Seeing Scuderia Ferrari winning again is great for Italian car fans, if it has whet your appetite for more, Matteo Licata takes us back in time to ‘The Greatest Victory Of All Time’…
Winners never, ever give up.
Germany, 28th of July 1935.
The German Grand Prix was the fourth of the seven races valid for the European Driver’s Championship, held on the 22.8 Kms long Nurburgring circuit.
Germany’s Third Reich considered automobile racing a useful propaganda tool and, keen to demonstrate Germany’s superiority in automobile engineering, generously funded the racing programs of Mercedes and Auto Union.
That day, Hitler himself would be present, together with around 300.000 spectators, all expecting a German win.
After all, it was the only possible outcome, given the crushing technical superiority of the German cars… Or was it?
The Mercedes-Benz W25B was the car to beat, the original “Silver Arrow”: Its four liters supercharged straight-eight engine produced 375 horsepower, and its advanced chassis design featured independent suspension on all four wheels.
On top of that, its drivers were among the best of the era: Caracciola, Fagioli, Lang, and Manfred Von Brauchtisch.
Auto Union was kind of an upstart, lacking Mercedes’s illustrious racing heritage, but its “Type B” was a technological marvel. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, it had a pioneering mid-engine configuration, independent suspension all around and 400 horsepower from its supercharged, sixteen cylinders engine.
Its drivers that year were Stuck, Rosemeyer and the Italian Achille Varzi.
That day at the Nurburgring, there was another Italian: one in a bad mood. Enzo Ferrari had founded his Scuderia back in 1929 and campaigned Alfa Romeo racing cars with success… But he knew there was no chance to win this time.
The Alfa Romeo “P3” may have been a glorious winner, but that was yesterday’s news: its supercharged straight-eight was a hundred horsepower down on the German rivals, and its chassis design still relied on a live axle with cart springs at the rear.
Seemed nobody told Tazio Nuvolari, though: the Italian ace had already 20 years of racing under his belt, and his fearless driving style and unflinching resolve had made him a legend in his own lifetime. He’s the only one in the Scuderia that feels confident for the race.
Lucky he certainly was: grid positions were assigned by a ballot, and Nuvolari received a place in the front row.
Despite being late July, the weather was wet and drizzling. The Auto Unions stalled on the start, allowing Caracciola to storm ahead of everyone from the third row: His Mercedes, as expected, by lap 2 was leading the pack with a 12-second advantage over Rosemayer’s Auto Union, which occupied the second position. Nuvolari, in his red Alfa Romeo, was fourth.
Rosemeyer overdid a corner and had to go the pits to fix his damaged car, and Nuvolari passed him on lap 6.
Then passed von Brauchitsch AND Fagioli on lap 8.
Then, in front of a crowd who could not believe what was happening, Tazio Nuvolari, driving his old Alfa as if it would be the last thing he would do in his life, passed Caracciola and was leading the race by lap 10.
The eleventh lap, halfway through the 22-lap race, saw most of the drivers making a pitstop to refuel, and the Mercedes pit crew was fastest, with von Brauchitsch storming away after only 47 seconds.
Nuvolari’s Alfa didn’t move.
Ferrari’s mechanics had clumsily damaged the pump, so they had to resort to canisters to pour fuel into the car: Nuvolari was desperate, he screamed his anger to the crew, urging them to finish NOW!
After a whopping 2 minutes and fifteen seconds, Nuvolari, now back in sixth place, tore off and went chasing the Silver Arrows once again.
By lap 13 Nuvolari, pushing his Alfa like an absolute lunatic had managed to claw back to the second position, but over one minute behind the leading von Brauchitsch.
The bad condition of the track certainly helped Nuvolari, as tire technology hadn’t advanced as fast as Mercedes and Auto Union did, so the skilled Nuvolari, in his much less powerful car, had less traction problems than the Silver Arrows.
By lap 21, with only one to go, Nuvolari was 35 seconds off von Brauchitsch, who was now feeling the pressure and taxing his brakes and tires heavily.
At Flugplatz, five km from the finish line, on the last lap, Nuvolari was down at 30 seconds… The aristocratic German had the race in his pocket, a Mercedes with a German driver was to win the German GP, as the Nazi party officials present, Fuhrer included, expected.
His Mercedes ran fine; he must have glanced at his tires… Fine were the two front ones, but at the back was another story: the left rear tire had taken such a pounding that the cord was starting to show up.
Pitting was not an option, he had to hang on and hope to make it to the finish line, his eyes peeled to the rearview mirror looking for the red Alfa to appear.
Some say there was an eerie silence when the winner crossed the finish line…
The driver wasn’t German.
The car was an old red Alfa Romeo “P3”.
A record with the Italian National anthem was provided to the dumbfounded organizers by Tazio Nuvolari himself.
Despite a life spent cheating death in hundreds of races, Tazio Nuvolari would die in his bed in 1953.
The 1935 German Gran Prix would remain his finest racing exploit: the one he won against two full teams of faster cars, fought his way back into the race after that disastrous pit stop by constantly driving on the ragged edge, without making one single mistake.
If there’s one thing that Tazio Nuvolari taught us that day, is that winners never, ever give up.