The tangled tale of Tripoli

It has entered into motor sport legend that Achille Varzi conspired with others, including Tazio Nuvolari, to ‘fix’ the 1933 Tripoli GP – but the true story is far more subtle and complex

Colonel Don Capps is a US Army Vietnam veteran, a lifelong motor racing fan, and a serious historian. Twelve years ago this magazine ran a story on the 1933 Tripoli GP. Nobody’s perfect – I can say that since just for once I had absolutely nothing to do with it – but that story was largely misleading.

In effect it was a re-hash of a legend apparently initiated by that wonderful old windbag and Mercedes-Benz team manager, Alfred Neubauer. The legend involves the Italian national lottery built around the Corsa dei Milioni, aka the Tripoli Grand Prix, run on the Mellaha circuit in the Italian colony of Tripolitania (Libya).

Tickets were sold for just 12 lire (some reports say 11 lire). An initial lottery draw the week before the race produced 30 lucky winners, each of whom then drew another ticket corresponding to a driver on the 30-strong starting grid. The winning driver on race day would then earn his ticket holder 7.5 million lire, then around £80,000 – a staggering fortune by 1933 standards. With a week elapsing between the initial draw and the race, can you spot the flaw?

According to Neubauer in his ghosted autobiography Manner, Frauen und Motoren or Speed Was My Life, on the eve of the race a timber merchant from Pisa named Enrico Rivio contacted Achille Varzi at his hotel in Tripoli. Rivio explained that he had drawn Varzi’s ticket, and he offered to split the lottery prize 50:50 with Varzi should he win. The inference is that he was asking Varzi somehow to secure the best possible chance of winning. Varzi accordingly telephoned Tazio Nuvolari, and – allegedly – the plotting began. In the race Nuvolari then led from a delayed Varzi until he had to make a very late fuel stop which enabled Varzi to catch up and pass for a sensational victory by two-tenths of a second, from Nuvolari, with ‘Tim’ Birkin third in Bernard Rubin’s Maserati 8C. Other drivers complicit in rigging this result, according to Neubauer, had been Louis Chiron and Baconin Borzacchini.

Varzi, exhausted, was lifted from his car and borne shoulder-high to the podium. One of the first to congratulate him was a stout, baldheaded stranger to the racing world – ticket holder Enrico Rivio.

And that evening, as Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini celebrated sharing out their bonus, rumours of scandal gained ground.

Next morning an RACI meeting was convened in special session, charging that certain drivers had agreed pre-race that Varzi should win. The President named Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini as the main culprits, with Campari and Chiron (according to Neubauer) as strong suspects. He demanded immediate disqualification of all five and cancellation of their racing licences. This would have eviscerated European motor racing at its highest level, so the motion didn’t even reach a vote. Instead each driver was merely “warned regarding his future conduct”.

After publication of Neubauer’s book, this ‘fixed’ lottery GP at Tripoli ’33 became fixed in motor racing folklore. It took a contrarian to challenge it – Bill Boddy in this magazine, September 1969 issue. Using the contemporary race report published in Motor Sport’s June 1933 issue The Bod expressed serious doubt about the legendary scandal. Was that race really fixed? Oh, and Chiron wasn’t even there…

This triggered Don Capps’ interest, but it wasn’t until 1992, when Betty Sheldon quoted her detailed Italian researches on the event in her husband Dr Paul Sheldon’s A Record of Grand Prix and Voiturette Racing, Volume 3: 1932 – 1936, that Don dug deeper. Italian journalist Giovanni Canestrini was editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport, the leading Italian sporting newspaper. He had proposed that a national lottery like the Irish Sweepstakes could fund the expensively developing Mellaha circuit, finance the Automobile Club di Tripoli, and publicise not only the Grand Prix itself but also encourage colonial settlement in Libya.

Egidio Sforzini, President of the AC di Tripoli took Canestrini’s notion to Governor Emilio de Bono, who forwarded it to Il Duce, Mussolini.

On August 13, 1932, Royal Decree 1147 was signed by King Vittorio Emanuele III authorizing the Lottery. The first tickets went on sale in October 1932. Closing date was April 16, 1933. Demand in motor racing-minded Italy was immense, and it is thought at least 15 million lire was raised.

Canestrini reported that 1.2 million covered the Tripoli club’s expenses; 550,000 provided starting and prize money; while six million was prize money for the top three finishers’ ticket holders – three million for first place, two million second and one million third. Meanwhile the actual race winner would trouser 550,000 lire. And the balance of the claimed 15 million raised? Don’t ask, this was Italy. The Corsa dei Milioni focused all minds… The initial draw was then held on Saturday, April 29, 1933, actually eight days before the race, supervised by new Governor Pietro Badoglio.

Next day, back on the Italian mainland, the Alessandria GP was run. Achille Varzi’s entry there had arrived too late, and although he was allowed to practice he was not then permitted to start, which denied him even start money. Hardly a sunny individual at the best of times, he wasn’t a happy camper…

The following weekend’s lottery race was of course on everyone’s mind, and at Alessandria Canestrini and Nuvolari met with Varzi and Borzacchini, ostensibly to finalise travel plans to Tripoli.

Varzi, however, was more eager to discuss the lottery, and on the Monday evening, before leaving for Libya, he, Nuvolari and Borzacchini met their three ticket holders in Rome’s Hotel Massimo D’Azeglio owned by fellow racing driver Ettore Bettoja. Canestrini also attended, and he negotiated an agreement between the ticket holders and the drivers.

According to Italian historian Valerio Moretti, Nuvolari’s ticket holder was Alberto Donati, of Teramo. Varzi’s was not Enrico Rivio from Pisa as quoted by Neubauer, but Arduino Sampoli from Siena, while Borzacchini’s name was held by Alessandro Rosina of Piacenza.

The group discussed how “to find a formula which did not contravene the sporting rules,” dividing the Lottery money among what became known as ‘The Six’. They finally agreed a scheme reputedly suggested by Donati, forming a syndicate which – as long as one of the three drivers won the race – would pool the Lottery prize money to be split equally between them. The three drivers would split half of the syndicate’s winnings, plus all their prize money from the race, while the ticket holders would each draw one-third of half the Lottery money.

Canestrini typed up the agreement and ‘The Six’ all signed it. It was notarised and then deposited in the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro for safekeeping.

Most significantly, there was no pre-arrangement of the race result, merely a legal agreement to share out the prize money. And was this get-together secret? Hardly. The May 15, 1933 issue of Motori, Aero, Cicli e Sport reported it in some detail. About the only sporting newspaper to keep schtum was Canestrini’s own La Gazzetta dello Sport. Yet while the entire deal was perfectly legal, Nuvolari’s entrant, Enzo Ferrari of Scuderia Ferrari, was not a party to it. One can imagine his displeasure, and Moretti relates that on May 15 Nuvolari had to issue a statement declaring that “…the Scuderia Ferrari was extraneous to the agreement with the ticket-holder paired with his name.”

Once in Tripoli, Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini then found such rivals as Campari and Fagioli especially hostile and more determined than ever to beat them in the race. Campari for one had been rejected when he proposed a similar split to his ticket holder, and he had then agreed with ‘Tim’ Birkin to team up on race day against “the coalition”.

Canestrini later recalled that Varzi was well aware that Campari and others were confident that the heated rivalry between himself and Nuvolari would probably see them take each other out. Canestrini, supposedly then convened another meeting between the two in which the toss of a coin indicated that Varzi should win – since the financial agreement with the ticket holders far outweighed winning the race itself. Now if true, this coin-toss would surely have been unethical and would have constituted race-fixing.

Twenty-nine starters finally faced Governor Badoglio as he activated the Mellaha’s ultra-modern starting lights. Varzi’s Bugatti stammered onto seven cylinders due to his mechanics topping up the engine oil at the last minute and overfilling the system. Varzi realized the excess would surely burn off so he pressed on regardless until, sure enough, the engine finally chimed in on all eight.

The still seething Campari’s Maserati retired after numerous problems, leaving Nuvolari leading from Varzi who was to run non-stop, thanks to a subsidiary long-range fuel tank. After 23 laps Nuvolari refuelled, then set out to chase down the Bugatti. Varzi had difficulty switching to his spare tank, and Nuvolari caught him to take the lead.

Into the final half-lap Nuvolari and Varzi were almost side-by-side, but out of the final curve Varzi slipstreamed Nuvolari, ducked out approaching the line and won by 0.2 seconds. Moretti believed that Nuvolari backed off to allow Varzi his win. Canestrini’s report disagrees. But the truth is that whichever of them won it did not matter financially.

While there was much grumbling and grousing by the other drivers and ticket holders, ‘The Six’ (apart from the alleged coin-toss between ‘The Two’) had acted within the rules as well as the law. The cash-strapped Borzacchini’s joy at his financial windfall was “a pleasure to witness” according to Johnny Lurani – only for him to die with Campari in an appalling multiple crash at Monza that September.

But Italy’s Fascist government was not so thrilled, and quiet measures ensured there would be no repeat. For the 1934 Corsa dei Milioni, new Libya Governor Marshal Italo Balbo delayed the lottery ticket draw until just 30 minutes before the start, with the cars already on the grid…

So the truth of that 1933 race was far more complex than a simple shady deal between a lottery ticket holder and world-class sporting superstars willing to sell their self-respect, and to deceive the sporting public. Considering the coin-toss between Varzi and Nuvolari I’m not inclined to claim they were pure as the driven snow, but the tabloid Neubauer legend is plainly just that – a myth, and little more.