A breed apart
Tazio Nuvolari is still remembered as one of the greatest race drivers of all time.
The term 'legend' is bandied around a lot these days, but in motorsport circles, few deserve the title like Tazio Nuvolari.
8 October, 2021
No one can match the success Nuvolari had in an amazing career that took in such a wide variety of machines and events he contested
It’s amazing that a race driver born, not in the last century but the one before, whose career was interrupted by two world wars, who didn’t start racing motorcycles until he was 28 (and cars nine months later) should be as famously and fondly remembered as Tazio Nuvolari.
After learning to ride a motorcycle when he was 13, he got his motorcycle licence in 1915, when he was 23. Then he was enlisted in the war, driving trucks and Red Cross ambulances.
Typically for this dedicated and brilliant race rider and driver, he didn’t stop racing motorbikes just because a started racing cars. In fact sometimes he alternated the two from one weekend to the next.
No one can match the success Nuvolari had in an amazing career that took in such a wide variety of machines and events he contested. He raced everything from hill climbs and long distance road races to grands prix, with dozens of car and motorcycle races in between. He even came close to racing at the Indy 500 at one stage.
In one period in the later part of his career he drove a Fiat 1100, did the Mille Miglia in 16 and a half hours, then raced next weekend in the first Grand Prix Ferrari, a 125.
Of course he drove the most awesome and the most intimidating machinery of all time, the 200mph (320km/h) rear-engined Auto Unions – cars that themselves became legendary.
Amazingly he only did three races in Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s great creation – the Auto Union. Not only did he win all three, he is perhaps best remembered of all of the drivers who were sought far and wide, firstly not to crash the fearsome things but also to get the best out of these difficult cars.
They had an almost perfect combination of items designed to make life ‘exciting’ for the drivers – a 16-cylinder rear engine that sat over swing arm independent suspension. Combine that with more power than anybody had ever experienced, which of course resulted in top speeds higher than anybody had envisaged. Then think of the (drum) brake technology of the time, where the stoppers were, by today’s standards, ‘casual’ to say the least.
Those that saw them, sometimes airborne on tracks like Donington Parkin in England, say there was never anything, ever, in grand prix racing before or since, to match the awesome Auto Unions and the cars that they fought with for the glory of the German motor industry, the supercharged Mercedes-Benzes.
But much of Nuvolari’s fame and legend came from success with smaller-engined cars with less power prevailing against bigger, faster machinery.
If you can judge a man by the company he keeps (or kept), then Nuvolari must be great. Early in his car racing career, a rival (who later became the team manager) made the comment – “he is the only driver who can stop me from winning.”
Considering that Nuvolari’s car was a 1.5-litre Alfa Romeo and the other driver’s a 3.0-litre, that was some compliment. But add to that, the other driver was a young man called Enzo Ferrari.
Another well respected person with motors and motor racing was Dr Ferdinand Porsche, who also became Nuvolari’s team manager (in Auto Union). Not a man prone to exaggeration in his comments, he thought so much of Nuvolari he declared:
“There has never been such a racing driver, nor will there ever be.”
Dr Ferdinand Porsche said of Nuvolari – 'There has never been such a racing driver, nor will there ever be'
The day after breaking both legs, Nuvolari had his mechanics tie him to the motorcycle and hold him upright until it was time race
We perhaps should attach greater credibility to that comment than we might initially think. Porsche was, after all, the person who designed the Auto Unions, who probably understood best how hard they were to drive, much less at their considerable limit. Remember too that Porsche and his cars were involved in grand prix racing in an era that came to be called ‘The Heroic Age’.
Nuvolari ofter made the front page of the Italian newspapers, which resulted in one of Italy’s most famous poets giving him a little golden turtle inscribed with the words – ‘to the fastest man in the world, the slowest animal’.
Nuvolari was quite taken by this emblem, regarding it as a good luck charm. He had it embroidered on the yellow jersey that was his race outfit and put on all his personal stationery. He later had the golden turtle painted on the side of his personal plane. Not many race drivers had their own planes in those days.
But Nuvolari was unlike other drivers and riders even in those heady days.
At the Italian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Monza (he had won the Italian championship) he crashed and broke both of his legs. Doctors told him it would be a month before he could race again, but the next day he had his mechanics tie him to the motorcycle and hold him upright until it was time to let the clutch out and go. Naturally they had to catch him again at the end of the race – which of course he won.
He drove just three grands prix in the monstrous Auto Unions, despite Dr Porsche having chased him to join the team for years. His first GP was the Italian, which he duly won in front of his home crowd. Then two weeks later he was again behind the wheel of the Auto Union, this time at Donington in England where he added a second victory.
War had broken out before the next race, a grand prix at Belgrade in what was Yugoslavia on the 3rd of September. Nuvolari won again, marking his last race in the Auto Union and the last success for the remarkable Auto Union racers.
The great Mantuan did race again post-war, in the 1948 Mille Miglia and in a number of minor races, but the glory days by now were over.
He raced until well into his 50s, but age and illness, mainly acute asthma thought to have been brought on by the exhaust and petrol fumes he’d inhaled for years, forced him to stop. He died nine months after a paralysing stroke, on the 11th of August 1953, a couple of months short of his 61st birthday.
Still revered as a hero, 50,000 people turned out for his funeral, including Enzo Ferrari. Arriving in Nuvolari’s home town of Mantua, Ferrari stopped at a plumber’s shop to ask directions. Seeing the Modena number plates on Mr Ferrari’s car but unaware of the driver’s identity, the plumber said:
“Thank you for coming. A man like that won’t be born again.”
Such was the popularity of the diminutive man who had set the pace for others to follow in his stellar racing career.
He drove just three grands prix in the monstrous Auto Unions, despite Dr Porsche having chased him to join the team for years
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