Classic Car Stories: The Day Nuvolari Humiliated the Third Reich

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By Ben Selby

Everyone has their own view as to who is the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time. For many, Ayrton Senna is king, for others, its Michael Schumacher. Then you have Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and even Lewis Hamilton, each of which have their equal share of fans who will fight tooth and nail to convince someone why their hero is the greatest ever.

However, one driver sometimes gets overlooked these days, and that is Tazio Nuvolari. Before the formation of the category which came to be known as Formula One, and long before things like safety were even considered, Nuvolari was the pro everyone wanted to beat.

Born in Mantua in the north of Italy, the pre war years of Grand Prix racing was his tapestry and this racing artist frequently painted his mark on the circuits of Europe, leaving rivals and spectators in awe of his natural skill and brave daring. Rival Rene Dreyfuss famously said that Nuvolari “would do things with a car which we all thought at the time was impossible.”

If there is one race which showcased Nuvolari’s skill more than any other, it would be the 1935 German Grand Prix. Held at the notorious 22km Nurburgring Nordschliefe which sported 187 corners and snaked its way through Germany’s Eifel hills. Its no wonder Sir Jackie Stewart would later aptly describe the track as “the green hell.”

Two years prior, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Hitler wanted to show the world this new Germany was the best at absolutely everything. The Fuhrer was also a car enthusiast and gave German car makers Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union considerable government subsidies to ensure they would lay waste to the competition in Grand Prix racing.

Thanks to this injection of cash and some of the greatest engineering minds in Germany at the time, both teams created some truly awe-inspiring racing cars. As a result, Nuvolari’s once all-conquering Alfa Romeo P3 became obsolete overnight. The P3, or Tipo B was once the car to beat in Grand Prix racing but with the arrival of the Silver Arrows from Germany, on paper the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas had no chance.

The German cars had a massive power advantage over the Alfas too. The Auto Union B Types and Mercedes W25Bs were producing almost 400hp, whereas the P3 Alfas of Nuvolrai and his team mate Louis Chiron produced 265hp.

They also had some of greatest drivers of the per war era on their teams. These included Bernd Rosemeyer, Rudolf Caracciola, Hans Stuck and Manfred Von Brauchitsch, nephew of a high-ranking General in the German High Command. The crowd that day consisted of German racing fans but it also contained many high-ranking Nazis who coveted a German driver and team emerging victorious.

Rather than have each driver set a qualifying time to determine their place on the starting grid, each place was decided by a ballot. Nuvolari found himself on the front row between the Auto Union of Hans Stuck and the Alfa P3 of Renato Balestrero. After all the pomp and ceremony had finished, the flag dropped and the 1935 German Grand Prix was underway.

From the get go, it was nothing but bad news for the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas. Balestrero crashed out on the first lap and Nuvolari suffered a shocking start. From starting second on the grid, he found himself down in fifth place as the silver arrows of von Brauchitsch, Stuck, Lang and Rosemeyer charged ahead.

Their power advantage was profound and there was little the 5ft 2 inch Manutan could do. Things went from bad to worse as his team mate Louis Chiron had an accident on lap five which put him out of the race. The Germans began to assume the Italians had no chance of winning.

However, Nuvolari, full with grit and determination put his foot down and amazingly, began to reel them in. Bit by bit, he started to catch up, pushing his P3 to the very limit of what it could do. Then the rain started. The Germans were struggling for grip and many drivers were slipping and sliding all over the place. This led to many having to pit to change tyres, as a result, Nuvolari had moved up into second.

Then disaster struck. Nuvolari came in to pit for fuel but the fuel pump in his bay had broken. With no way to dispensing the fuel via the pump, his mechanics had to manually fill the Alfa’s tank using cans, tins and whatever they could find at the time. This meant Nuvolari was stranded in the pits for six minutes while he waited for his car to be filled. As the German cars raced by, he knew he had the work to do all over again.

Once the P3 had been filled to the brim, Nuvolari mashed the throttle into the firewall and tore off after the silver arrows. Now this is where it gets really good. Nuvolari went on the attack, reeling in car after car till he had regained his second place. However, he was still 35 seconds behind the leading Mercedes of von Brauchitsch. As the race entered its penultimate phase, von Brauchitsch was pushing hard, determined to get the victory his superiors expected.

Then it happened. The tyres on the Mercedes were all worn out and began to let go. Couple that with the slippery track conditions and all that power, von Brauchitsch was all over the road. This allowed Nuvolari to get closer and closer until the little Italian was right behind the Mercedes. He then saw a gap and went for it, sneaking by von Brauchitsch as the German’s tyres simply disintegrated.  

Nuvolari crossed the finsh line two seconds ahead of Hans Stuck’s Auto Union. The crowd of 300,000 spectators erupted in cheer. He had done it, despite all the odds, the all-conquering racing cars of the Third Reich had finally been defeated on their home ground.

At the finish, the Nazis were thunderstruck. In fact, so arrogant were they in expecting a German victory, the did not even possess a copy of the Italian national anthem. Nuvolari however was happy to lend a hand and when receiving his victory laurels, he broke into an operatic rendition of his national song.

This victory cemented Nuvolari’s status as the greatest driver of his time and for those who know, one of the all-time greats of motorsport. Nuvolari would eventually leave Alfa Romeo and join Auto Union in 1938. He emerged after the chaos of World War II still keen to race but a shadow of his former years. His last victory was winning the 1947 Mille Miglia before retiring in 1950. He suffered a stroke in 1952 before passing away after a second in 1953.

Tazio Nuvolari’s win at the Nurburgring in 1935 is regarded by many as “the impossible victory.” He shouldn’t have won, but he did, and with such style. He really was one of a kind.

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