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A look back: Tazio Nuvolari

January 12, 2010

Every so often I’m going to look back at past drivers, tracks, teams and even races. I find the history of F1 as fascinating as the present and occasionally find myself a bit nostalgic. If anyone has any requests as for what I should review or reflect on then please leave a comment below.

So who better to start this new feature with than the great Tazio Nuvolari? OK he was pre-F1 but he inspired a generation and had he been born a little later then maybe he would have taken the Formula One World Championship. He’s still considered one of the greatest drivers ever so I think it is fitting to start with him.

A brief history

Tazio NuvolariKnown as ‘the Flying Mantuan’ Tazio was a master in bikes and cars. Born in 1892, the son of Arturo soon showed a passion for anything with an engine. The war stalled any hopes of racing and he started racing seriously at the age of 28.

Nuvolari scored many titles on bikes and soon began catching attention. In 1925 Alfa asked for him to test in a Grand Prix car (it was common at this time for racers to switch from two-wheels to four).

He was quick to impress and once offered a drive he would go on to win the Mille Miglia. His success prompted a full time switch to cars during 1931. It was to be a mixed year with Nuvolari showing his determination and pace (when his Alfa Romeo broke down at the Italian Grand Prix he jumped into another car and took the race win) but he struggled to be consistent.

In 1932 Nuvolari struck gold with the Alfa Romeo P3 which was a brutally quick car. It resulted in the Italian taking the European Championship title with two wins. At Monaco Tazio would find a challenge in his rival Varzi. The pair often found themselves competing against each other and Monaco 1933 staged a huge showdown between the two; for lap after lap Varzi and the Flying Mantuan scrapped. Passing each other and repassing, Varzi leading then Tazio and on it went. On the last lap Tazio Nuvolari suffered a mechanical failure and had to retire but his skill was unquestionable. Nuvolari had won the Monaco Grand Prix the year previously and had beaten Varzi so at least he had that memory to console himself.

TazioFrom here on Alfa ceased racing in Grand Prix and would be represented by a Enzo Ferrari. The P3 could not be used and so the squad had to make do with its predecessor, not ideal against the improved Maserati cars.

The year was overshadowed somewhat by the accusations of race fixing which faced Nuvolari, Varzi and Borazacchini. The Libyan state lottery was to be drawn before the race and those starting had tickets and it was alleged that there was a pool between the three and that they would share the prize money which was over seven milion lire. All they had to do was start the race and it had been decided that Varzi should win the Corsa dei Miloni. The idea was believed to have originated from lawyer Donati who had previosuly met with the others and was a ticket holder paired with Nuvolari.

The affair would begin a straining in relations with Enzo Ferrari. Things deteriorated to such a degree that Nuvolari told Ferrari that the team should be known as ‘Scuderida Nuvolari-Ferrari’. Suffice to say Nuvolari would soon end his first stint with the team.

Tazio would drive for Alfa Romeo in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in the race he would break the lap record an astonishing nine times despite problems with the car’s fuel tank.

The 1934 season saw Nuvolari eventually grabbing a drive with the formidable Maserti team. However, he would suffer a broken leg and at the Italian Grand Prix he could only manage a solid fifth place.

A drive at Ferrari was sought for 1935 when Varzi signed to the German Auto Union. Relations were still sour with Enzo but Mussolini stepped in to help the Italian star.

Tazio was now 43 years and at the Nurburgring he found himself racing an old Alfa P3 while the grid was made up of shiny, new and dominating Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars with top drivers. But Nuvolari would not be intimidated.

At the half way point he actually managed to lead the race for two laps. After pitting Nuvolari fought back up to second place and was stalking German driver Brauchitsch. Brauchitsch was on the limit trying to keep the charging Italian idol back but his tires were beginning to wear. Nuvolari was relentless in his pursuit despite the P3’s lack of pace. Then less than ten kilometers from the end, he took the lead and won. It was one of his most remarkable victories. It became known as ‘the impossible victory’.

The following year Nuvolari failed to win the European title but took two major wins, one at Hungary.

1937 wasn’t much different. Alfa Romeo took control from Ferrari but the car still wasn’t a front runner. He tried to remain loyal to the squad but the frustration took its toll and early on in the season of ’38 he walked out of the outfit in favour of the Auto Union.

That season saw Nuvolari take the top step in front of his home crowd and collect a further two wins.

Once more the outbreak of war would interrupt Tazio’s racing career but he eventually made his comeback in 1946 at Milan. But Nuvolari had aged and far beyond his prime, it was to be a challenging year which was obvious from the start when at Milan he could only pilot the car with one hand while the other held a bloodstained handkerchief  covering his mouth.

Victory would come at France where he showed his old form and fended off Villoresi and Sommer for the win.

After 30 years of racing Nuvolari would snatch his final win in his final race at the Palermo-Montepellegrino hill climb.

Nuvolari died at the age of 71 on the 11th August 1953.

Why he is considered one of the greatest ever

What set Nuvolari apart for me wasn’t just his awesome pace or driving style but it was his unyielding determination. Few since him have shown such grit, it was the same cast-iron will which Lauda showed after his horrific Nurburgring accident where he fought hard to return to the sport just a six weeks later.

Tazio was to suffer many, many injuries from his profession but it was never to slow him down.  When he was racing bikes he crashed during practice at Monza breaking his legs. Nuvolari found a novel way around this and the next day tied himself to his bike and won the race.

Another demonstrated would be from an incident in 1912 when he was barely twenty. Always the thrill seeker he saved and bought his own plane. It was soon fixed up and the day of test flight was upon Nuvolari. The plane refused to take off however and Nuvolari concluded that the engine was just not powerful enough. To solve this issue the plane was mounted upon a roof and his determination was blind to all the safety risks. The engine was started and Nuvolari accelerated and attempted to take off. The plane instantly crashed to the ground and he was lucky to escape with only a broken shoulder.

He had the drive and self belief but without the speed he wouldn’t have achieved such a legendary status. His driving style was outrageous, forcing the nose of the car into the corners, his face close to the wheel and his arms were constantly moving up and down. He lived and drove on the edge and it’s why even today he is still considered a true great.

Here are a some videos of Nuvolari racing.

What do you think of Tazio Nuvolari? Over rated? Would he have won an F1 championship?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2010 12:31 am

    I remember writing a bio of Tazio for a website once, it was an amazing experience, you do not find any drivers like him these days!

    Great article, yet again!

  2. wasiF1 permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:33 am

    Nice job.It was one of your dream to write an article about your favourite driver & you made it.I am a regular follower in your site so hopefully we will see more of this in the future.

  3. January 12, 2010 12:37 pm

    brilliant article Steph,keep up the great work

  4. Ned permalink
    January 12, 2010 2:03 pm

    Good article Steph… but where the heck did you get all this information from?!?

  5. January 12, 2010 4:47 pm

    Watching dvds etc usual methods of learning about drivers :)
    I only needed to check dates when writing the article though.

  6. January 12, 2010 6:46 pm

    Wow great as usual Steph! You’ve spoken about this guy before on F1Fanatic but had no idea who he was but looks like a great racer. What amazing videos too, tracks are a bit different to nowerdays. Wouldn’t get the new cars racing 5 yards from a duck pond with no safety barriers!

    • January 12, 2010 6:52 pm

      I think because Nuvolari never really had a chance of winning an F1 championship that he is easily forgotten/overlooked despite the fact he was a recognised talent in his day. He carried on racing with broken legs, illness etc today’s parrallel would be when Webber carried on racing with food poisoning ;) *Joke*. Webber was a hero this year coming back and fighting for the title after having such a nasty accident before the season even began.
      Yeah times have changed a lot with track design to say the least :P

      • James Harmor permalink
        February 7, 2012 10:56 pm

        He was too old and in poor health by the time F1 began in 1950. However, his protege, Giuseppe “Nino” Farina was the winner of the first F1 Championship that season.

  7. Bex permalink
    January 12, 2010 10:24 pm

    All I can really say Steph is that you are really close to living your dream early :). Amazing articles, you write so well (I told you that years ago but you never listened :P). Keep up the good work :) you’re awesome.

  8. Jagged permalink
    January 14, 2010 10:14 pm

    Excellent article Steph and very well written! One minor correction though, Nuvolari was EDC in 1932, the championship was suspended in 1933-34.

    A side note that you might find interesting – watch the first 5 seconds of Pau 1935 and then check these links:

    She finished 8th in that race.

    • January 15, 2010 10:41 am

      Thanks Jagged :). Corrected must have missed it when I went through it
      Excellent links…you may just have inspired me to do an article on Nice. Tragic ending to her career by the looks of it but good on her for being brave enough to race in that era. Nice find Jagged. How did you come across her?

      • Jagged permalink
        January 15, 2010 2:02 pm

        When I saw her at the beginning of the Pau clip I rememberd having read about her when I was a kid and just getting into Grand Prix racing. That was in the early 60’s and I began reading everything I could get my hand’s on about GP and Sports Car racing ( I bought both volumes of Pomeroy’s The Grand Prix Car when I was a teenager and I still have them :-) ). Back then there was almost zero F1 coverage in the US and I had to wait 2 months to read Henry N. Manney III’s brilliant race reports in Road & Track magazine. You’re lucky to have all the resources of the Internet available to you!

        is an incredible treasure trove of info on pre-war GP racing as is Wikipedia.

        Looking up Helle Nice prompted me to order the book written about her a few years ago
        Seymour, Miranda – Bugatti Queen : In Search of a French Racing Legend. (2004)
        It looks like it will be a good read, she certainly led a fascinating early life with an incredibly sad end.

        You may also want to look into:
        and of course and in the Special Articles section of The Golden Era; she was the european Amelia Earhart and wife of Bernd Rosemeyer.

        BTW the epic battle between Nuvolari and Varzi was still in 1933 so you may want to reword that bit slightly.

  9. January 15, 2010 4:10 pm

    Yep changed it to 1933.
    Very lucky to have the internet to help research. I don’t always trust the net so much (mainly use it to check dates).
    Perhaps you should be the one writing about her. If you ever fancy doing a guesrt article just email me . You clearly have the knowledge and the right amount of passion!

  10. Steve permalink
    August 25, 2010 4:23 am

    Tazio was 61 when he died.

  11. James Harmor permalink
    October 22, 2011 10:41 pm

    Tazio Nuvolari was one of the 3 best drivers of all time, along with Fangio, and Senna. There are many other greats, but they are not on the same level.

  12. February 7, 2012 7:32 pm

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