Contributed by by Mark Fuller
Most of us have a hero. For many of us the subject of our adoration is usually fixed as a child, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that I became captivated by mine, Il Montavano Volante, the Flying Mantuan.
Tazio Georgio Nuvolari was born November 18, 1892, in Casteldrio near Mantua. For 30 years he amazed the racing world with his exploits on both two and four wheels. He epitomized courage and daring.
Nuvolari’s Uncle Giuseppe was a Bianchi dealer and introduced his nephew to motor sports. After serving in the Italian Army as a driver he started racing motorcycles seriously when he was 28. He raced Nortons, Saroleas, Garellis, Fongris and Indians.
His riding was soon noticed by the powerful Bianchi team and he became a member and eventually Italian champion.
At the Monza Grand Prix for motorcycles he crashed during practice. This resulted in two broken legs. After doctors put plaster casts on both legs he was told that it would be at least one month before he could walk again let alone race motorcycles.
The next day he started the race having himself tied to his bike. He required his mechanics to hold him upright at the start of the race and to catch him at the end. The legend of Tazio Nuvolari began that day when he won the race.
Nuvolari began racing cars in 1924 at the age of 32 while still competing in motorcycles. In 1927 he started his own team, buying a pair of Bugatti 35Bs which he shared with his partner Achille Varzi who was also a successful motorcycle racer. This partnership would later turn into an intense rivalry.
Nuvolari began to win races at the expense of Varzi who left the team. Varzi, the son of a wealthy merchant could afford better equipment and bought an Alfa P2. With this car he had the better of Nuvolari.
In 1929 Nuvolari signed on with Alfa Romeo and it must have been a despondent Varzi who discovered that Nuvolari was his rival once again.
Legend has it that it was during the Mille Miglia of 1930 when Nuvolari caught an unsuspecting Varzi while driving in the night without headlights.
Three kilometres from the finish he suddenly pulled along side, smiling at his startled team-mate he flicked on his headlights and powered on to victory. The remains some doubt as to the veracity of the tale, but it is a measure of the man and his ability that many are convinced of its authenticity even today.
For the Targa Florio of 1932 drivers would be accompanied by a mechanic in the car. Nuvolari made a special request of team manager, Enzo Ferrari, for a mechanic who weighed as little or less than he.
Nuvolari took the young and inexperienced mechanic that Ferrari had given him and told him that he would warn him when they approached a particularly difficult corner so as not to unduly frighten the young man. As they approached a corner, Nuvolari would shout for the mechanic to take cover under the dashboard. After the race and another victory for Nuvolari, Ferrari asked the mechanic how he had made out. “Nuvolari started shouting at the first bend and finished at the last one,” the boy answered. “I was down at the bottom of the car all the time.
In 1933 he scored many victories but became estranged from the team manager Enzo Ferrari and left for Maserati. 1933 also saw him travel to Northern Ireland for the Tourist Trophy Race and a drive in a supercharged MG K3 Magnette. After totally dominating the race someone asked him if he liked the MG’s brakes. Nuvolari replied he couldn’t really tell, he hadn’t used them that much.
In 1935 he was induced to return to Alfa Romeo and scored one of his greatest victories at the Nurburgring.
At the time the Nazi-sponsored Mercedes and Auto Unions dominated the Grand Prix series and the Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Maserati opposition was simply crushed. The Mercedes and Auto Union teams were proving that with lighter alloys for the bodywork they could use bigger, more powerful engines and yet still remain within the weight limit for the class.
As a result the teams arrived with their shiny new machinery. Four Mercedes W25s were produced for Caracciola, Luigi Fagioli, Manfred von Brauchitsch and the new boy Hermann Lang. Ranged against them were the 4.9 litre V12 Auto Unions driven by Bernd Rosemeyer, Hans Stuck, Achille Varzi and Paul Pietsch.
In the middle, among a rag-tag mixture of Maserati, ERA and Bugatti privateers, sat the Scuderia Ferrari entered Alfa Romeo P3 of Nuvolari.
Nuvolari’s car was little more than an old machine with the engine bored out to 3.2 litres. On a typically overcast German day, the race began as expected with the Nazi-sponsored manufacturers fighting among themselves for the important positions. For the first 9 of the 22 laps Nuvolari simply avoided trouble and settled into his stride. He slowly worked his way into second place and on lap 10 he passed Caracciola and moved into the lead.
At the halfway stage the leaders began arriving in the pits for fuel and fresh tyres. Aided by the typically slick German pit-stop routines the aristocratic von Brauchitsch was away in just 47 seconds. He was soon followed out by a handful of German cars.
Nuvolari had to sit through a ‘typical’ Italian stop of over two minutes before he got back onto the track.
Angry at the delay, his blood was up and he drove like a total maniac. Over the next few laps he passed Caracciola, Stuck and Fagioli as if they were nothing more than club racers. A later than usual pit-stop by Rosemeyer moved the little Italian back into second place once more.
The gap to the race leader – von Brauchitsch – was 1m 27sec with seven laps still remaining. Nuvolari pressed on and the gap came tumbling down. First it was 1m 17sec, then 1m 3sec until on lap 21 just thirty seconds separated the two men.
Surely not even Tazio could recover such a gap in only one lap?
Then the fates stepped in. Aware of the threat posed by Nuvolari, Manfred had begun to push ever harder and seven kilometres to the flag he paid the price for his hard driving. A rear tyre burst and the little Italian simply sailed by to collect the winner’s laurels in front of a stunned 300,000 strong German audience including Adolf Hitler.
So confident had they been that a German would win the race the organisers did not even have a copy of the Italian national anthem to play as Nuvolari received his winner’s laurels.
Luckily Tazio always carried a copy as a lucky charm and the strains of Marcia Reale echoed around the grandstand much to the annoyance of the assembled Nazi hierarchy.
It was a triumph of the human virtues of skill and courage over the science of speed and horsepower and is still acknowledged as the finest race of Nuvolari’s long and illustrious career.
Such was the embarrassment to the Nazi party that Hitler reputedly issued orders for photographs of the victory by Nuvolari destroyed. This is one of the few remaining images. You can clearly see the Swastika included on the flagpoles in the background.
In 1936 Nuvolari had a serious accident during practice for the Tripoli GP but escaped from the hospital and took a taxi to the race where he finished seventh in a spare car.
After the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in 1938, Auto Union was desperate for a driver who could master their mid-engine race car.
At the insistence of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche they turned to Nuvolari. It was an inspired choice. Nuvolari went on to win the British Grand Prix at Donington that year.
Only World War II could stop Nuvolari but after the fighting stopped he returned to racing at the age of 53.
His desire and passion for the sport was undiminished. In 1946 he drove a Cisitalia D46 in the Andrea Brezzi Cup in Turin. Suddenly during the race the steering wheel came off. In place of the wheel Nuvolari attached a ‘Stillson’ pipe wrench to the steering column.
He the proceeded to drive the car for a few laps with the wrench in one hand an the steering wheen in the other. To the delight of the crowd each time he passed the pits he held the steering wheel outside the car waving it for all to see. After a few laps he pulled in to the pits to effect a more permanent repair and eventually finished in 13th place.
He continued to win races, but age and sickness caused by acute asthma, the result of years of inhaling exhaust fumes would finally take their toll. His last Mille Miglia, in 1948, was a defining moment in his illustrious career. It was said that he wanted to die in the sport that he loved so much but in this wish he was denied.
On August 11th, 1953, 9 months after suffering a paralyzing stroke he was dead. As was his wish he was buried in his uniform – the yellow jersey and blue trousers.
The funeral of Tazio Nuvolari is held on the 13th August 1953 in Mantua: Italy and the entire world of the motorcycle and automotive sport were in mourning, an immense crowd of over 50,000 were in attendance. The drivers of the past and present stood shoulder to shoulder with the public.
Enzo Ferrari said “… as soon as I knew that he was dead I left for Mantua. I lost myself in a labyrinth of roads of the city and I didn’t know the exact direction. At a tinsmith’s store, I got out of the car and I asked the way for the house of Nuvolari. An old labourer exited from the store and, before answering, he went around my car, in order to read the plate (the car carried Modena plates). He understood, shook my hand with warmth. He whispered “Grazie per essere venuti. Un uomo che, come non essere nati di nuovo”. “Thank you for coming. A man like that won’t be born again.”
I hope you have enjoyed this small taste of the life of Nuvolari. If you would like to know more, and you are looking to visit Italy, I can recommend a visit to the Nuvolari Museum in Mantua. http://www.tazionuvolari.it/eng/index.html At the time of writing, the building in which the museum is located is in the process of being renovated. The town of Mantua (Mantova) is also beautiful and well worth including in any tour of Italy.
The following books on Nuvolari are also highly recommended: