• Feature

'The greatest driver of the past, present and future'

Nate Saunders August 8, 2014
Celebrating with the Vanderbilt Cup in 1936 © Sutton Images
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When the Second World War broke out on September 3, 1939, an Italian by the name of Tazio Nuvolari claimed victory at the Belgrade Grand Prix in the last significant motor race for nearly seven years.

For a man many claim to be the greatest driver of the pre-war years it is fitting Nuvolari rounded off the era with what turned out to be the last major victory of a spectacular career. In a year which sees the start dates of both World Wars reach significant anniversaries it is not difficult for a curious racing fan to stumble upon Nuvolari's numerous feats and acts of bravery behind the wheel while reading about racing in those interwar days.

No racing driver stands out from this period quite like Nuvolari, born near Mantua in 1892 as the fourth son of an Italian farmer. Once described by a rival as "the boldest, most skilful madman of all", Nuvolari combined sheer talent with unflinching, terrifying bravery to claim 72 major victories in his career and win the 1932 European Championship, achievements which led to Ferdinand Porsche - founder of the company which shares his name - to call him "the greatest driver of the past, present and future." But it is the manner and audacity of some of his performances as much as his list of accomplishments that set him aside as one of the sport's true greats. His status was such that at his funeral in 1953 Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari, heroes of the post-war world championship era, carried his coffin.

It was a flagrant disregard for his personal well-being that Nuvolari would demonstrate time and time again throughout his racing career

That Nuvolari even made it to adulthood, let alone managed to carve out such a successful racing career, is miraculous. As a youngster he nearly died after jumping off the roof of his house wearing a home-made parachute, with obvious consequences. It was a flagrant disregard for his personal well-being that Nuvolari would demonstrate time and time again throughout his racing career. During the First World War this attitude saw him banned from his job of driving ambulances for the Italian army after being deemed too dangerous behind the wheel.

Nuvolari's racing career started on two wheels rather than four in 1920, winning the 350cc European Champtionship five years later. After that success in 1925 Alfa Romeo saw him as a potential replacement for the legendary Antonio Ascari - the father of Alberto who had been killed at the French Grand Prix - but Nuvolari crashed violently during a test and severely lacerated his back. Upon not being picked by Alfa Romeo he ignored doctor's orders to remain in hospital for a month and returned to motorbikes, winning the wet Nations Grand Prix at Monza just six days later with his body still covered in bandages and with a cushion strapped to his stomach.

He eventually returned to four wheels and started winning races with frequency and started a bitter rivalry with fellow Italian Achille Varzi. After taking a borrowed Bugatti to victory in Rome in 1927 he won the Tripoli Grand Prix a year later. His fame grew and grew but it was against Varzi at the 1930 Mille Miglia endurance race that he would truly enter the realms of motor racing legend. Trailing Varzi, Nuvolari caught and fearlessly stalked his rival from Perugia to Bologna in the cover of night at speeds of over 150 km/h (93 mph) with his headlights switched off to avoid being seen in the mirrors of the leader. Three kilometres from the finish line, as the oblivious Varsi's thoughts turned to victory, Nuvolari suddenly switched on his lights and powered past his bewildered rival to win.

Tazio Nuvolari is hauled from a wreckage in 1938 © Getty Images

It is just one example of the incredible performances and stories scattered throughout Nuvolari's career. In 1927 he flung himself out of a car travelling at 160 km/h (99mph) after it suddenly set fire during the French Grand Prix, breaking several bones in the process. Two years later he raced at the Coppa Ciano in his body in a plaster corset following a motorbike crash. After breaking his leg in a 1933 crash in Italy, Nuvolari grew bored in hospital and entered the AVUS-Rennen in Germany four weeks later, where he finished fifth despite having a leg in plaster. Then in 1936, after being violently thrown from his cockpit in a crash during practice for the Tripoli Grand Prix, Nuvolari once again donned a plaster corset after escaping from the hospital to take part in the race. He finished eighth despite his injuries. The list of courageous and all-too-often dangerous acts of the man called ll Mantovano Volante (The Flying Mantuan) goes on and on.

Nuvolari's legend sometimes makes it difficult to separate myth from reality. One story from a race in 1930 says Nuvolari mounted a pavement to pluck a joint of ham from a butcher's window after it had been smashed by the car of another driver. Three years later it was claimed Nuvolari had colluded with Varsi and Baconin Borzacchini to help his long-time rival win in Tripoli in order to split the winnings of a bet, albeit by legendary Mercedes manager Alfred Neubauer long after all three men had passed away. Such stories, true or not, only serve to add to the legend.

But there is nothing uncertain about Nuvolari's greatest performance, which he achieved against the might of Nazi Germany. Varzi had vetoed his attempts to join Auto Union in 1935, so Nuvolari settled for Ferrari after Benito Mussolini personally intervened to heal a rift with team founder Enzo. It meant he arrived in Nurburgring for that year's German Grand Prix in an underpowered Alfa Romeo, at the time the supplier for Ferrari. Facing the Teutonic might of five Mercedes and four Auto Union cars and under the watchful eye of the Nazi government figures in attendance, Nuvolari suffered a horrendous start and then lost a further two minutes due to a refuelling delay. But he battled his way back to second by the start of the final lap, where he relentlessly set about cutting Manfred von Brauchitsch's 30-second lead as the German struggled with his tyres to claim what some still believe to be the greatest motor racing triumph of all time. Each of the next eight cars were German. Nuvolari's "Impossible Victory" embarrassed and angered the German high command but turned him into a propaganda hero for Mussolini's own fascist regime.

On his way to victory for Auto Union at Donington in 1938 © Getty Images

As his frustrations with Alfa Romeo grew he finally got his wish of competing for a dominant German team in 1938 as he was signed by Auto Union, winning at Donington and at the Italian Grand Prix. It appeared to be a combination which could land him a second European Championship but war intervened one year later, forcing Nuvolari to stop racing at the age of 53. Nuvolari returned after the war , collecting a handful of minor victories, albeit at the price of coughing up blood as a result of years of inhaling exhaust fumes. His health soon deteriorated further, with a stroke in 1952 leaving him partially paralysed. The following year the man who danced with death every time he got behind the wheel passed away peacefully in his bed.

The world championship which started after the war in 1950 has given us legends such as Fangio, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, but for his incredible feats and accomplishments Nuvolari deserves his name to be mentioned alongside such greats. At the time of his death in 1953, the man dubbed the greatest driver of the past, present and future certainly had a strong claim to at least one of those titles and continues to today. As written by John Cooper in The Autocar's obituary that year: "There will never be another Nuvolari and I shall always think of him as incomparable, the greatest of them all."