Nuvolari’s victory over the Silver Arrows in the 1935 German GP is known as one of his greatest drives. For years rumour suggested that Alfa Romeo had fitted a bigger engine, diminishing the scale of his achievement. Now we finally have the answers to this long-running debate
By Simon Moore
Money has always counted in Grand Prix racing. In the early 1930s state funding was helping Mercedes and Auto Union to produce the fastest racing cars in the world, while Alfa Romeo, their only potentially serious challenger, was in such financial trouble that it had folded its racing team and handed its Tipo B ‘P3’ single-seaters to Enzo Ferrari to race. At first Scuderia Ferrari found success, but the new 750kg formula of 1934 allowed the German cars to build much bigger engines which soon left the Italians behind. By the time the teams gathered at the Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix on July 28, 1935, Scuderia Ferrari had not won a single race that season where the German teams had been present; its few podium finishes came mostly after German reliability problems.
That July day in Germany has become famous as one of Tazio Nuvolari’s greatest drives. He won the Grand Prix, beating both the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams in the process. Although Nuvolari had led before the mid-race pitstops, problems with his re-fuelling rig meant that his pitstop was significantly longer than those of the other main contenders, Rudi Caracciola and Manfred von Brauchitsch for Mercedes-Benz, and Bernd Rosemeyer and Hans Stuck with Auto Union.
After the pitstops, Nuvolari quickly passed all the others in front of him except von Brauchitsch who posted the fastest lap and seemed set to win, leading by over half a minute at the start of the last 14-mile lap. However, von Brauchitsch was always rather hard on his tyres and a rear failed more than halfway round the lap, giving the win to Nuvolari in his Scuderia Ferrari Tipo B Alfa Romeo. Behind came Stuck, Caracciola,
Rosemeyer and a distraught von Brauchitsch, bringing his car home with the left rear running on the rim, the tyre completely gone. The story goes that the Germans were so confident of winning that they did not have a recording of the Italian national anthem to play as Nuvolari received his trophy, and that Tazio himself supplied one. (Would he really have carried an old shellac 78rpm disc around with him?)
By any standards this was a wonderful performance from Nuvolari, in an outdated car seemingly giving away at least 100bhp to his German rivals, but the achievement has been shadowed by questions about what engine he used. Some say that the car had the new 3.8-litre straight-eight engine developed for the Tipo C, while others say it was a standard 3.2-litre unit, maybe fitted with the bigger blowers and carburettors off the Tipo C, explaining why the Scuderia Ferrari mechanics were reluctant to let other teams see under the bonnet of Nuvolari’s car. Even at 3.8, Nuvolari would only have had 330bhp under his foot, compared to 375 for the 5-litre Auto Union and well over 400 for the Mercedes, but if he won the race with the Tipo B’s meagre 265bhp this drive was truly astonishing. Now, after decades of debate among motor racing historians and Alfa enthusiasts, we finally know the answer.
For some years I have been aware of the existence of some extremely rare documents, namely the annual racing reports called Note tecniche attivita by Scuderia Ferrari (1936-37) and Alfa Corse (1938-40), and the current owners have kindly allowed me access to them for research purposes. These were typed up individually on a typewriter so you can imagine that very, very few were produced. A few years ago, Giorgio Nada published Red Arrows, Ferraris at the Mille Miglia by Giannino Marzotto. In the appendix some pages from the 1935 Note tecniche attivita are reproduced, which alerted me to the fact that a copy of the 1935 report still existed. I have at last tracked it down and been allowed access to this wonderful document (with Peter Marshall and Patrick Italiano helping me with translation).
I can now reveal that for that incredible win in damp conditions at the Nürburgring, Nuvolari did not use a 3.8-litre engine but a standard 3.2. He even raced the car originally assigned to Antonio Brivio because of problems with his own in practice – and there is no way Brivio would have had a car assigned to him that was in any way better or more competitive than that of his clear team leader Nuvolari.
However, Scuderia Ferrari had one trick up its sleeve which may well have contributed to the victory. They had two tyre contracts – with Pirelli for races in Italy and with Englebert outside their home country. After the Eifelrennen in June, Englebert was asked to develop a special tyre for the Nürburgring and the Scuderia Ferrari reported the tyres as ‘Englebert sp. Nürburg’ with extra tread rubber on the 6.50 x 19s used at the back (with 5.25 x 19s at the front). At the end of the race, the team recorded that the rear tyres on Nuvolari’s car would not have lasted another lap! So, along with the great man’s unparalleled driving skills, there were three elements to this win – the damp conditions partly negating the power advantage of the German cars, the failure of von Brauchitsch’s Continental tyre at a critical moment and Englebert’s special tyre.
Was the 3.8-litre engine ever used in a Tipo B?
As I have confirmed above, the car at the Nürburgring was a standard 3.2-litre one. However, the wonderful Note tecniche attivita gives us the answer to this question too – and yes they did run a 3.8-litre engine in a Tipo B. Two cars appeared at the French Grand Prix at Montlhéry on June 23 to be driven by Nuvolari and Louis Chiron, and they were both fitted with the bigger engine. But how did they fit it in? The bore centres of the standard Tipo B engine do not allow it to be bored out beyond 3.2 litres, and though of similar design, the Tipo C engine was 2.5in longer. Scuderia Ferrari reported that the cars had a completely new gearbox and various new transmission parts, so most likely they shortened the gearbox casting – although that would mean changing the rear engine mounting points as well. The documents are unclear on this.
The unique final drive arrangement of the Tipo B, with the differential located immediately behind the gearbox and two propshafts running at an angle to the rear wheels, defines where the rear of the engine must be if a standard gearbox was used. On a normal Tipo B the engine fits pretty snugly behind the radiator so the longer Tipo C unit could not fit. One possibility is that they moved the radiator forward, cutting the standard chassis further forward for the Dubonnet independent front suspension. That would mean a longer bonnet, and a photograph in Tazio Vivo, of Nuvolari testing a P3 before the German GP, may indeed show such a modification. The front edge of the bonnet appears to have been lengthened and is still in bare aluminium in the extended area.
One other remote possibility would be if Alfa Romeo decided to install a conventional transmission with a single driveshaft and the differential mounted between the rear wheels, as on a Monza. They had also been experimenting at the Monza circuit in the early part of 1935 with a transverse leaf spring independent rear, which may have necessitated a conventional driveshaft layout, although that is uncertain. Those experiments came to nothing, probably because the car still used rod-operated brakes, which must have been a complete disaster. Personally, I doubt that this single driveshaft was ever used on a Tipo B, not least because the differential unit caused problems in 1933 with only the power of a 2.6-litre Monza going through it, and would certainly have been unable to cope with the 330bhp of the 3.8-litre motor.
We will never know for certain how they fitted the longer, more powerful unit, but both cars retired with transmission trouble at Montlhéry, although Nuvolari had out-dragged everyone else off the start line, proving that the power was there. He then contested the lead with Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz for the first third of the race, usually passing the grandstands while in the lead.
So the engine appeared to be a major step forward – but the transmission could not cope and so the 3.8-litre engines were put to one side until the Tipo C, with its gearbox in unit with the back axle and independent suspension all round, was ready. At the Italian Grand Prix on September 8 Nuvolari brought one of the new cars home second, taking over the second car from René Dreyfus after he retired. But that is a different story.