What Really Happened at Tripoli in 1933? The Editor Poses Another Motor Racing Mystery.
That talented motor racing columnist Eoin Young had a piece in the July issue of Ford Times about gambling and motor racing, in which he posed the questions whether betting and bookmakers have a place in our sport. I wondered why he was plying me with questions about how it was done at Brooklands when we met at Silverstone earlier this year . . . !
What interested me was Eoin’s reference to the Tripoli Grand Prix of 1933. He quotes from an account of this race which appears in a recent book by Richard Garrett, saying that the result of this race was rigged. The Tripoli race certainly had a lottery attached to it, winning which was rather like winning the Irish Sweep. Garrett puts the top prize at around £80,000.
The Young/Garrett story goes that a timber merchant drew Varzi’s race number and that this ticket holder told Varzi that if he could contrive to win the race he would get a half-share of the lottery prize. Varzi is alleged to have got together with Nuvolari, Campari and Borzacchini and arranged for the race to be faked, assuming that no other driver would be capable of beating them, which seemed a reasonable assumption, apart perhaps from Fagioli. The story continues: “When the race started Varzi was in mid-field. After seven laps, Campari was out with ‘engine trouble’. It looked as if Nuvolari had the race in his pocket. Varzi was fully occupied just keeping his car going: the engine was well off song, and he was desperately trying to finish, hoping that Nuvolari hadn’t forgotten his part of the deal. Within sight of the finishing line, Nuvolari coasted to a silent stop and the ‘Flying Mantuan’ leapt over the side screaming for fuel and turning on quite an act of rage, all the while keeping an eye down the road waiting for Varzi to appear. Eventually he came stuttering round the corner crawling up to the finish line as Nuvolari set off again ‘joining in what appeared to be a funeral procession’, as Garrett puts it.”
That is Eoin’s account of what he calls the first Tripoli G.P.; in fact, it was the seventh, the previous races in the series having been won, respectively, by Balestrero’s O.M., Eysermann’s Bugatti, Materassi’s Bugatti, Nuvolari’s Bugatti, Brilli Peri’s Talbot, and Borzacchini’s Maserati, although these races took place from 1928 to 1930 and the Tripoli G.P. had not been held in 1931 or 1932, the 1933 race being the first to use the new Mellaha circuit.
Anyway, Eoin Young and Richard Garrett think the race was “fixed”. So says William Court in his great book “Power and Glory”. Does William Boddy believe it?
I am inclined to think this legend is the product of sensational post-war journalism. But let us investigate further. The first point which occurs is that Varzi and Nuvolari are presented as bitter rivals at this period of racing. It may be naïve to suggest that personal pride would necessarily transcend a chance to pick up something like £10,000. Yet I cannot exactly see Nuvolari handing Varzi a race, even if the drivers of those days were corruptible. And how would a stranger be able to find Varzi and safely put such a proposition to him?
Be that as it may, what is the evidence of contemporary race reports and other reference sources? First, I consulted The Autocar. It devoted just 36 words to this important Grand Prix—in those days the oldest British motoring paper scarcely recognised Continental races and Motor Sport had a virtual monopoly of complete coverage of such races. Even so, The Autocar made no suggestion of anything untoward having taken place at Tripoli. Nor does George Monkhouse appear to incline to this view; in his book, “Grand Prix Facts and Figures”, he remarks on Varzi finishing 1 min. 12 sec. ahead of Nuvolari’s Monza Alfa Romeo, “with Sir Henry Birkin in a Maserati third. Birkin had driven magnificently, and was only 20 sec. behind Nuvolari at the finish.” That is scarcely the sort of praise a shrewd observer of the motor racing scene would have made had he been aware that Nuvolari was deliberately driving a phoney race, although it does not accord with the contemporary results, which show Varzi winning by a mere 0.1 sec., but Birkin 31.8 sec. behind Nuvolari. Incidentally, Varzi’s speed is quoted as 104.7 m.p.h. by Court and Pomeroy, and Monkhouse/King-Farlow and 168.598 k.p.h. by Motor Sport which is near enough the same. Peter Hull, in his Alfa Romeo history, does not so much as hint at the lottery having affected the progress of the race. Laurence Pomeroy in “The Grand Prix Car” shows no sign of believing in anything but a very close-fought race.
Birkin’s book, “Full Throttle”, was published the year before the race took place and Count Lurani’s book on Nuvolari contains no hint of foul play. Indeed, he says that “. . . in spite of the fact that Nuvolari fought like a lion he was unable to make up time lost by a protracted stop at the pits”.
Where do we go from there? I can but present to you the report of the race which Motor Sport published in its issue of June 1933. In it there is no suggestion of Varzi trailing along until the closing stages of the race, nor of a “funeral procession” at the finish. In fact, Varzi is shown as being third at half-distance, 19 sec. behind Nuvolari, who was leading. There is no reference to Nuvolari having a prolonged pit stop and the finish was described as an exciting “photo” affair. The report reads:
“The Grand Prix of Tripoli, organised for the first time since 1930, was this year marked by a titanic struggle between Varzi (Bugatti) and Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo). The two had met at Monaco, when Varzi just won, and the race at Tripoli was in the nature of a ‘return’.
“Additional interest was given to the race this year by a sweepstake, organised on the lines of the Irish sweepstake with the exception that there was only one ‘unit’. Altogether, a sum of 15 million lira was subscribed, the first prize being over three million, the second 1½ million and the third being over 800,000 lira.
“Judging by the colossal crowd which lined the course at the start, the future of the Grand Prix of Tripoli is assured. The scene at the start was an impressive one, and a few minutes after three o’clock Marshal Badoglio, Governor of Tripoli, gave the signal to start. The cars were lined up in rows of four, and an initial lead was gained by Gazzabini (Alfa Romeo). His lead was short-lived, however, for a group of faster cars soon enveloped him, and to the joy of the few Englishmen present, it was seen that Sir Henry Birkin had forged his way to the head of the bunch of bright red cars.
“Although the Mellaha circuit measures 13 kilometres, it is tremendously fast, and in a very short time the cars appeared once more at the end of their first lap. Birkin, handling his new Maserati with consummate skill, was in the lead, followed by a howling pack composed of Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo), Campari (Maserati), Varzi (Bugatti), Fagioli (Maserati), Borzacchini (Alfa Romeo), Biodetti (B.M.), Zehender (Maserati), Premoli (B.M.), Hartmann (Bugatti), Castelbarco (Alfa Romeo) and a straggling group of slower machines.
“Birkin continued to give a masterly display of driving, and held his lead for four laps. Then the veteran Campari put his foot down well and truly, passed the astonished Nuvolari, and on the fifth lap took the lead from the Englishman. As the cars came past the pits Campari (Maserati) led, having covered 65½ kilometres in 22 min. 58 sec.; Birkin (Maserati) was second, 9 sec. behind; Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo) was 5 sec. later than Birkin, and he was followed by Varzi (Bugatti), Zehender (Maserati) and Fagioli (Maserati).
“Some idea of the speed at which the race was being run can be gauged by the fact that Campari, who led at the end of 10 laps, had covered the 131 kilometres at an average of roughly 107 m.p.h. Nuvolari had by this time got ahead of Birkin, but the English river was courageously sticking to his guns and was only a few yards behind.
“On the 14th lap Campari pulled into the pits in order to refuel, where he was joined by Fagioli. This stop gave Nuvolari the lead, and at half distance the order was :—
1. Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo), 1 hr. 9 min.
2. Birkin (Maserati), 1 hr. 9 min. 10 sec.
3. Varzi (Bugatti), 1 hr. 9 min. 19 sec.
4. Campari, (Maserati), 2 min. later.
5. Zehender (Maserati), 2 min. later.
“Sir Henry Birkin’s chances of victory were spoiled by his having to refuel on the 16th lap, and although this operation was carried out in the usual rapid manner, both Campari and Zehender had slipped by when he got going again. Then Campari had to stop again to replenish his oil tank which had come loose in its setting. After 15 minutes’ delay while much rope was used to lash the tank securely, Campari started once more, but after a few laps he retired.
“At 20 laps Nuvolari still led, but Varzi was now right on his tail. The Bugatti driver was giving a model display of cool driving, appearing oblivious of the other competitors, and concentrating on his polished handling of his own car.
“On the 25th lap a shout went up when it was seen that Varzi had gained the lead. Nuvolari had evidently had a setback, for he was 20 seconds behind. On the next lap he drove like a demon and caught up the Bugatti. Nearer and nearer drew the red Alfa Romeo, each lap cutting down the French car’s lead by a few feet. The crowd were wild with excitement, and a terrific roar was heard when, at the end of the 29th lap, Nuvolari came by the stands in the lead. As they disappeared on the last lap the spectators could hardly contain themselves, and craned their necks to see the cars come into sight for the finish. From a distance the two cars looked level, and they roared towards the finishing line almost abreast. But the blue car was slightly ahead, and to the sound of a tremendous cheer Varzi crossed the line barely a length ahead of his rival.
“Sir Henry Birkin gave a magnificent performance in finishing third, and, but for his pit stop, would have been nearer the leaders than his time indicated. Zehender had the misfortune to retire on his last lap.
It may be argued, that it was strange that Nuvolari let Campari go by early on, before the Maserati driver went into the pits. And there is no denying that the following year, when the race was run over a revised circuit and resulted in a very close finish between the Alfa Romeos of Varzi and Moll, the lottery tickets were not drawn until five minutes before the race was due to start . . .
It could further be suggested that, although the legend put out by Young and Garrett to the tune of Nuvolari having stopped before the finishing line, with Varzi crawling past to win, is not substantiated in our report, it might well be that, if Nuvolari had agreed to let Varzi win in return for a £10,000 bribe, he would do so in such a manner as to be seen to be almost the equal of the Bugatti driver, in a finish about as close as that at Aintree on the occasion when Fangio, told to allow Moss to win the British G.P. for Mercedes-Benz before a British crowd, led him almost to the line, then braked very obviously to let Moss by. I cannot see, unless contemporary reports were written by half-blind lunatics, how the story put out by Alfred Neubauer in his book, “Speed Was My Life”, can be substantiated. Neubauer, writing many years after the race, says that, only a few hundred yards from the finish, Nuvolari “climbed out of the cockpit and with a show of tragedy which would have done credit to an actor, exclaimed that he had run out of petrol.” The car, claims Neubauer, had to be refilled from cans brought from the pits by a squad of mechanics, and, while this was going on, “Varzi’s and Chiron’s cars came crawling round the corner.” Neubauer underlines the point, writing: “No—that isn’t a misprint. They were crawling.” If the reporters didn’t notice this, they must have been blind, or drunk, or something! Neubauer goes on to explain that Nuvolari restarted to join the funeral finish, crossing the line behind Chiron, who, in fact, was a lap in arrears. No mention of Birkin! Can you reconcile that with the Motor Sport which refers to the cars of Varzi and Nuvolari roaring towards the finish almost abreast, Varzi winning by barely a length to the sound of a tremendous cheer? The fast, new Mellaha circuit, over which the 1933 race was run, had few corners and any car stopping a few hundred yards from the finish would be in full view of the spectators and journalists at that point. Apart from which, if Nuvolari stopped so close to the line stop-watches would have revealed the fact, as they would the very drastic slowing of Varzi if he was to allow Nuvolari to close to within 00.1 sec. of him after the long delay the alleged refuelling performance would have cost the Alfa Romeo. Incidentally, there is a paragraph in Caracciola’s book, “A Racing Driver’s World”, purporting to be a conversation between Chiron and Borzacchini about Borzacchini’s part in the faked result, but from the latter’s flippant retort it seems likely that he intended to deny that any skulduggery took place . . .
Eoin Young says the 1933 Tripoli G.P. was “such an obvious fiddle”. Was it? What is your opinion after reading the Motor Sport report?—W. B.