Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
Nuvolari - the legend lives on
BY JOE SAWARD
The other day, while having my hair cut by an Italian barber who never stops talking about Ferrari, I was surprised by one of his questions.
'You know Nuvolari?' he asked. 'Magnificent. He was the best of all time. He never gave up. Never. You know what he was? He was the romance of motor racing.'
The barber is not old enough to have have been much more than a child when Nuvolari was alive, for the great man from Mantova died in 1953. And yet he knew all about the legend.
Enzo Ferrari, a shrewd judge of drivers, who knew them all from Felice Nazarro to Ayrton Senna, was once asked who was the greatest.
'There's no answer,' he replied, 'but if you want me to name names, you could say that Tazio Nuvolari and Stirling Moss had similar styles. They were both men who put everything they had into racing - with any kind of car, in any circumstances and on any track.'
Moss, the ace of the 1950s, is well known, but who is the mysterious maestro Nuvolari? There are only history books and blurred photographs. They say little of the man so loved by his generation that 50,000 people watched his funeral cortege.
It is hard to imagine such affection today. The only modern driver to compare was Gilles Villeneuve. He was quick, with the skill and daring to back it up. With Villeneuve the impossible could happen. So it was with Nuvolari.
Even his greatest rival Achille Varzi was forced to admit it.
'Nuvolari,' said Varzi, 'was the boldest - most skillful - madman of us all.'
Nuvolari's tomb in Mantova is inscribed simply: You'll race still quicker on the highways of heaven'. He was buried - in August 1953 - dressed in the famous yellow jersey he wore when he raced. His coffin was draped with the Italian flag and on it was his leather racing helmet.
It is ironic that, in an era when all the top drivers died at the wheel, the bravest - the man who took the most risks - died peacefully in his bed.
Nuvolari was born on November 16 1892 on a farm at Ronchesana, near Mantova on the plains of the River Po in northern Italy. Legend has it that as an adventurous child he jumped off a roof with a homemade parachute. At 16 he started working for his uncle - a famous international bicycle racer, and a distributer of Bianchi cars - as a mechanic. Later he bought a crashed Bleriot aeroplane, reassembled it and tried to make it fly. It crashed and caught fire...
Nuvolari was tiny - under five foot four - but his dark, piercing eyes, toothy grin and jutting jaw suggested an inner determination - and an adventurous spirit. During the First World War he served as an ambulance driver, although his style prompted one officer to comment that: 'You ought to be a stretcher bearer, driving really isn't the job for you.'
When he returned from the war - aged 26 - he married and settled down to sell cars - and race motorcycles! By 1923 he had scored his first win - at Parma riding a Garelli - and the following year he was Italian Champion riding a Norton.
In 1921 he took part in his first car race driving an Ansaldo to fourth on the Circuit of Garda, but his motorcycle career would continue until 1930. In 1925 he was given the opportunity to test a factory Alfa Romeo P2 Grand Prix car but crashed after eight laps. The hospital ordered him to take a month to off because of a lacerated back, but six days later, heavily bandaged, he rode his Bianchi to victory in the GP of Nations at Monza.
Two years later, raising money by selling sold some land which he owned, he set up his own racing team with a group of friends including Varzi. They acquired a pair of Bugatti 35s. The alliance did not last. Nuvolari was fire to Varzi's ice and, as both possessed extraordinary talent, it was not long before Varzi took the opportunity to join the Bugatti factory team.
Initially Varzi was in the same team and on the Mille Miglia they fought a famous duel in the early morning. Legend relates that, in the darkness, Nuvolari chased Varzi with his headlights switched so as not to warn the man ahead. He snatched victory.
Nuvolari's colourful character helped to build the legend. Once when he was hospitalised he received a telegram from the Vatican and the wellknown poet and nationalist Gabriele D'Annunzio presented him with a golden tortoise pendant. It became Nuvolari's badge and appeared on his writing paper.
For the next three years the Nuvolari legend grew. In the Circuit de Tre Provincie in 1931 he won despite an accident which meant his riding mechanic and friend Decimo Compagnoni had to operate the throttle via a leather belt on Nuvolari's instructions. He won the Italian GP, the Targa Florio and Coppa Ciano and - in the summer of 1933 - the Le Mans 24 Hours.
That summer he also enjoyed a classic duel - perhaps the most famous of them all - with Varzi.
'Achille and Tazio put on a show no one there will ever forget,' wrote fellow driver Rene Dreyfus, 'On the last lap after a race-long and finger-nail-biting battle, Tazio's engine caught fire. The men who ran towards him with fire extinguishers couldn't catch him: he kept on driving. Only when the engine failed and he stopped did he acknowledge the reality of the situation. But he did not accept it. He got out and pushed.'
But the summer of 1933 ended unhappily. At Monza in September his teammate Giuseppe Campari and his young protege - Baconin Borzacchini (who was driving a Maserati) - died in an accident at Monza.
Nuvolari later rowed with Enzo Ferrari and moved to Maserati. The next year at Alessandria he crashed avoiding the spinning car of Count Felice Trossi and hit a tree. He suffered a broken right leg and concussion. Within days he had escaped from hospital, had a car fitted with a special rig to control the pedals and finished fourth at Avus.NP 'Let any who say it was foolhardy at least be honest and admit it was one of the finest exhibitons of pluck and grit ever seen.' said fellow driver Earl Howe.
Nuvolari's greatest victory would come at the Nurburgring in 1935. Unable to find a drive with the emerging German teams Nuvolari rejoined Ferrari. He was 43. His Alfa was outdated and up against nine of the best racing cars of the era: Mercedes and Auto Unions.
Delayed by a pit stop, Nuvolari charged back in one of the greatest feats in the history of motor racing. He caught and passed the opposition until only the Manfred Von Brauchitsch was ahead. So hard was he driving that the German wore his tyres through and Nuvolari passed him to win. So confident were the Germans of victory that they did not have a recording of the Italian national anthem. Legend has it that Nuvolari did... just in case.
Although the German teams dominated racing up until the war Nuvolari was able to beat them on twisty tracks by sheer driving skill.
At Tripoli in 1936 he suffered a tyre burst and was thrown from his car, breaking several ribs. Wearing a plaster 'corset' he raced to seventh.
That same year he beat two Auto Unions and two Mercedes in Barcelona - crossing the line just three secodns head of Rudi Caracciola. At the Hungarian GP on the streets of Budapest won again against the odds and in Milan trounced rival Varzi's Auto Union on a tight circuit. Finally at Livorno led home an Alfa 1-2-3 followed by Dreyfus and Antonio Brivio.
But amid the success there was personal tragedy for Nuvolari when his son Giorgio died of typhoid.NP
In 1938 he split with Ferrari again after being burned in fire at Pau. He swore he would never drive an Alfa again. Instead he joined Auto Union and won the Italian GP and at Donington, where he drove once again in a corset of bandages after hitting a deer in practice.
Nuvolari stayed with Auto Union until the outbreak of World war II and then lived quietly in Mantua during the conflict. He was 53 when the war ended and keen to get back into action, but the death of his second son Alberto from nephritis was a terrible blow.
Towards the end of the year he was hit in the face by fuel and began to suffer severe asthma. The doctors said he could not race...
...but, of course, he refused to quit. In 1947 he drove his last great race in a 1000cc Cistalia. The Mille Miglia. Against far more powerful cars he led the race until his engine cut because of rain. Clemente Biondetti swept by to win.
'I did not win,' admitted Boindetti later, 'I merely finished first. The just and deserving winner is Nuvolari, the greatest racing driver in the world.'
'Tazio was a phenomenon,' says Dreyfus. 'It may be a cliche but I think he was born to drive. He was so instinctive, his reflexes were uncannuy and he seemed to do everything right. We all tried to emulate him a little, but it didn't work.
'Only Tazio could be Tazio.'