Mantua's Great Little Man
- Leif Snellman
- 8W September 1999 issue
- 1946 GP des Nations - How the great Tazio came to ignore a black flag... and get away with it, by Leif Snellman/Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas/'Uechtel'
Alfa Romeo Tipo B "P3", 3.8 L
1935 German GP
Auto Union D-type, 3.0 L
1938 Donington GP
Who is the greatest driver ever? The fastest? The most dedicated? Those questions have been asked uncountable times and while each GP fan has his own favourite there are names that frequently show up in the lists: Senna, Clark, Fangio, Villeneuve, Moss...
Most of the lists are set up to only include drivers who have participated in the world championship. However, if we decide to include drivers from the pre-war era, the list will contain a additional driver with such a speed, car control and dedication that he in each field would have been able to challenge even the great Ayrton Senna.
The name of that driver is Tazio Nuvolari.
Tazio Nuvolari was a man that really lived for racing. Neither bad equipment nor wounds from his uncountable crashes could keep him from driving flat out. Known to the Italians fans as the "Flying Mantuan" or the "Great Little Man", Nuvolari was just 160 cm tall and he soon found out that he did not have the muscular strength to force the cars around the corners with the steering wheel. So instead he developed a technique where he put his car into a four wheel slide and then controlled the slide with the trottle.
Nuvolari was known for his busy driving style. His head was close to the steering wheel, his arms were constantly working with his elbows going up and down like pistons and when inspired he was unable to sit still but instead seemed to jump up and down in his seat. Early on he developed his personal "uniform", blue trousers and a yellow jersey with the letters "TN" on the left breast and a tortoise brooch pinned on to it. It is ironical that the fastest driver in the world had selected the tortoise as his mascot, it was sometimes also painted on the car. Money did not mean that much to Nuvolari who lived in a fairly modest way. He did however have his own airplane. Nuvolari was also a very keen photographer, and he was often seen walking around in the pits with his camera.
Tazio Giorgio Nuvolari was born on 16 November 1892 at Casteldario, a village near the city of Mantua (Mántova) in Northern Italy. His uncle was an international racing cyclist and Tazio's taste for speed and for taking risks were soon apparent. He started off with bicycles and horses. After having survived a jump from the roof with a home-made parachute he became interested in cars and at the age of sixteen he got a job as a mechanic. He managed to get hold on parts of a dismantled airplane and put it together but crashed at the start. The plane ended in flames while the pilot fortunately ended up in a haystack.
He joined the Italian army for World War One and tried to become an ambulance driver but was considered "too dangerous" for the job. After the war he married his sweetheart Carolina and settled down as a car salesman. In 1920 he began racing motorcycles as car racing was too expensive. He continued racing during the early 1920s, first as an amateur and later as a successful works motorcycle driver. However, he longed to race cars and after having some starts in Chribiri and Bianchi cars he managed to earn a place as Alfa Romeo's reserve driver at the 1925 Italian GP. As practice started Nuvolari set off in the "P2" only to crash into a tree after the gearbox sized. Nuvolari was sent to hospital and ordered a month's rest. But just one week later he started, heavily bandaged, at the Italian motorcycle GP and won the race. He had to be lifted on and off the motorcycle.
For the 1927 season Nuvolari and his motorcycle teammate and friend Achille Varzi decided to go car racing and bought a pair of Bugatti T35s. The cars were no match for the Alfa Romeo P2s but still Nuvolari managed to win twice in 1927 and four times in 1928. However, the rivalry between Nuvolari and Varzi became stronger by each race and finally Varzi left and acquired an Alfa Romeo P2. Nuvolari followed suit and at the Coppa Ciano he raced his new Alfa Romeo to second place in a plaster corset after another motorcycle crash.
In 1930 both Nuvolari and Varzi became Alfa works drivers. Nuvolari's victories that year included Brno, Florence, the Tourist Trophy and Mille Miglia. Legend claims that in the Mille Miglia Nuvolari switched off his lights and thus managed to close up on Varzi in the early morning and pass him just before the finish, a good story until one realizes that the cars started off at intervals and that Nuvolari had a ten minute edge on Varzi even without passing.
1930 was also Nuvolari's final motorcycle season. From now on he would concentrate on car racing. In 1931 Nuvolari successfully raced the Alfa Romeo "Monza" taking victories amongst others at Targa Florio, the Italian GP, the Coppa Acerbo and the Coppa Ciano finishing as Italian champion. He followed up with a successful 1932 season with the new Alfa Romeo Tipo B "P3", winning the Monaco and the French GPs, the Targa Florio, the Italian GP, the Coppa Ciano, the Coppa Principe de Piemonte, the Czech GP and the Coppa Acerbo.
1933 was to become the greatest year for Nuvolari. He begun the season by winning the Tunis GP and the Mille Miglia. Then he lost the Monaco GP to his arch rival Varzi after one of the greatest duels ever seen, a duel that ended when Nuvolari's engine blew up on the last lap. Nuvolari, chased by fire marshals, tried to push the burning car to the finish only to collapse 200 meters from the line and to be disqualified. Then Nuvolari won at the Alessandria GP and led the fixed Tripoli GP only to "lose" it on the very last lap. The season continued with victories at the Eifelrennen, the Nimes GP and the Le Mans 24 hour race. However, Nuvolari wasn't satisfied with the Ferrari team and after a series of retirements with technical problems he left in the middle of the season to form a private team together with Baconin Borzacchini. Racing a Maserati 8CM he then won the Belgian GP, the Coppa Ciano and the Nice GP before changing to a MG K3, winning the Tourist Trophy against all odds. 41 years old Nuvolari was at his very best but gloomier times were ahead.
1934 was the year of the return of the Germans and Nuvolari driving Maseratis and Bugattis suddenly found himself driving in the "2nd division". He had a bad crash at the Bordino GP early in the season only to make a comeback with his leg in plaster at the Avusrennen, but it was not until the Modena GP in October that Nuvolari was able to take his first victory of the season. At the Spanish GP Nuvolari tested an Auto Union and it seemed clear that Nuvolari was trying to sign on for the German team for 1935 only to find that Varzi had beaten him to it. Nuvolari therefore was to continue as privateer until Mussolini himself intervened and organized a new Scuderia Ferrari contract. The 1935 season started off well with a victory at Pau, and it was followed up by victories in minor races at Bergamo, Biella and Turin and then came the German GP, 28 July.
While there was much speculation about who would win the German GP, no one of the 300.000 spectators who showed up at Nürburgring that day doubted that the winner would drive a German car. The Germans were out in full force, four Auto Unions against five Mercedes-Benz with driver aces such as Stuck, Varzi, Rosemeyer, Caracciola, Fagioli and von Brauchitsch. They were challenged by a a mixed bunch of private Maseratis, Bugattis and ERAs plus the Ferrari team. Scuderia Ferrari entered three of their four year old Alfa Romeo P3s. The one to be raced by Nuvolari had its engine capacity increased from 3.2 to 3.8 litre.
The rain was pouring as the cars were lined up for the start. The start positions had been decided by ballot and Nuvolari found himself on the front row between Stuck's Auto Union and Balestrero's Alfa. But it was rain specialist Caracciola who took an early lead and completed lap one 14 seconds in front of Nuvolari. On the second lap the "Flying Mantuan" had to see himself passed by Rosemeyer, Fagioli and Stuck and he fell back to fifth. An early pitstop by Rosemeyer put Nuvolari back into fourth place and on the ninth lap Nuvolari suddenly got inspired. He did the first sub-11 minute race lap ever on Nürburgring and passed two Mercedes cars to take the second place. Both Brivio's and Chiron's Scuderia Ferrari Alfas were out of the race with broken differentials, so Nuvolari was the only Ferrari driver left. On the tenth lap Nuvolari sensationally appeared in the lead as Caracciola was in trouble and falling back. But on the next lap Rosemeyer came charging to challenge the Alfa Romeo driver and the four top cars entered the pits almost at the same time for their halfway stop.
The pitstop turned out to be a catastrophe for Nuvolari as the Ferrari fuel pressure pump broke down and the crew members had to do the tanking by churns. It took 2 min 14 seconds before Nuvolari was rejoining the race in sixth place and all hopes for a victory seemed lost. However, the bad pitstop seemed just to have inspired Nuvolari even more. After just one lap he was back into second place and took up the chase on the leading von Brauchitsch. On lap 14 the lead was 86 seconds, on the next lap 88, then 77, 63, 47, 43, and 32 seconds as Nuvolari closed in on the Mercedes. Von Brauchitsch started the last lap with a seemingly uncatchable 35 seconds lead but the high pace had destroyed the tyres and the Mercedes suffered a double puncture. The astonished German crowd could only see the Italian car take the flag as winner.
This has been called Nuvolari's greatest race because with his old Alfa he had beaten eight new German cars to the line. The rain showers had helped to even the horsepower advantage a bit but still... Nuvolari ended off the 1935 season with victories at Coppa Ciano and the Nice and Modena GPs.
In 1936 Nuvolari continued to drive Alfa Romeos. At Tripoli practice he was thrown out of the car after a high-speed puncture and suffered broken ribs once again. That did not hinder him to enter the race, equipped with his "usual" plaster corset. Once out of the plaster Nuvolari showed who was the master with some stunning performances. He managed to grab victories from the German teams both at the Penya Rhin and the Hungarian GP. He also had the joy to beat Varzi's Auto Union both at the Milan GP and at the Coppa Ciano. In the latter race he took over Pintacuda's car after his own broke down on the first lap. Cheered on by hysterical fans Nuvolari took up the chase, passing car after car to finally take over the lead as Varzi struck problems and had to retire. Nuvolari went on to win also the Modena GP and the Vanderbilt cup that year.
There wasn't much joy in 1937 for Nuvolari. Both his father and his oldest son died, the performance of the new Alfas was far behind that of Mercedes and Auto Union and he won just one race, the Milan GP. He did a guest performance for the Auto Union at the Swiss GP but found the unfamiliar rear-engined car hard to master in the wet and soon let it over to Rosemeyer.
At the 1938 season opener the new 3-litre Alfa caught fire as chassis flexing had ruptured the tank. A furious Nuvolari, who managed to escape with minor burns, declared that he would never race for Alfa Romeo again, a promise that he held.
In 1938 Auto Union was in deep trouble. Their star driver, the incredible Rosemeyer, had died in a world record attempt, Ferdinand Porsche had left to work on the Volkswagen, and the cars were not ready so the team were using 1937 chassis adapted to the new 3-litre engine. None of the drivers seemed able to develop the cars in the right direction. The team decided to re-employ Stuck, who had been sacked in 1937, and to employ Nuvolari.
The "Flying Mantuan" made his debut as full team member at the German GP. It was not a successful debut as Nuvolari crashed at Brünnchen on the very first lap. He later took over Müller's car to finish 4th. The next race, the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara, was no improvement as Nuvolari was again out after just one lap, this time due to a technical problem. At the rainy Swiss GP the Auto Unions were struggling with oiled up plugs and Nuvolari finished a miserable 9th. It was not until the Italian GP that the Auto Union team turned up with the definitive D-type cars. Nuvolari had by now got used to racing the rear-engined cars and he took the lead on lap 8 and went on to win his first race for Auto Union in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The next major race would be the Donington GP on October 1st. Crisis! Hitler was putting demands on Czechoslovakia. Talks of war. British prime minister Chamberlain travelled to Munich... The German teams, who were at Donington for the GP race, were getting order from the German embassy to leave England as fast as possible and in worst case to leave all equipment behind. Soon the team trucks were racing for Harwich with full speed with the mechanics prepared to put fire to the trucks if stopped. Talks, policy of appeasement, occupation, peace...
The Donington GP was rescheduled to the 22 October and the German teams returned with four entries each. Against them were only one fast works Maserati driven by Villoresi, Lucy O'Reilly-Schell's two Delahayes and some local British drivers in ERAs, Alta, MG and Riley. During practice Nuvolari collided with a stag. The poor animal ended up on the wall at Nuvolari's house in Italy while Nuvolari escaped from the accident unshaken enough to take second place in the grid. When the flag fell Nuvolari went away like a rocket to take the lead and then on the twisty park circuit started to open up the gap by 1 second per lap to the other German cars. However, on lap 26 with half a minute lead he had to make an unscheduled stop for a plug change and rejoined in third place. Soon afterwards there was chaos as the engine in Hanson's Alta blew and created a big pool of oil. Nuvolari managed to miss the oil with just a small visit into the grass while several other drivers including home favourite Seaman lost it completely.
At half point the Auto Union team made an excellent job by taking in fuel and changing four wheels on Nuvolari's car in just 35 seconds (note that there were restrictions to the number of mechanics when comparing to modern pitstop times). By 50 laps Lang held a 40 seconds lead over Müller's Auto Union with Nuvolari third. However, now the 46-year-old Italian started one of his famous inspired drives. He soon passed his team mate and by turning in lap record after lap record he took in 3 seconds per lap on the Mercedes driver, who was having problems with a broken windscreen. At 60 laps the gap was down to 20 seconds and just 7 laps later Nuvolari threw the Auto Union past Lang's Mercedes on the straight to take the lead. From then on no one could challenge the "Great Little Man" who took an extremely popular victory in the last GP race to be held at Donington for a very long time. In 1939 Nuvolari suffered several retirements but he was able to win the last race of the season, the Yugoslav GP, before the war started.
At the age of 53 Nuvolari made his comeback to motor racing after the war ended. While his racing style was as good as ever it soon became clear that Nuvolari was ill. He was suffering from severe asthma and fumes from the alcohol based fuels made him to vomit blood during the races. With a surgical mask in front of his mouth he carried on racing, putting in amazing performances in the 16-hour long Mille Miglia both in 1947 and 1948. Nuvolari's last race was at Monte Pellegrino, on 15 April 1950, and he won his class with a 1500cc Cisitalia. Less than a month later the first ever Formula 1 World Championship race was held at Silverstone. A new era had begun. Nuvolari's last years were bitter as his both beloved sons had died young and Tazio himself was partly paralyzed. Only a few close friends were allowed to visit him. Nuvolari died at home 11th August 1953. His last wish was to be buried in his "racing uniform" with helmet, yellow jersey and blue trousers.
You can find a more complete race account of the German GP here. You can find a more complete race account of the Donington GP here.
1st Reader's Why by Michael Ferner
Aaahh, ooohhh! The race of ages!
Described over and over again but still a pleasure to recall! It seems utterly superfluous to introduce Nuvolari or the B-type Alfa Romeo, so only some basics will have to suffice here: the "Flying Mantuan" was born in 1892 and thus already 40 years old when he won back-to-back European Championships in 1932/33. But his heyday was yet to come, at an even later age as Fangio's.
Not that his early years had been without interest: starting as a motorcycle racer he'd won four consecutive 350cc Italian GPs (Gran Premio delle Nazioni) between 1925 and 1928, riding for Bianchi. By winning in 1925 he became the successor of the great Jimmy Simpson as the European Champion of that class.
Yes, that's right: in the days before the World Championships Tazio Nuvolari had already won the biggest championships on two and four wheels, some 30 years before John Surtees! Some other European Bike Champions of note: Graham Walker (father of Murray), Wal Handley, Piero Taruffi, Charlie Dodson, Omobono Tenni, Georg Meier and Dorino Serafini, while Freddie Dixon, Achille Varzi, Luigi Arcangeli and Giordano Aldrighetti had won major Grands Prix before switching to four wheels.
Nuvolari had already made his debut on four wheels by then, finishing second in the 2-litre class of the first Lake Garda race in 1921 for the Ansaldo factory. But his car career did not begin in earnest until 1927 when he won the Royal Prize of Rome at the wheel of his private type 35 Bugatti. Many minor wins followed until, at the Italian GP of 1928 he started his first "Grande Épreuve", finishing third. That was the tragic race where Emilio Materassi died along with more than 20 spectators, the worst accident in motor racing history so far.
When Alfa Romeo returned to Grand Prix racing in 1930 they were quite happy to snap up the fast Italian who began a long association with that firm. On June 5, 1932 the Milanese marque produced their probably best car ever: the P3, or B-type as it became known, a true classic which broke new ground on its first appearance and remained competitive over a very long period. It was the first thoroughbred monoposto in Europe (akin to the marvellous Miller across the pond) and had the differential attached directly to the gearbox, which allowed the use of two prop-shafts, one to each rear wheel forming a "V" in which the driver could sit much lower than before. Its initial capacity was 2650cc but by 1935 it had aquired a 3800cc power plant which tested its chassis to the extreme. The introduction of the C-type Alfa Romeo at the Italian Grand Prix finally rendered the car useless for the works, but it still proved to be a happy choice for many privateers. Its last appearance in GP racing was in 1949!
When Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union started their GP "Blitzkrieg" Louis Chiron used a B-type Alfa to famously defeat them in the 1934 French GP. After that, apart from three freak results only Nuvolari managed to sneak race wins from under the German's noses, eight times in all! The first and most humiliating was the race in front of half a million Germans at the Nürburgring in semi-dry conditions. The first half of the race before the refuelling stops was a battle royal between the best cars and drivers in the world, but after a lightning pit stop Manfred von Brauchitsch seemed to have the race in his pocket when everyone else experienced problems. In Nuvolari's case it was a crack in the fuel pumping device and he lost almost one and a half minute to the Mercedes-Benz. Undeterred he pressed on and had the gap down to 35 seconds going into the final lap. It still looked hopeless, but in his efforts to stay ahead Brauchitsch had not only set a new lap record but also overstressed his tyres. Sure enough his right rear let go and he crawled home a disgruntled fifth. Hans Stuck had stalled at the start and overtaken everybody except Nuvolari, who scored an emphatic win, his most famous ever.
2nd Reader's Why by Arjan de Roos
In 1938 Nuvolari was approached to drive for Auto Union. Rosemeyer (a friend of Nuvolari) had died during an accident in a speed record attempt on the German Autobahn. Porsche had made several attempts to get the Mantuan in his squad.
On October 22nd, 1938 the IV International Donington Grand Prix was held on October 22nd after the first date October 1st was dropped because of political controversy. The race was to be 80 laps and knew seventeen starters. Among them four Auto Union cars: Müller, Hasse, Kautz and Nuvolari, all driving the Auto Union type-D which had a 3-litre V12 90-degree engine and was designed by Fuereisen and von Ebenhorst. No Italian teams were entered beside Viloresi's Maserati. Caracciola was known for not liking this track and was missing as well although it was said that he was ill.
The German teams showed up with four cars each. Korpsführer Hühnlein was present again as well. In practice Nuvolari was in top form only to run into a deer (a feat repeated in the 1985 Austrian GP, see Acheson story) killing the animal. Lang pipped the Italian for pole by two tenths of a second.
After the start Nuvolari and Müller (who started from the second row) led the race. Nuvolari had build up a lead of half a minute before he had to stop for a plug change. It cost him 58 seconds and he came back in fourth position. Young Müller now led from Seaman and Lang. When Hanson had blown his Alta he had lost quite some oil: hell broke loose with cars spinning off and onto the track. Even Nuvolari was caught in the act. He managed to return the car from the grass to the track. Müller was still leading but now with Lang quite close by. Nuvolari had jumped into 3rd followed by von Brauchitsch. Lang got hold of Müller and led the race.
Now Nuvolari started one of his super chases. He passed Muller (making up 30 seconds in 10 laps). Nuvolari then caught Seaman (one lap down) and two laps later leader Lang (hindered by a loose wind screen). Both let him through in a very sporting way. Nuvolari managed to win the race with a fastest lap on lap 52. He had lapped all but Lang (1 minute 18 behind).
On September 3rd 1939 Nuvolari won the GP of Belgrade, the last GP of the Golden Era for the Second World War which had started two days earlier. His live consisted not only of victories. He had lost both his sons Giorgio and Alberto both before they reached the age of twenty. In 1953 he died from the illness that had wrecked him the past years. Up until his death he kept ruling out his retirement from racing although his last race had been in 1950.
Enzo Ferrari immediately drove to Mantova when he heard this sad news. In his rush he lost his way in the labyrinth of streets of this town. He stepped out to ask for the house of Nuvolari. An old man approached Ferrari and upon seeing the MO (for Modena) on the number plate he grasped who this tall man was and said: "It is good that you have come for there will be no such man anymore."