Features - Historical

SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

How to cheat in F1 - 1933 style


In April 1933 Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi were both at the height of their powers as racing drivers. The race at Monaco was a classic battle and at Tripoli they finished two-tenths apart.

In April 1933 Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi were both at the height of their powers as racing drivers. The race at Monaco was a classic battle and at Tripoli they finished two-tenths apart.

Monaco was the finest battle between Nuvolari and Varzi -- the greatest drivers of their era. For 99 of the 100 laps the two swapped the lead and, on the 99th lap, Varzi became the first man to lap Monaco in under two minutes. This pressure caused the leader Nuvolari to over-rev his engine. Varzi had won the showdown between fire and ice.

Nuvolari was already a living legend among racing fans. The Maestro was 40 years old but as passionate and fiery as ever. Varzi was almost his equal as a driver, but while Nuvolari exhibited a wild Italian temperament, Varzi was cool and calculating. He was 28, dapper, stylish, and had a chilling coldness in his manner. His boast was that he had never crashed a car.

Not surprisingly, there was tremendous excitement in Italy as the racers moved on to Tripoli, in Libya, for the next major event.

Tripoli was of special significance to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who dreamed of an empire to rival that of ancient Rome. Libya represented the mirage of Italian colonialism and Italian racing success was seen by the dictator as something which could be promoted to benefit the image a strong and successful Italy.

No expense would be spared to make the Tripoli Grand Prix a momentous event. The race coincided with the arrival in Libya of a new Governor, Marshal Italo Balbo. He was a hero of fascist Italy. A notable aviator who had been a leader of Mussolini's March on Rome.

There had been racing in Tripoli since 1925 but, for 1933, there was a new track -- the fastest in the world.

The new Mellaha circuit, situated just outside the city of Tripoli, was built on salt flats. It was 8.14 miles in length and roughly rectangular in shape. It was made up of sweeping curves and fast straights. It centred on an imposing start/finish straight where, rising from the desert, was a huge grandstand with pit garages beneath. Opposite this there was a tall white tower.

A national lottery was organised throughout Italy to create excitement for the race. For just 11 lire one could buy a ticket which might result in a prize of seven and a half million lire -- #80,000 at 1933 prices. Millions of tickets were sold throughout Italy.

Three days before the race, 30 tickets were drawn, each one representing one of the start numbers and many of the 30 winners decided to travel to Libya to watch the great event.

One of this number was a timber merchant from Pisa, Signor Enrico Rivio. It had been his good fortune to draw Varzi's number in the lottery and the night before race, he visited Varzi's hotel to urge the great driver to win the following day.

Confronted by Rivio, the world-weary Varzi remarked, somewhat cynically, that Rivio stood to gain considerably more than he himself would if he were to win the race.

At this Rivio made a most unusual suggestion. He announced that if Varzi should win the race, he share his lottery winnings. To guarantee his good faith, he produced a legal contract to this effect.

It was a more than tempting offer for Varzi and as soon as Rivio had departed, he telephoned Nuvolari. The two talked and, by the end of the evening, other drivers had been contacted.

Chief among these was Baconin Borzacchini. Nuvolari and Borzacchini had become inseparable friends, indeed they were known in Italy as the "fratellini" -- the little brothers.

Another driver who seems to have been contacted on the evening of May 6 was Giuseppe Campari, one of the great drivers of the Twenties and, at 40 years of age, a man planning to retire to dedicate himself to his two other loves in love: opera singing and cooking.

No-one has ever revealed the details of what deals were done that evening and certainly there was no hint of anything unusual as the 30 cars lined up on the grid for the race the following day.

All the greatest drivers of the era were present with the exception of Rudi Caracciola, who had broken his thigh in a crash at Monaco.

It was extremely hot -- nearly 100 degrees in the shade -- and a stifling desert wind was blowing across the track as Marshal Balbo raised the Italian flag to start the race.

Nuvolari, Campari and Borzacchini took off into the lead, but Varzi was stuck in the midfield. After five laps he was almost a minute behind the leader Campari.

At around half distance, with Varzi still out of the hunt, Campari Alfa began to misfire and he headed for the pits to retire. Campari climbed out and sat down to enjoy himself with a bottle of Chianti.

Nuvolari was now ahead of Borzacchini and it seemed that no-one else was in with a chance although, with 10 laps to go, Varzi began to charge. Five laps later Varzi was third. The excitement was rising.

Suddenly Varzi's blue Bugatti began to make strange noises and slowed down. Nuvolari looked like lapping the stricken machine.

And then a strange thing happened. Borzacchini, lying second, began to look back anxiously, as though under threat from Varzi. On the next lap Borzacchini hit an oil drum beside the track but came to a safe halt. He drove slowly to the pits with a puncture.

It seemed inevitable now that Nuvolari would win but he too was slowing dramatically. Going into the thirtieth and last lap of the race, he was about half a minute ahead of the struggling Varzi, who was travelling more and more slowly.

Out at the back of the circuit, Nuvolari began to look over his shoulder to watch for Varzi, and then, coming onto the final straight Nuvolari slowed to a stop just a few hundred yards from the chequered flag.

The Maestro climbed out of his car and, with much drama, indicated that he had run out of petrol. His mechanics ran from the pits with petrol cans and hurriedly emptied these into the stranded car.

As this was happening, into view on the straight came Varzi and Chiron, both travelling incredibly slowly.

The crowd, naturally, was close to hysteria with excitement. Nuvolari restarted his car and joined the slow run to the finish, but Varzi crossed the line just two-tenths ahead of his rival.

Signor Rivio was sudenly a very rich man. That evening Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini were spotted in their hotel, drinking expensive champagne but outside rumours flew suggesting that all was not as it seemed. The following morning, the top drivers were called to a tribunal and accused by the president of deliberately 'fixing' the race. He named Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini and suggested that Campari and Chiron had also been involved. He called for their licences to be suspended.

It was then pointed out that the authorities could hardly ban five of the most important drivers of the day.

It was an impossible situation and, in the best traditions of the sport, it was decided to sweep the whole affair under the carpet. The drivers were all given strong warnings that such things could not be tolerated and to ensure that it could never happen again, the rules of the lottery were changed so that the draw would take place just a few minutes before the race. It was hardly the great event of which Mussolini had dreamed.

Varzi and Nuvolari were already rich men from their racing exploits, but for Borzacchini the money gained by the rigging of the race was something he had never experienced.

He later told Chiron that after Tripoli he locked himself away in his room and counted his money. Then, making sure that no-one could see into his room, he turned on the fan and danced among the fluttering 1000 lire notes.

But Borzacchini did not live long to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. In September of that year, he spun on oil in Monza's South Curve and his car overturned. He was killed.

Ironically, as Borzacchini's car was flipping, Campari arrived at the scene, swerved to avoid his friend, and went off the track into the trees. He too was killed.

And the cool and calculating Varzi? He was slipping into a life of cocaine addiction.

Tripoli 1933 remains the only major motor race in which "rigging" has been established.