When Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari help to carry your coffin, you know you’re special. Just one man has the privilege of earning this honour and I’m sure someone reading this has no idea that he ever existed. He is motorsport’s greatest secret. The name: Tazio Nuvolari, and over his 30-year racing career he would go on to win the biggest races and championships on both two and four wheels before Fangio could see over the steering wheel.
Born on 16th November 1892 in Castel D’Ario in Italy, the man they called “Il Mantovano Volante” (The Flying Mantuan) came from a high-achieving family of bicycle racers, his brother Guiseppe won multiple national championship’s in their native Italy with his dad Arturo also finding success on non-motorised two-wheels.
But bicycles just weren’t fast enough for Nuvolari, he received his motorcycle racing license at the age of 23 in 1915 but wouldn’t hit the track for the first time until 1920 after being deployed as an ambulance driver during World War One. His first official competitive race came at the Circuito Internazionale Motoristico in Cremona but the Italian failed to finish on debut. A racing career that began at 27 years of age would be unheard of nowadays, so it’s something of a miracle that he competed as long as he did.
His two-wheeled forays continued as five years after his first race, Nuvolari became the 350cc European Champion after winning the 1925 European Grand Prix. With the European race being considered the biggest at the time, the winning rider in each category would be crowned as European Champion. His talents on a 350cc motorbike seemingly knew no bounds as he won the Nations Grand Prix (now the Italian Motorcycle Grand Prix) four times back-to-back between 1925 and 1928 as well as the Lario Circuit race five times from ‘25-’29.
During the late 20s as Nuvolari won almost everything under the sun on two-wheels, he was also handed a four-wheel test for Alfa Romeo’s Grand Prix team after their driver, Antonio Ascari, was killed in the French Grand Prix of 1925. Unfortunately for the Italian, he crashed during the test after the gearbox seized. Unsurprisingly, there were injuries for Nuvolari as he lacerated his back substantially but it would take more than that to keep him off a motorcycle. Just SIX days later, whilst still wrapped in bandages and with a cushion strapped to his chest for comfort, he was helped onto his Bianchi 350cc motorbike for a push start. And in the pouring rain, he went on to win his first Nations Grand Prix.
Imagine that now! Most people would agree that motorcycle racers are a little bit nuts now when it comes to battling through pain to ride their bikes but they were a different breed in Nuvolari’s day. The phrase ‘they don’t make them like they used to,’ seems appropriate here.
1930 saw The Flying Mantuan compete jointly on two and four wheels but it didn’t take long for him to reach the top step of the four-wheeled podium, winning the RAC Tourist Trophy despite an alleged, and incredibly humorous if true, off-track excursion. According to motorsport legend, when another driver had broken a butcher’s shop window, Nuvolari drove onto the pavement, MID RACE, and tried to grab himself a ham for the ride. A ham! It’s ridiculous to even think about isn’t it? But yet, a ham would be extremely on brand for motorsport’s current star name…
Along with his RAC Tourist Trophy win, Nuvolari also took top honours in the Mille Miglia open-road endurance race with co-driver Battista Guidotti as they became the very first people to complete the race at an average above 100km/h.
A year later in 1931, he would decide to stop racing on two-wheels to focus on his car racing. The season’s Grand Prix racing more resembles that of today’s FIA World Endurance Championship as races had to be a minimum of ten hours long to qualify as a Grand Prix. AND you could switch cars part way through a race. This is exactly what Nuvolari did in the Italian Grand Prix as his car, shared with Baconin Borzacchini, retired with just 33 laps completed. He then jumped in and partnered Guiseppe Campari to victory, but wouldn’t secure any championship points having raced a car he wasn’t entered in.
He won the 1932 European Drivers’ Championship though with two wins and a second place in the three rounds, beating Borzacchini by four points as well as winning the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, which didn’t become an official championship round until 1936.
Having raced to great success in his first three years of car racing with Alfa Romeo, Nuvolari would move to Enzo Ferrari’s privateer team in collaboration with Maserati in 1933 where he won his second RAC Tourist Trophy but suffered heartbreak on the Monte-Carlo streets. He battled race long with fellow Italian Achille Varzi before his car caught fire on the final lap, handing his rival victory.
It wasn’t long before he was back on top though. The 1933 24 Hours of Le Mans saw Nuvolari team up with Raymond Sommer as they quickly built up a two-lap lead before a leaking fuel tank caused them to stop and fix the issue. And what did they use to fix it? Chewing gum. Obviously. The makeshift plug had to be repaired a number of times throughout the race but despite this, they were able to win the race with Nuvolari breaking the lap record nine times during the 24 hours.
Two years later, and back in his beloved Alfa Romeo P3, Nuvolari achieved perhaps his greatest victory of them all, beating the superior German cars of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union on German soil at the Nürburgring. The 300,000 strong crowd cheered, the Third Reich did not. He would go on to race for Auto Union in ’38 and ’39 as he won the final race before World War Two put sport on hold in the Belgrade Grand Prix of September 3rd, 1939.
Post-war, Nuvolari kept racing and kept winning. He would compete in his final event in the 1950 Palermo-Montepellegrino hill climb which saw him finish fifth overall and first in class.
He died on 11th August 1953 after a stroke and his popularity showed as somewhere between 25,00 and 55,000 people attended his funeral in his hometown.
Nuvolari then was not only an extraordinary driver, but a hero to many across Europe and the inscription above the family tomb in which he was buried suits him, and in fact any driver, to a tee. ‘Correrai Ancor Più Veloce Per Le Vie Del Cielo’ (You will race even faster along the roads of heaven.)