Nuvolari and the master race

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When the might of the German racing scene turned up at the Nürburgring in 1935, no one expected Tazio Nuvolari to beat the Third Reich into second place. Shaun Campbell explains how he did it

The race has been in progress for nearly four hours. It’s nearly over – there’s just one lap left to run – but the man who’s been leading for the last 150 miles or so looks anything but confident. The spectators, curiously silent, watch anxiously as he turns in the cockpit to scan the winding road behind for signs of pursuit. Their worst fears are quickly confirmed. As the leader hammers past the pits he points frantically down at his right-hand front tyre, where a flash of white canvas can be seen through the glistening black rubber. The team manager has no option but to wave him on. There’s no time to stop now.

The leader is tired to the point of total exhaustion. For four hours he’s been battling with a heavy, immensely powerful car on the most demanding race circuit in the world in treacherously damp conditions. And, for the last 90 minutes, his once apparently unassailable lead has been slashed inexorably, sometimes by as much as a second a mile. His driving is becoming ever more ragged and erratic. The spectators can see it in the way that he hunches over the huge steering wheel, sawing it from left to right as he misses the clipping points of corners and runs wide on to the grass verges at the exits. They will him on, but two-thirds of the way round that final lap, the critically worn tyre suddenly lets go under heavy acceleration. The car slews sideways, and as he fights to get it back under control, something swoops past on the inside in a blur of red and yellow; and he knows beyond doubt that the race is lost.

The chequered flag is waved, reluctantly, grudgingly, at a wiry, diminutive man in his early forties who, despite his lack of stature and comparative age, looks fresh enough for another four hours of racing. The event organisers are so unprepared for this eventuality that they cannot produce a record of the relevant national anthem to be played at the victory ceremony. The winning driver, with a grin as wide as the pit straight at Monza, promptly produces his own…

It’s disingenuous perhaps to single out any one lap from Tazio Nuvolari’s victory in the 1935 German Grand Prix for Alfa Romeo. Had the tyre of Manfred von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes W25 not torn itself apart just six miles from the finish line, it’s unlikely that Nuvolari would have won. But if the gods of fortune played a hand that day, it cannot be denied that in the end they played a fair and just one.

It was meant to be a walkover for the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams. In 1934 they had brought Italian supremacy of Grand Prix racing to an abrupt end. By 1935 they had moved still further ahead. Mercedes had won at Monaco, Tripoli, Avus, Spain, France, Belgium and, earlier in the year, at the Nürburgring for the Eifelrennen. Auto Union had played second fiddle or most of the season, but had provided the only real competition. Two of the best Italian drivers of the age Luigi Fagioli and Achille Varzi bowed to the inevitable and signed for the German teams, rather than struggle in the wake of the Silver Arrows in obsolete and uncompetitive Alfa Romeos, Maseratis and Bugattis. In 1935, Nuvolari, by then 42 years of age, was the only top driver left for the Italian manufacturers to count upon.

He was a proud and passionate man, who drove his cars on a mixture of inspiration, courage and flamboyance. Mechanical sympathy was not his strongest point; he had been known to stand up in the cockpit and pound the bonnet with his fists when the machine wouldn’t respond to his urgings. He was a patriot, too; it wasn’t for another two full seasons that he followed in the wake of Fagioli, Varzi and France’s Louis Chiron and finally agreed to drive for one of the German teams, signing for Auto Union. What Nuvolari made of the build-up to the 1935 German GP, a showpiece for the Nazi party with demonstration dive-bombing runs by a Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ being the highlight of the day’s pre-race entertainments, is not difficult to imagine.

His Alfa Tipo B, a car often described, though not accurately, as the P3, had a specially bored out supercharged engine of 3.8 litres and developed perhaps as much as 330bhp, which still left it way short of the 400bhp or thereabouts that the Silver Arrows were producing. But the wet and misty conditions that prevailed at the Nürburgring that day went some way to cancelling out their power advantage and Nuvolari took the fight to them from the start.

It was a 22-lap race, held on the 14.2-mile Nordschleife circuit, and for the first few laps he hung on grimly to the leaders von Brauchitsch, Fagioli and Rudi Caracciola for Mercedes, Bernd Rosemeyer and Hans Stuck for Auto Union. When Fagioli, who had set the early pace, made his routine pitstop Nuvolari moved into the lead for the first time, having just shocked the crowd by passing Caracciola for second place.

Equally shocked was Korpsführer Hühnlein, personally assigned by Adolf Hitler to ensure the political correctness of the German teams’ efforts. Hühnlein asked Mercedes’ larger-than-life team manager, Alfred Neubauer, what was going wrong with the master plan and was temporarily at least to be reassured by the answer: “Give that little Italian a couple of laps and he’ll be lying in some remote corner of the track with either his head or gearbox broken.”

Hühnlein was more comforted when Nuvolari’s mid-race pitstop descended into chaos. The pipe to the fuel pressure pump was blocked and the petrol had to be poured in by hand. Nuvolari stood by the Alfa screaming with rage between gulps of mineral water, but the stop took more than two minutes, while Mercedes had turned round von Brauchitsch in 47 seconds. The little Italian rejoined the race in sixth place. Within two laps he was second, having passed Stuck, Fagioli, Rosemeyer and Caracciola in a breathtaking display of virtuoso driving.

Von Brauchitsch had a lead of well over a minute as the race moved into its second half and, while the fuel load of Nuvolari’s Alfa was still heavy, extended it to around 90 seconds. But the last few laps were all Nuvolari’s. Driving to a limit that nobody else could have recognised, let alone equalled, he tore huge chunks out of von Brauchitsch’s advantage and forced the aristocratic German to push much harder, at the end of a gruelling race, than he would have wished. By the start of the penultimate lap the lead was down to 32 seconds and while the Alfa was still being driven with consummate skill, von Brauchitsch’s technique – more workmanlike than inspired at the best of times – had gone to pot.

It wasn’t a burst tyre on a superior car that won Nuvolari that race. It was extraordinary talent coupled with a will – perhaps rage is a better word – to win that transcended anything that might reasonably be expected even of a great racing driver. If the gods played their part on that final lap, Nuvolari had earned everything they gave him.

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