Alfa males

Long before McLaren’s teaming of Senna, Prost and the MP4/4, Alfa Romeo formed the first GP superteam: Nuvolari, Caracciola and the P3. like its later counterpart, it was extremely successful and very political; by Mark Hughes

The little bronze man in the yellow shirt could not be contained. Impossible genius allowed Tazio Nuvolari to dance on the dusty edge of the precipice. Even Mother Nature dared not question what he was doing there. Desire and attack that knew no restraint saw him live in that place all his professional life. Odds were no more to be respected than those who asked him why he took such risks. What are risks when you’re an addict, hooked on the dazzling feats your God-given ability makes possible? He was in love with his own legend and in a permanent state of war, forcing the world to accept what he knew. He was incapable of climbing into a racing car without adding lustre to that legend. An overwhelming virtuoso, he was possibly the greatest racing driver who ever lived.

But as the cars checked in at Bologna, the end of the first stage of the 1932 Mille Miglia, his two deadliest, grimmest rivals were within 5sec of him. Achille Varzi he knew all about: a cold-blooded opponent from their motorcyle days, all immaculate technique and soaring ambition. Varzi’s solution to the left field surprises that Nuvolari’s ability threw at him when they were briefly team-mates at Alfa was to fly the coop and become number one at Bugatti instead. It was a move that could be construed as an intelligent application to the long game or the backing down from a challenge, something Nuvolari was incapable of.

But the other guy? That was Tazio’s new team-mate: Rudolf Caracciola. For sure he had performed extraordinary feats in several years of wrestling with unsuitable Mercedes SSKs, but here he was in the known quantity of an Alfa 8C for the first time — and the scale of his challenge was self-evident. In contrast to Nuvolari, the German’s steel lay within the silkiest, most gentle sheath imaginable. Contemporary photographic journalist George Monlchouse said of Ruth: “He appears to have some uncanny premonition of what the car is likely to do before it does it, and makes the necessary correction on the steering wheel. Like a first-class horseman, Caracciola has perfect hands.” Like an early-day Alain Prost — except much quicker in the rain — it was as if the same laws of physics that shied away from the enormity of taking on Nuvolari were hypnotised by the magic hands of the German ace.

Dour, undemonstrative but with a big heart, Caracciola pressed on through the mountains that were so familiar to him. In his SSKL, he’d won this race the previous year, the first non-Italian to do so, with a virtual start-to-finish domination. He’d used the same velvet skills and iron-fist car to take a staggering victory in the German GP later in the year, beating the racing thoroughbreds with this unsuitable brute by a combination of sympathetic genius and some rain to keep the tyres cool. In 1929, in the first Monaco GP, his gargantuan SSK had led for a long time through serpentine streets far more suitable for the half-scale Bugattis trailing in his wake. He, too, knew what it was to feel greatness. But he kept it to himself, contained as surely as was the oversteer and wheelspin.

With no silver spoon to help him, Mercedes had given Caracciola his break in 1926 and he’d remained loyal regardless of its lack of a pukka grand prix car. Only when informed that there would be no programme at all in ’32 did he look away from home. Alfa didn’t hesitate. Nor did he. With the promise of Vittorio Jano’s new P3 to come — and the opportunity of going head to head with Nuvolari — it was a challenge that he could not back down from.

Late into the sport, Nuvolari was 37 by the time he got the big break of a factory grand prix drive, having been delayed by his feats in motorcycle racing. That had been in 1930, and in the intervening couple of years Alfa had not provided him with cutting-edge cars. The P3 would change all that. The first genuine single-seater grand prix car, it was low on frontal area and weight, high on power from its straight-eight. But now an interloper had jumped onto his bandwagon. A very quick interloper. Soon after the Bologna control, Tazio was briefly distracted by a crashed Alfa at the roadside and lost control. Nuvolari was out! Caracciola took up the challenge, edged away from Varzi and put himself in a position to make a sensational Alfa debut. He led comfortably at Rome, but shortly afterwards a faulty fuel valve delayed him — and then a cracked chassis stopped him. Nuvolari had got away lightly.

Monaco was one week later. The P3s weren’t ready and both men took to the wheel of the old Monza model. There was no qualifying back then and Nuvolari, drawing a better starting position than Caracciola, was soon leading going away. But once through the traffic, Rudi slowly drew him in, more dramatically so when the leader’s car began to suffer an occasional fuel-feed stutter. There was an even sharper edge to this battle. Caracciola was miffed that Alfa had not entered him as a factory driver, but as an independent. His car was white (Germany’s racing colour) and stuck out like a sore thumb. With a team full of Italians — Giuseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini as well as Nuvolari — his presence had pricked some egos and this was the factory’s solution. But now, with his main rival struggling in front of him, Caracciola fleetingly thought of revenge, as recounted in his autobiography:

“During the last lap I was so close that I could look into his car. I saw him shifting with nervous, hasty gestures. I thought quickly: I was not part of the team. They had rejected me. I had no obligations towards the Alfa people. If I got Nuvolari now no-one could reproach me. Of course, it would be fairer WI let him win. I slowed down. While driving by, I glanced at the stands. The people were jumping to their feet and shouting. Then came the finish. Nuvolari drove through first with me following right behind. When I got out of the car there were jeers and whistles of contempt from the spectators. They felt betrayed, assuming I had made a deal with Nuvolari.

“I left the car and went over to the pits. My mechanic came towards me. ‘Why did you do that, Signor Caracciola?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I replied, feeling miserable.

“Then I saw [Alfa team manager, Aldo] Giovannini coming toward me, holding out both arms. ‘That was decent of you, Caracciola,’ he said. That was really decent. And I’m to ask you, on behalf of the others, whether you’d like to be a member of the team…’ Thus I became a [full] member of the team.” Nuvolari, meanwhile, had again luckily avoided defeat by his new team-mate.

Caracciola had always been a team man. And now here he was putting his new team’s interests above his own. A weakness? Perhaps. But it might be considered a strength, too. In Nuvolari’s isolationist view, a team was there to supply him with the tools he demanded to display his genius, nothing more. For Caracciola, it was a more symbiotic relationship. Arguably, Nuvolari made himself vulnerable with his attitude if the less imperious man in the sister car had comparable talent. In such a situation, Rudi might have seemed more likely to get a team on his side. And so the German kept his head down, did his stuff.

Caracciola tested the P3 for the first time at Monza before June’s Italian Grand Prix. He got out delighted, telling anxious designer Jano that it was “a prima ballerina of a car”. This was in stark contrast to Nuvolari who, as ever, was demanding modifications, arguing with his technicians; the push of an unreasonable man. But also the mindset of a champion, a great lone warrior. Out of the cockpits their styles were as contrasting as in. Which would win out?

Only two P3s could be readied in time for the Italian GP and, probably with some inducement from the organisers, they were allocated to Nuvolari and Campari. Caracciola had to make do with a Monza for one more race. Nuvolari annihilated the field, the new car vastly superior to the old. Caracciola finished third in Borzacchini’s Monza after his own had suffered magneto trouble. If there was any resentment in the team about Nuvolari’s demands, how could bad feeling be harboured when he delivered the goods in this way?

The scale of the P3’s superiority being so clear, and with the obviously closely matched skills of its two leading drivers, Alfa had a strategy for the remainder of the season. Jano outlined it to both drivers: Caracciola would be designated the win in the French Grand Prix, presumably to even out Nuvolari getting the P3 at Monza; he would be gifted the following German Prix, too, on account of it being his home race; then Nuvolari would be given free rein in the Monza Grand Prix. Neither driver would unduly pressure or hinder the other in these races. Both agreed.

At Reims, Caracciola led from the start and all seemed to be going to plan. But then Nuvolari upped his pace, passed his team-mate and pulled away. Let Alfa associate Enzo Ferrari take up the story:

“The pit displayed the board and flag signifying ‘slow down’. Nuvolari, though, accelerated and won by a long lead. On his return to the pit, he received a cold welcome and was asked why he had disobeyed the order, especially as the team tactics had been carefully explained just before the race. Nuvolari put on a surprised expression and replied that his green goggles and the sun must have played him false, for he had mistaken the colours of the flag for the one giving him free rein. All this was said with so natural an air that no-one knew what to say, and the great little man got away with his piece of barefaced impudence.”

Two weeks later at the Nürburgring he was at it again. The tension was heightened after the rivals had recorded near identical times around the 14-mile lap in practice. Caracciola led before his team-mate appeared on his tail and piled on the pressure, breaking the lap record as he did so. Nuvolari’s biographer Count Johnny Lurani recalled how the Alfa team this time ensured the desired result by giving the little man a deliberately tardy pitstop: “The operation was going ridiculously slowly. It seemed as if the heat of that sunny, misty day had affected the mechanics’ arms and legs. He [Tazio] then burst out of the car, seized the fuel hose and thrust the nozzle into the large orifice of the tank, yelling at them to hurry and telling them that they were a lot of good-for-nothings and that he would retire if nothing better could be done.” And so Caracciola scored his first win of the year, Nuvolari a distant second, his fury apparently sated by the time of the podium rituals when he greeted Rudi warmly.

Before they met again in a front line grand prix, they were both entered in the Coppa Acerbo where Rudi obeyed team orders and made no challenge against his team-mate, their P3s a comfortable 1-2.

The Monza Grand Prix was supposed to be Nuvolari’s, too, and probably would have been had not his fuel pipe come adrift when he was leading the final. He had, incidentally, taken the precaution of conducting his own fuel stops! Caracciola responded to his team’s ‘faster’ signals and overhauled Luigi Fagioli’s Maserati near the end to take the victory.

And that was it. They were not paired again. Early in 1933 a financial crisis forced Alfa to withdraw its works team and the P3s were mothballed. Caracciola, rather than accept the offer of being part of Scuderia Ferrari’s ostensibly private Alfa team alongside Nuvolari, decided that he would be better off in his own privateer outfit in partnership with trusted friend Louis Chiron. Each would be equipped with Alfa Monzas theoretically just as good as those entered by Ferrari. However, in practice for the new team’s first race, at Monaco, Caracciola crashed heavily and injured his right leg so badly that it was doubtful he’d race again.

Nuvolari stayed with Ferrari for half a season, despaired of how the outdated Monza model was unworthy of his talent, demanded he have a greater say in the running of the team, and had his proposal of a Scuderia Nuvolari-Ferrari partnership turned down by Enzo. In a fit of high dudgeon, he broke his contract and joined Maserati mid-season.

Caracciola did race again. And was very successful. But it’s a little ironic that he’s remembered for his three European Championship titles with MercedesBenz, for although still formidable in the absolute best car — and still supreme in the wet — there were days when he struggled to dominate team-mates who would surely have been easy prey for the pre-accident Caracciola, the man who forced the ‘greatest of all’ into duplicity to ensure the upper hand.