and Chiron were three of the very biggest names in racing and Grands Prix would have lost much of their pulling power without them. Simultaneously Italo Balbo announced that the five drivers were banned from racing in Tripoli ‘for life’. Actually, Borzacchini and Campari were to die in the same accident later that year, but Varzi and Chiron were happily back there in ’34, Nuvolari only prevented from joining them by injury.

In fact, the only one who really suffered was poor Birkin. The bum he sustained to his arm — probably at his ill-fated pit-stop — turned septic; he died of blood poisoning some weeks later.