Tazio Nuvolari (1892 - 1953) - Champion of Italy

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Tazio Nuvolari (1892 - 1953) - Champion of Italy

Tazio Nuvolari
Tazio Nuvolari
Tazio Giorgio Nuvolari was born on 16 November 1892, at Casteldero near Mantua. Of humble background, he quickly found a taste for speed. A bicycle gave way to a horse and then, at the ag~ of twelve, he saw his first car. His uncle Giuseppe, an international cycling ace, became a distributor for Bianchi cars and, at the age of sixteen, Nuvolari found a job as a mechanic.

Not only did Tazio have a thirst for speed, but he appeared to have a flirtation with death. As a boy, he attempted to jump off a roof with a home-made parachute, somehow without breaking any bones, and later he acquired a dismantled Bleriot aeroplane. Attempting to take off, he found his machine careering into a haystack. It burst into flames, but Nuvolari had only an injured shoulder. After World War 1 he was considered 'too dangerous' to drive ambulances for the Italian Army.

After the war Nuvolari married his childhood sweetheart, Carolina, and sold motor cars. In 1920, he began to race motor cycles, proving extremely successful for a span of 10 years, but he yearned to race cars. In 1921, driving an Ansaldo (a touring car), he finished fourth overall and second in class in the Circuit of Garda. Later, he raced Chiribiri and Bianchi cars and then, at the end of 1925, he had a trial with Alfa Romeo at Monza. Driving a P2 model, he quickly acclimatised himself to such a fast car, but after eight laps the car's gearbox seized at a corner and Nuvolari crashed into a tree. He was rushed to hospital where a month's recovery was ordered; seven days later, heavily bandaged, he was lifted on to his motor cycle, went racing again ... and won.

For the next two seasons Nuvolari could only dream of racing cars: a lack of finance meant he had to stick with racing motor cycles. Then Tazio sold some land (originally given to him by his father) and in 1927 formed a team with friends, including another motor-cycle ace, 23 year-old Achille Varzi, to race Bugatti T35s bought from the firm's Milan agency. Nuvolari won at Rome and Garda, but on most occasions had to give best to the better organised and better equipped Alfa Romeo team.

The 1928 season started better with wins at Tripoli, Pozzo, Alessandria and Messina, but then had to be content with place results to the superior Alfas. Even Varzi had quit and bought an Alfa Romeo. Eventually, Nuvolari, too, acquired one and he entered for the Coppa Montenero at Leghorn in July, a week after a motor-cycle race. He crashed his bike and broke two ribs, yet within a few days he was racing the new Alfa Romeo 1750 in a plaster cast. He was second to Varzi's faster P2 model.

The Mille Miglia

In 1930 - his last year on two wheels - Nuvolari won the Mille Miglia in classic style. Varzi appeared set for victory as he neared the end of the marathon drive, but he had a huge surprise in store. Nuvolari had driven like a demon to close the gap and, seeing what were obviously the lights of Varzi's car ahead in the early-morning gloom, he switched his own lights off and crept up behind. With less than two miles to go, Nuvolari stole ahead of his shocked rival. Nuvolari's other major victory in 1930 was the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards, near Belfast, where he led an Alfa Romeo 1750 1-2-3 victory.

In 1931, Nuvolari beat Varzi in the Targa Florio after another of their titanic duels and, co-driving with Giuseppe Campari, he won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in a 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo Monza 8C. Later victories included the Ciano Cup and the Circuit of Tre Provincie, the latter with his riding mechanic Decimo Compagnoni operating the throttle via his leather belt to Nuvolari's instructions, following an early accident at a level crossing. Into 1932, Nuvolari maintained winning form. He won the Monaco Grand Prix, the Targa Florio, the Italian Grand Prix, the French Grand Prix, the Prince of Piedmont Race, the Ciano Cup and the Acerbo Cup and was second in the German Grand Prix, crowning these glories with the title 'Champion of Italy'.

By 1933, Nuvolari was into his 40s but retirement from his beloved sport could not have been further from his thoughts. He won the Tunis Grand Prix, his second Mille Miglia, the Circuit of Alessandria, the Eifelrennen, the Nimes Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24-hours, all driving for Alfa Romeo. He lost at Monaco, but his vivid duel there with Achille Varzi's Bugatti is legendary. The pair changed places lap after lap and on the last circuit they strained their engines to beyond reasonable limits. Nuvolari's car blew up and caught fire, yet Tazio jumped out and attempted to push his car to the finish, chased by irate marshals carrying extinguishers. He finally collapsed, exhausted, 200 yards from the finish, only to be disqualified.

Nuvolari pictured in 1923 in his Chirbiri
Nuvolari pictured in 1923 in his Chirbiri.

38 year old Nuvolari about to start a race in 1930
38 year old Nuvolari about to start a race in 1930.

Nuvolari pictured in his Alfa Romeo 2300 in the 1932 Mille Miglia
Nuvolari pictured in his Alfa Romeo 2300 in the 1932 Mille Miglia.

Nuvolari looking on as his mechanics roll out his modified Bugatti TN
Nuvolari (pictured on the far left, with his hands in his pockets) looking on as his mechanics roll out his modified Bugatti TN.

Nuvolari's Cisitalia loses its steering wheel
Nuvolari's Cisitalia loses its steering wheel.

Nuvolari's last big win was at the Albi GP in 1946 in a Maserati
Nuvolari's last big win was at the Albi GP in 1946 in a Maserati.

Nuvolari pictured in 1948 driving his Ferrari at the Bari GP
Nuvolari pictured in 1948 driving his Ferrari at the Bari GP.
Although, on paper, Nuvolari's season appeared to be his most successful yet, in the major Grands Prix his Alfa Romeos were letting him down, breaking their transmissions under the strain. So for the Belgian Grand Prix in July he appeared in a new Maserati 8CM - and won. Victories followed in the Ciano Cup and the Nice Grand Prix, while he was second in the Acerbo Cup and the Italian Grand Prix (which he lost owing to a burst tyre). Driving an MG K3 Magnette, Tazio won the RAC Tourist Trophy for the second time, completely confounding the experts who thought his handicap too great.

The 1934 Grand Prix season witnessed the debut of the Nazi-backed Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars. The year started off badly for Tazio when he was beaten into second place by Varzi in the Mille Miglia, following the wrong choice of tyres. Then came Alessandria when Nuvolari crashed avoiding Count Carlo Felice Trossi's broken-down car. Rather than risk injury to Trossi, in a split-second Nuvolari headed for a large tree opposite. The car threw out its occupant and Nuvolari was lucky to survive with nothing worse than concussion and a broken right leg. At first, he was content to convalesce at home with his leg encased in plaster but, after hearing of yet another Varzi win (at Tripoli), he vowed to make his come-back at Avus in Berlin.

Decimo Compagnoni, his mechanic, rigged up the pedals so that they could all be operated by Nuvolari's left foot (no riding mechanics were allowed by now) and, in great pain, Tazio finished a remarkable fourth. It was only in October that he won his first race of the year, at Modena where he overtook Varzi after another of their famous duels, and he followed this with victory at Naples the following weekend. For 1933, Nuvolari rejoined the Ferrari-managed Alfa Romeo team in an attempt to beat Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. He won the Pau Grand Prix, the Bergamo Cup, the Ciano Cup and the races at Biella, Turin and Modena. His greatest feat of all, however, was a super-human drive in the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring in what many people considered his greatest-ever race.

Manfred von Brauchitsch

He cornered his under-powered Alfa Romeo P3 at death-defying speeds to split the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions. He made up lost time after a pit-stop for fuel when churns had to be used after the pressure hose broke-down. Into the last lap he caught sight of the leader, Manfred von Brauchitsch's Mercedes. Nuvolari calculated he could catch and beat the German, but his job was made easier when a tyre burst on the Mercedes.

In 1936, Nuvolari suffered another accident. In trying to beat Varzi (now an Auto Union driver) during practice at Tripoli, Nuvolari had a tyre burst at a most difficult corner. He was thrown out and suffered the 'usual' broken ribs, fitted with the 'usual' plaster cast and told not to race for a month. The next morning he was on the grid and raced to seventh place in a spare car.

Victories against the German teams followed at Penya Rhin, Budapest, Milan, Leghorn, Modena and at Long Island, NewYork, whe~e he won the Vanderbilt Cup. Perhaps Leghorn was his greatest win of the year for, after breaking his own Alfa Romeo 12C, he took over the older, less powerful 8C model of teammate Carlo Pintacuda, caught his rivals and snatched victory. There was tragedy at the end of the year, however. His eldest son Giorgio died of typhoid. Tazio himself survived another terrifying accident practising for the Piedmonte Grand Prix, leaving hospital after only three days.

In 1937 Nuvolari's only win was in the Milan Grand Prix. It was also another year tinged with sadness: his father died. A hint of the future came when he accepted a 'guest' race with Auto Union in the Swiss Grand Prix. He finally accepted an invitation to lead the German team midway through 1938, swearing he would not drive for Alfa Romeo again following a fire at Pau. He won the Italian Grand Prix and the Donington Grand Prix - his third win from three starts in Britain - but at Donington he was restricted by tight bandages he was forced to wear following a collision with a deer in practice in which he fractured a rib.

In 1939 Nuvolari won the Belgrade Grand Prix for Auto Union, then World War 2 intervened. Nuvolari spent most of his time with his wife and son, Alberto, in their luxurious villa at Mantua. In 1946, at the age of 53, he was ready to race again. He entered the Nice Grand Prix, but withdrew as 18-year-old Alberto died of nephritis. A much-saddened man, he later appeared in the Marseilles Grand Prix where he showed his old sparkle before the engine broke. Later in the year, however, he was hit in the face by a jet of fuel, inhaled the fumes and fell ill. The gases caused severe asthma and Tazio's doctors forbade him to race again.

Still he was not finished. He raced small sports or closed cars, came back with a Grand Prix Maserati 4CL to win at Albi, but was forced to quit at Geneva when fumes from alcohol-based fuel made him vomit blood. When, in 1947, Nuvolari announced his intention of competing in the Mille Miglia, a 16-hour non-stop event, people gasped in amazement. It was even suggested he was attempting suicide, as he had often said he wanted to die in a racing car and not a bed.

Driving a 1000cc Cisitalia against cars of two or three times the capacity, Nuvolari drove like a madman to lead the field until, in the closing stages, the tiny car coughed to a halt after hitting a big puddle. A quarter of an hour was lost tracing and curing a soaked distributor and Nuvolari had to be content with second place behind Clemente Biondetti's 2.9-litre Alfa Romeo. When he stopped he had to be lifted from the car.

The two following weekends saw Nuvolari winning sports-car races at Forli and Parma, driving a new 2-litre Ferrari 125 Sport built by his ex-team manager at Alfa Romeo, Enzo Ferrari. Illness prevented Nuvolari racing for most of the year, but in 1948 he persuaded Ferrari to give him a car for the Mille Miglia. Again, the Mantovano Volante - or Flying Mantuan as he was known - showed his much younger rivals the way. Then, with a lead of half an hour, first his car's bonnet flew off and next the seat broke; he threw it away, using a bag of oranges and lemons as a cushion. A spring shackle broke and the car became almost a bare chassis. Almost within sight of the finish the brakes failed and Nuvolari was forced to abandon it after a series of skids.

Nuvolari's Last Race

Nuvolari's last race was on 15 April, 1950, where he won a short race at Monte Pellegrino in a 1500cc Cisitalia. Subsequently, his health deteriorated so that it became impossible for him to race, and sadly after suffering a stroke he developed a paralysis on his left side. After a spell in hospital, in November 1952, he asked to be taken to his villa so he could die at home. Visits were only allowed by two or three very close friends, to whom he would often say: 'I, who could dominate any car, am incapable of controlling my own body'.

On the 11th August 1953, he died in the arms of his wife. His last wish was to be buried in his 'uniform', his once-familiar yellow jersey, and blue helmet and trousers. Almost the entire town of Mantua attended his funeral, which is said to have seen an attendance of between 25 and 55 thousand people. The funeral procession was a mile long, and Nuvolari's coffin was placed on a car chassis which was pushed by Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio.

Year Location Vehicle
1924 Savio Circuit Chiribiri Monza (1.5 litre)
1924 Polesine Circuit Chiribiri Monza (1.5 litre)
1924 Tigullio Circuit Bianchi 20 (2 litre)
1927 Rome Grand Prix Bugatti T35
1927 Garda Circuit Bugatti T35c
1928 Tripoli Grand Prix Bugatti T35c
1928 Pozzo Circuit Bugatti T35c
1928 Alessandria Circuit Bugatti T35
1930 Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo 6C 1750
1931 Targa Florio Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1931 Coppa Ciano Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1932 Monaco Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1932 Targa Florio Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1932 Italian Grand Prix Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1932 Grand Prix de L'A.C.F Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1932 Coppa Ciano Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1932 Coppa Acerbo Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1933 Tunis Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza
1933 Alessandria Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza
1933 Eifelrennen Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza
1933 Nîmes Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 8C 2600 Monza
1933 Belgian Grand Prix Maserati 8 cm
1933 Coppa Ciano Maserati 8 cm
1933 Nice Grand Prix Maserati 8 cm
1933 RAC Tourist Trophy, Ards MG K3 Magnette
1933 24 Hours of Le Mans Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1933 Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza
1934 Modena Grand Prix Maserati 6c 34
1934 Naples Grand Prix Maserati 6c 34
1935 Pau Grand Prix Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Bergamo Circuit Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Biella Circuit Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Turin Circuit Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 German Grand Prix Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Coppa Ciano Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Nice Grand Prix Alfa Romeo Type B/P3
1935 Modena Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 8c-35
1936 Penya Rhin Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 12c-36
1936 Hungarian Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 8c-35
1936 Milan Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 12c-36
1936 Coppa Ciano Alfa Romeo 8c-35
1936 Modena Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 12c-36
1936 Vanderbilt Cup Alfa Romeo 12c-36
1937 Milan Grand Prix Alfa Romeo 12c-36
1938 Italian Grand Prix Auto Union Type D
1938 Donington Grand Prix Auto Union Type D
1939 Belgrade Grand Prix Auto Union Type D
1946 Albi Grand Prix Maserati 4cl
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