Features - Historical

SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

Monaco 1933 - The greatest Grand Prix of them all?


Bitter rivalries are nothing new in motor racing. Today everyone talks of Alain Prost versus Ayrton Senna, but 60 years ago, it was a case of Tazio Nuvolari against Achille Varzi.

Bitter rivalries are nothing new in motor racing. Today everyone talks of Alain Prost versus Ayrton Senna, but 60 years ago, it was a case of Tazio Nuvolari against Achille Varzi.

At the end of 1932 Alfa Romeo decided to withdrew from Grand Prix racing, taking its P3s with it and leaving Scuderia Ferrari to race with modified Monza Alfa sportscars.

In doing so the Italian manufacturer unwittingly created the most evenly matched contest between three different marques that the sport had known.

The first major race in this new order was on the streets of Monaco on 23 April 1933 and there were nine Monza Alfas 8Cs, seven Bugattis Type 51s and three Maseratis 8CMs entered.

Enzo Ferrari was deeply unhappy with Alfa's decision and for a time even considered running Maseratis. In the end he decided to do what he could with the Monzas. The team arrived in Monte Carlo from a dominant Mille Miglia, which had been won by Tazio Nuvolari and his riding mechanic Decimo Compagnoni.

Nuvolari was then 40 years old and came to Monaco the defending winner. With him was his friend - the pair were known as 'the little brothers' Baconin Borzacchini. They would race 2.6-litre *Cs, while Ferrari also had a pair of of 2.3- litre machines for company president Count Carlo Trossi and test driver Eugenio Siena.

Alfa was also represented by a Scuderia CC, a new team formed by debonair 33-year-old Monegasque Louis Chiron (who had won Monaco in 1931) and German Rudi Caracciola, who had been left in the lurch when Alfa Romeo withdrew. The pair had a pair of 2.3-litre 8Cs.

The finals three Alfa Romeo runners were wealthy British aristocrat Sir Henry Birkin, French gentleman racer Philippe Etancelin and a wild 25-year-old Parisian called Jean-Pierre Wimille.

Maserati had just one factory car for Luigi Fagioli, while a pair of privateer 8CMs appeared for young French hero Raymond Sommer and Italian Freddy Zehender.

Ranged against the Italian machinery was the Bugatti factory team, under the watchful eye of team manager and former racer Meo Constantini.

The factory had three 2.3-litre Type 51s for 29-year-old Italian Achille Varzi, and two former Monaco GP winners new boy Rene Dreyfus (who won Monaco 1930) and the mysterious Englishman called 'Williams', who had won the first Monaco GP in 1929. The field thus included all the previous winners of the race.

Bugatti 51 privateers included Algerian Marcel Lehoux and another British aristocrat, 46-year-old Earl Howe.

Monaco 1933 was also the first time in the history of the sport that the grid was deciding by timed qualifying rather than the luck of a draw and, as a result, practice was fraught with excitement and, unfortunately, accidents. Nuvolari went off and broke a rear axle, but more seriously Caracciola smashed into a wall at the quayside with such force that, although the remained in the cockpit and was not thrown out, he broke his right thigh in several places. The accident would put him out of action for an entire year and leave him with a permanent limp.

Varzi took pole position with a lap of 2m02s - a new lap record - and shared the front row with Chiron and Borzacchini, while Nuvolari, Etancelin and Dreyfus completed row two, while Fagioli, Wimille and Lehoux made up the third row.

Row five was an all-British affair with Howe, Williams and Birkin side-by-side.

Monaco in those days was very different to today. The track was tree-lined in places and the only protection for drivers and spectators alike were rows of sandbags on the most dangerous corners. There were also tram lines to be avoided.

The crowds however flocked to Monaco as they do every year and it was a bright sunny afternoon as the grid lined up for the fifth Monaco GP.

At the start Varzi led Borzacchini, the fast-starting Lehoux and Nuvolari but by the end of the sedcong of 100 laps Nuvolari was on the tail on his greatest rival. A lap later he was ahead. It was only seven laps before the two men began to lap the backmarkers, while fighting for the lead.

It quickly became clear that while Varzi's Bugatti handled better in the corners, Nuvolari's Alfa engine had the edge on straight-line speed.

But it was more than a battle of the cars for here were the two greatest drivers of their era with totally different temperaments, fighting tooth and nail.

Once they had both been motorcycle racers, although they had rarely raced one another. Then in 1927 they formed a partnership to race a pair of Bugatti Type 35s. It did not last long and thereafter they were always rivals - and always the best in the teams for which they raced.

While Nuvolari was the favourite of every crowd, throwing his cars around with brio, Varzi was quiet. He was famous for never crashing.

They needled one another and on that hot Monaco afternoon in 1933 that needle was produced what may have been the greatest race of all- time.

For much of the time Nuvolari was ahead, with Varzi looking for a way to pass him.

And not only that, for behind them there was an equally thrilling dice for third place between the 2.6-litre Alfa of Borzacchini and the similar 2.3-litre car of Etancelin. This ebbed and flowed and was not decided until the 65th lap when Etancelin's rear axle broke and he was forced to retire.

Varzi took the lead with 20 laps to go, but four laps later Nuvolari forced his way back into the lead. And there he stayed until the penultimate lap when Varzi forced his engine way beyond what it was supposed to do and dived ahead once again. That lap he became the first man to lap Monaco in under two minutes. But Nuvolari was not beaten and passed Varzi again as they hurtled off on to the last lap, forcing his engine way beyond its limit. The Bugatti engine had withstood the abuse, but the Alfa did not, an oil line split and in an instant Varzi was back in the lead, roaring away to take the chequered flag.

Nuvolari's car caught fire but, as fireman ran to help, the great Italian drove on, down the hill - his car ablaze. Even when it ran out of momentum Nuvolari refused to accept defeat and climbed out to push the burning car. Borzacchini flashed past to finish second and the young Dreyfus took third, while Nuvolari toiled towards the flag. He never made it, stopping before the finish line, furious at the outside assistance to put out the fire which he did not want.

He was later disqualified.