'Il Mantovano Volante': The Life of Tazio Nuvolari
An in-depth profile on one of the greatest racing drivers ever to live.
In the modern age of Formula 1, we often ask ourselves who were the greatest drivers of all time? Undoubtedly, names like Schumacher, Senna, Hamilton, Prost, Lauda and so on will pop up in these conversations, especially amongst the more modern F1 fan. This led to me to wonder about the drivers that came before these legends. I’m not talking about drivers like Jackie Stewart or Jim Clark, but I’m talking about drivers before Formula 1 even came into fruition. After doing a recent article on the Mille Miglia, I was drawn to a man whose exploits in the period of Grand Prix racing really deserve no further introduction. Today, I’ll be giving you the run down on the one and only Tazio Nuvolari.
Nuvolari was without question one of the greatest drivers of his day and is still considered by some to be one of the greatest drivers of all time. The Italian driver racked up a serious pedigree for his racing abilities, taking wins in both car and motorbike races, and achieving some of the greatest and most memorable victories in racing history. So, without further ado, let’s get straight into the life and times of the man that Ferdinand Porsche himself dubbed “the greatest driver of the past, the present and the future”.
Beginnings of Greatness
Tazio Giorgio Nuvolari was born on the 16th November 1892 in the small town of Castel d’Ario, Italy. The road to his racing career seemed written in the stars as Nuvolari was born into a family who were already involved in racing, with his father Arturo and brother Giuseppe both being bicycle racers. Giuseppe was a multiple winner of the Italian national championship, and was deeply admired by Tazio, who took after his brother and obtained his license for motorcycle racing in 1915 at the age of 23.
Unfortunately, the First World War prevented him from beginning his racing career immediately, and he served as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army. It was in 1920 that an emboldened Nuvolari took part in his first motorcycle race at the Circuito Internazionale Motoristico in Cremona, though like many rookie racers, he failed to finish the race. His first experience with cars came in 1921, where he won the Coppa Verona reliability trial, which honestly sounds more like a manufacturers test rather than an official race but hey, it’s the 1920s so I don’t really know what I was expecting here.
Nuvolari atop his noble motorised steed.
1925 proved to be the genesis for Nuvolari and his career in racing, when he became the 350 cc European Motorcycling champion by winning the conveniently name European Grand Prix. This was incredibly important at the time as the European Grand Prix was considered the single most important race of the motorcycling season, and thus winners in each category were designated the European Champion. Between 1925 and 1928, he won the coveted Nations Grand Prix four times, and the Lario Circuit race five times between 1925 and 1929, establishing himself as a prominent force in the world of motorcycling, all on a 350 cc Bianchi motorcycle.
1925 was also the year that Nuvolari truly dipped his toes in the vast ocean of car racing, being drawn in by Grand Prix titans Alfa Romeo to replace the recently deceased Antonio Ascari following his death at the French Grand Prix. For reference, yes, Antonio was the father of the equally famous Alberto Ascari. Nuvolari tested the car, with the team hoping that he’d be good to run in the Italian Grand Prix the same year, but crashed when his gearbox seized, suffering severe lacerations to his back. He was not selected for the team (obviously), but just 6 days later, the absolute unit of a man wrapped in bandages and with a cushion strapped to his stomach was lifted onto his Bianchi motorbike to compete in the Nations Grand Prix at Monza… which he won. I’m not making this up. He might as well have done it in a full-body cast.
The Golden Opportunity
Between 1930 and 1932, Nuvolari was finally selected to race for Alfa Corse (Alfa Romeo’s factory team), and it was here that his reputation for dark humour and enjoying situations where everything went wrong really came into the light. He won the RAC Tourist Trophy in 1930, and legend has it that after one of the drivers broke the window of a butcher’s shop, this Italian lunatic decided to drive on the pavement and try to grab a ham as he drove past. Call that the munchies but I’ll tell you what, that takes some balls. This wasn’t the only time he pulled something like this. At the Mille Miglia, driving his Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeo 6C, he chased after main rival and teammate Achille Varzi on the road, tailing the driver at speeds of up to 93 mph… with his headlights off. He remained unseen by Varzi until they were near the finish line at Brescia, when he switched his headlights on just to pass the shocked driver to take victory. How much cheekier can you get?
Nuvolari stopped racing motorcycles in 1931 to focus solely on cars, partially due to new regulations requiring Grand Prix races to be at least 10 hours long. At the Italian Grand Prix, Nuvolari shared an Alfa Romeo with Baconin Borzhacchini. Starting ninth on the grid, the car retired due to mechanical failures 33 laps in. Did he retire? Of course not. He switched cars to race with Giuseppe Campari (not to be confused with the drink) and the pair took the race win, though Nuvolari was ineligible to score any championships points. Despite failing to win the Belgian or French Grand Prix the same year, he won both the Targo Florio and the Coppa Ciano, so it wasn’t an entirely wasted experience.
Racing for Ferrari at the 1932 Monaco Grand Prix
The next season, Nuvolari drove the Alfa Romeo P3, taking 2 wins and a second-place finish in the 3 Grand Prix held that year, giving him the championship just 4 points ahead of teammate Borzacchini. He also achieved 4 other race wins that year, including the Monaco Grand Prix and a second Targo Florio, during which he pulled yet another lunatic move which I’m just going to start calling ‘classic Tazio’. During the Targo Florio, he told his mechanic that every time he shouted, he was to drop to the floor of the car in order to lower the cars centre of mass every time he went over a curve to quickly. According to the mechanic, he spent the whole race on the floor as Nuvolari shouted from the first corner all the way to the last. Nice to see he was an intelligent man… as well as a lunatic.
Prancing Horse, meet the Flying Mantuan
Nuvolari is perhaps most famous however for being involved with a tiny little privateer team called Scuderia Ferrari, which he joined in 1933 after Alfa Romeo ceased their official involvement with the series. The P3 which had taken Tazio to victory the previous year was not passed on, so the team had to use the previous model the Monza, which would have to battle the much-improved Maserati team. Nuvolari was accused alongside fellow drivers Varzi and Borzacchini of race-fixing during the Tripoli Grand Prix in order to profit from the Libyan state lottery. However, this story has been fiercely debated, as it was supposedly started by known raconteur Alfred Neubauer, the Mercedes-Benz team manager the time. It was in 1933 that Nuvolari took the second jewel in his motorsport crown by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite building up a 2-lap lead, the fuel tank ruptured forcing Nuvolari to stop at the pits, where it was plugged up with chewing gum. Yep, chewing gum. Despite more stops required (and a whole lot more chewing gum), Nuvolari broke the lap record 9 times to take the win by around 370 m.
1934 by comparison was a disaster, failing to win a single race over the course of the season. Things were worsened following the race at the Circuito di Pietro Bordino in Alessandria, where after being balked by the Alfa Romeo of Carlo Trossi, he lost control of his privately entered Maserati 8CM and rolled into a tree, breaking his leg. Did that stop him? Of course not. Apparently, Nuvolari was bored in hospital and just 4 weeks later crawled out of bed and entered the newly established AVUS-Rennen race in Germany. Still unable to fully use his leg, Maserati modified the pedals to suit his requirements and he managed to finish fifth. Of course, the whole racing in a Grand Prix with a broken leg is inspiring and all, but I can’t take my mind off the fact that this guy literally got bored in hospital and decided to go racing.
With some ‘convincing’ from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Ferrari took Nuvolari back on their team, and just in time as 1935 saw him achieve the ‘Impossible Victory’. Regarded as the greatest win in all of motorsport history, Nuvolari challenged the dominant German cars with an obsolete and completely outclassed Alfa Romeo P3. Down on power and speed, he completely outclassed each and every one of them, including Mercedes W25s and Auto Union Bs, to take his victory at the German Grand Prix at the infamous Nürburgring, bringing delight to the 300,000 fans that had come to watch the race, but not exactly pleasing the Third Reich officials that had come to watch.
Tazio in action at the 1935 German Grand Prix... also known as, the Impossible Victory.
Between 1936 and 1939, Nuvolari slowed down in his career following a big accident at the Tripoli Grand Prix, causing him to break some vertebrae. He returned to race with Alfa Romeo in 1937, though he became increasingly more frustrated with the poor build quality of the cars he was driving. The 12C-37 proved to be both slow and unreliable. At the Coppa Acerbo, Tazio had finally had enough and stopped midway in the race, handing over the car to Giuseppe Farina. Following this, Alfa Romeo fired chief designer Vittorio Jano and left the sport for the remainder of the season. In 1938, he walked out on Alfa Romeo following a split fuel tank and announced his retirement. After holidaying in America, he returned for the Tripoli Grand Prix driving for Auto Union, winning at Monza and Donington that same year. His last pre-war win came at the 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix which was the last before the outbreak of World War Two.
But not even that could stop the mighty Tazio Nuvolari from getting right back in the driver’s seat following the conclusion of the war. In 1946, he took part in 13 races, wining at the Grand Prix of Albi and taking fourth in the Grand Prix of Nations. However, it became noted at Milan that he steered mostly with one hand the entire race, with his other hand holding a bloodstained handkerchief over his mouth. It was in 1946 that during the Coppa Brezzi that despite his poor finishing performance, the steering wheel of his Cistitalia D46 came loose and eventually came off during the race, giving rise to one of the most iconic images in motorsport history. His last appearance came in the Palermo-Montepellegrino Hillclimb on 10th April 1950, as health issues caused him to become increasingly solitary.
Nuvolari suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1952, leaving him partially paralysed, and died in bed at the age of 60 from a second stroke later the same year. His death was mourned by thousands, with at least 25,000 to 55,000 people attending his mile-long funeral profession, which was equivalent to half the population of Mantua at the time. His coffin was placed on a car chassis which was pushed by Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and the great Juan Manual Fangio. He was entombed on the road from Mantua to Cremona, with an inscription reading “Correrai Ancor Piu Veloce Per Le Vie Del Cielo”, or in English, “You will race even faster along the roads of heaven”. I’ll be honest with you readers, I’m tearing up just writing about this… and no, I’m not trying to be funny.
Still racing even without a steering wheel...
Tazio Nuvolari is by a long stretch my favourite racing driver of all time, and I thought he deserved an in-depth look into his life. His legacy will be immortalised forever in the world of motorsport, and as John Cooper of The Autocar magazine said, “there will never be another Nuvolari and I shall always think of him as incomparable, the greatest of them all.” John, I completely agree with you.
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