Among the pictures on my office walls are two of Tazio Nuvolari. I look across the room and there he is, rounding the Station Hairpin (now Loews) on his way to winning the Monaco Grand Prix in 1932. And there he is in an Auto Union at the Nürburgring in 1939, where he retired from the German Grand Prix.
Back in the winter of 2009 I travelled to Nuvolari’s home town of Castel d’Ario with my neighbour Andy. He’s a broad-minded football fan who likes driving his Audi and has heard of Fangio. Along the way we discovered an exhibition outlining Nuvolari’s career at the Palazzo Te in nearby Mantova. At the time there were plans to open a permanent museum in his honour and I am delighted to report that the Museo Tazio Nuvolari is now open. For €5 (only three if you’re over 65) you can see the Bugatti he raced in 1934 as well as a wonderful collection of highly evocative memorabilia.
Andy, who sent me these photos, lost interest in motor racing somewhere between Graham Hill and Nigel Mansell – but shares my fascination with the men who raced in cloth helmets and short-sleeved shirts. I have tried in vain to interest him in the God-given gifts of the Alonsos and Hamiltons of this world but he remains adamant that the modern driver only wins when he has the best car. Well, I say, Nuvolari had the Alfa Romeo P3 in 1932 and he won a lot of races.
It is true, of course, that il Mantovano Volante (the Flying Mantuan) also won races when he demonstrably did not have the best car and it is his extraordinary talent and fighting spirit that comes across in the new museum.
As is so often the case in Italy, the museum is low-key, a place for those who know what they’re looking at rather than a tacky tourist attraction. Like the previous exhibition at the Palazzo Te, it is a reminder of just what this great racing driver achieved, a man that Ferdinand Porsche was moved to describe as “the greatest driver of the past, present and future.” Ask Murray Walker – a man who has seen more races than most men alive today – to name his all-time hero and he will unhesitatingly tell you it is Tazio Nuvolari.
The abiding passion for one of the sport’s true legends is apparent wherever you go in this part of northern Italy. It is thanks to the Automobile Club di Mantova that the new museum exists at all, there is a statue of the man in his birthplace of Castel d’Ario and a few steps from the museum is the Piazza Nuvolari. Yes, there’s a road in Stevenage named after Lewis Hamilton, but that’s not quite the same. Is it?
Should you be inspired to pay homage, the museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays, and is housed within the 15th century Church of Carmelino. Look out for the little golden turtle that the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio gave to Tazio after his sensational victory in the 1932 Targa Florio. “To the fastest man in the world, the slowest animal,” wrote the poet. This became the driver’s lucky charm and he had it embroidered on the yellow jersey he always wore to the races. Beats the weird tattoos of today, don’t you think?
Then there’s the photo of Nuvolari with Mussolini, standing by his Alfa Romeo P3, and so much more that reminds us of very different days.
Was he the greatest ever? Does it matter? He remains a one of the genuine heroes of the sport of motor racing – even Andy, who thinks Rory McIlroy should have been the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, would agree with that.