Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tazio (not the tea)

“Before the start, Nuvolari told me to go down on the floor of the car every time he shouts, which was a signal that he went to a curve too fast and that we need to decrease the cars’s center of mass. I spent the whole race on the floor. Nuvolari started to shout in the first curve and wouldn’t stop until the last one.”  
-Paride Mabelli, Tazio Nuvolari’s riding mechanic for the 1932 Targa Florio
Most lists of Top 10 All Time Grand Prix Drivers will include familiar names to most F1 fans. Pilots such as Schumacher, Senna,Clark, Prost and Stewart are almost always included, often times with others such as Villeneuve, Peterson, Mansell, Andretti and maybe even a Vettel thrown in for personal measure. Sometimes, however, the authors of such lists go back to the pre-war Grand Prix era and include some of the true all time great road racers. Tazio Nuvolari may well be the best of that lot and can arguably be included as possibly the best racer ever.
Born in Castel d’Ario nearMantuain November of 1892, a full century before some youngsters on the current F1 feeder series ladder, Nuvolari would come to be known as Il Mantovano Volante…the Flying Mantuan. The tiny Italian’s initial foray into racing would be in motorcycles, though his sporting exploits would have to wait. He gained his racing license at the age of 23 in 1915, but WW1 would curtail his speed for a few years. His first race, therefore, did not come until 1920 and, by 1925, he was the 350cc European Motorcycling Champion.
During the 1920s, Tazio was also dabbling in auto racing. One of the great motor racing stories comes from the 1930 Mille Miglia when Nuvolari began the timed event some ten minutes behind Alfa teammate Achille Varzi. A marathon of more than 16 hours which ended at night, Varzi believed that his race was lost when he saw the headlights of his teammate closing fast during the final stages of the event. Moments later, however, his spirits rose when he realized that the lights behind him were gone.

Varzi drove at speed for tens of kilometers, seemingly alone in the darkness until just 30 miles from the end when the blast of another car’s horn tore away any thoughts of victory. Nuvolari had indeed been there all along, traveling at 150kph with headlights switch off, relying solely on his teammate’s tail lights to stay on the road. With his own lights switched back on, Tazio swept by for the lead and eventual victory.
Nuvolari gave up bikes and switched to cars full time in 1931, driving for the factory Alfa Romeo team. 1932 saw Tazio take the European Championship with 2 wins and a 2nd place in the three races that made up the series. That same year he also won the Monaco GP and a 2nd successive Tara Florio.
For 1933, however, the factory Alfa squad dropped out of GP racing and Tazio took up with Enzo Ferrari’s privateer Alfa effort. This season did bring another amazing story into racing folklore, as Nuvolari was paired with Le Mansspecialist Raymond Sommer for that year’s 24 hour race. The pair took an early two lap lead, but had to pit with a leaking fuel tank. The hole was plugged with chewing gum (!) and the Alfa was sent back out. Though several more stops were made due to the makeshift repair coming undone, the two eventually won the race by a mere 400 yards.
Having left Alfa for Maserati, Tazio crashed at Alessandriain 1934 while trying to avoid another car, the incident resulting in a broken leg. Bored with hospital life, Nuvolari checked himself out and entered a race at Avus, just four weeks after the accident. With his right leg still in a cast, Tazio had his car set up so that he could control all three pedals with his left foot, coming home eventually in a miraculous 5th.
In 1935, Tazio was back with Ferrari’s Alfa stable, having once walked out on the team, thanks to prime minister Benito Mussolini, who wanted the Italian star in the best seat possible. Nuvolari originally wanted a drive with the German Auto Union team, but their lead driver, Achille Varzi, refused to have is former teammate driving one of the Silver Arrows.

“At the first bend, I had the clear sensation that Tazio had taken it badly and that we would end up in a ditch; I felt myself stiffen as I waited for the crunch. Instead, we found ourselves on the next straight in perfect position.” – Enzo Ferrari
More than 100hp down in an outdated Alfa Romeo P3, Tazio got his revenge at the Nurburgring that year when he took on the five season dominating Mercedes of Caracciola, Fagiolo, Lang and Baron von Brauchitsch and the four Auto Unions of Varzi, Rosemeyer, Stuck and Pietsch. In front of more than 300,000 fans, including prominent members of the Third Reich, Nuvolari beat the German teams at their home race for his sole victory of the European season.
Between 1927 and 1939, Tazio Nuvolari won no less than 45 Grand Prix and major road races at the wheels of makes such as Bugatti, Alfa, Maserati, and, at Donnington in 1938, Auto Union. During practice for that race, Tazio hit a stag, the head of which he had mounted and hung in his home.
Following WWII, Nuvolari raced in a handful of events, winning his very last race, a hillclimb in Palermo. He suffered a stroke in 1952 which left him partially paralyzed before succumbing to a 2nd stroke a year later. At his funeral in Mantua, which was attended by tens of thousands of Italian fans, the Flying Mantuan’s coffin was placed on a car chassis and pushed through the city streets by Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio.

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