Nuvolari's Alfa beater

Maserati had little inkling of the racing revolution fomenting in Germany when it became embroiled in a very public Italian spat, as Paul Fearnley explains

The 1934 Circuit of Modena was a second division affair crucial only in that its two-mile, L-shaped street circuit was on Enzo Ferrari’s doorstep. To lose here would be a serious loss of face for his Scuderia, and to this end he put forward a belt-and-braces six-car entry, five of which were single-seat Tipo Bs.

The only man capable of beating them was Tazio Nuvolari. But boy, oh boy, did he want to beat them. For the two most famous names in Italian motor racing were at daggers drawn.Their lawyers were talking, but Enzo and Tazio weren’t. They had fallen out midway though 1933. Nuvolari was furious that Alfa Romeo, now in state ownership, had locked its Tipo Bs away in a Portello workshop, forcing him to drive Ferrari’s boredout but outdated 8C Monzas instead. He was also annoyed by Enzo’s point-blank refusal to give him more say in the running of the team. So he got himself one of the new Maseratis.

The Bologna firm was in transition. Alfieri, the leading light of this racing fraternity, had died, finally succumbing to injuries sustained in a crash at Messina, Sicily, way back in 1927 — but only after a much-agonized-over kidney op. Younger brother Emesto was now in charge of design matters. He shelved Alfieri’s front-wheel-drive 8C 2500TA, having portentously crashed it through a cemetery wall while testing on the open road, and replaced it with the more conventional 8CM (m for monoposto). But it too, was a disaster, the 200bhp from its 3-litre supercharged straight-eight far too much for a chassis taken from the half-as-powerful 4CM.

Even so, Nuvolari wanted one. He’d been impressed by the performance of Giuseppe Campari and Count Goffredo Zehender in the Mame GP at Reims in July — they qualified their 8CMs second and third — and he struck a deal with the brothers that night. Enzo was livid; Tazio was bullish. A compromise was reached — Ferrari would run the car in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa the following weekend — but this would not last long. When Nuvolari ostentatiously chose the 8CM over an Alfa Monza for the Coppa Ciano at Montenero two weeks later — and won by over 8min an — impasse had been reached. This was war.

Nuvolari had won at Spa, too, but only after an all-nighter for mechanics Decimo Campagnoni and Luigi Parenti. Tazio had instantly put his finger on the 8CM’s weakness, and the car — chassis 3007 — was taken to the nearby Imperia works to have its front end boxed and braced. It was transformed. He told the Alfa drivers to keep out of his way and, from the back of the grid, was in front by the end of the first lap.

He won at Nice in early August, too. Something had to be done: Alfa loaned its Tipo Bs to Enzo — that’ll be 1,676,000 lire, please — and battle was recommenced at Pescara’s Coppa Acerbo the following weekend. Nuvolari and Campari, who had just returned to Alfa Romeo, diced thrillingly from the off, but it was the Alfa that wilted first and the Maser looked set for a famous win until Nuvolari rushed into the pits on the penultimate lap with a cooked transmission joint. Water was tipped over it and he rejoined in a fury. Victory had slipped away, however, Luigi Fagioli prevailing in a Tipo B.

It was a similar story at Miramas for the Marseilles GP: victory lost to an overheated rear axle. At Monza for the Italian GP, it was a puncture with two laps to go that cost Nuvolari a win. But at San Sebastian in late September, the last big race of the season, it was driver error that led to his DNF. Pushing too hard rather than nursing a big lead when rain began to fall, he rolled. His injuries were light given the violence of the crash.

He wasn’t so lucky when ‘hostilities’ continued at the start of the 1934 season. Having been put in his place by the Tipo Bs of Louis Chiron and Mario Tadini in the first heat of the Circuit of Alessandria in late April, Nuvolari again found himself outnumbered by a Scuderia Ferrari phalanx in the final. And he reckoned that they did a number on him. Achille Varzi, he said, put him on the grass, and then Felice Trossi brake-tested him. The 8CM skated off the wet road and struck a tree. Nuvolari was thrown out, his left leg badly broken and he lapsed into a coma.

Five weeks later he was back, leg in splints, working all three pedals with his one good peg, at Avus, in his new 8CM, the car you see here: chassis 3018. Nuvolari somehow made it home fifth. The Nürburgring’s Eifelrennen a week later was a much tougher proposition and he withdrew in pain after seven laps. He led the Penya Rhin GP at Montjuich Park before retiring; the rear axle failed at Reims; and he was fourth in the German GP, third and second in the Coppas Ciano and Acerbo. Three retirements followed — at Nice, Bremgarten and Biella — before the car re-emerged in a new form.

At some time the car had been fitted with a Wilson preselector gearbox — Nuvolari had been impressed by a similar item on his 1933 TT-wiruting MG K3. Now, in a bid for more power and less weight, Maserati built a straight-six engine (3300cc initially, but soon increased to 3700) and slotted it into 3018. It was still no match for the German machines, but Nuvolari used it to finish third at San Sebastian and Brno — and win at Modena and then Posillipo Park, on the western edge of Naples.

His Modena victory was a real bravura performance, sliding around the war memorial lap after lap because he knew that a fuming Enzo was in the crowd. Aftewards, he apparently sent his old boss some bales of hay, “for your horses”.

In their hearts, of course, they knew they needed each other. If Italy was to stand any chance against the Germans, Nuvolari had to be at the wheel of a Vittorio Jano-designed Alfa. Indeed, it was Jano who brokered the peace between them for 1935.

Nuvolari would not race a Maserati again until after WWII.