At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Tazio Nuvolari – racing driver

Man from Mantua seen as greatest of all time


Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari is seen by some as
Italy's greatest racing driver
Tazio Nuvolari, the driver many regard as the greatest in the history not only of Italian motor racing but perhaps of motorsport in general, was born on this day in 1892 in Castel d’Ario, a small town in Lombardy, about 15km (9 miles) east of the historic city of Mantua.

Known for his extraordinary daring as well as for his skill behind the wheel, Nuvolari was the dominant driver of the inter-war years, winning no fewer than 72 major races including 24 Grands Prix.  He was nicknamed Il Mantovano Volante - the Flying Mantuan.

From the start of his career in the 1920s, Nuvolari won more than 150 races all told and would have clocked up more had the Second World War not put motor racing in hibernation.  As it happens, Nuvolari’s last big victory came on September 3, 1939, the day the conflict began, in the Belgrade Grand Prix.

His popularity was such that when he died in 1953 from a stroke, aged only 60, his funeral in his adopted home city of Mantua attracted at least 25,000 people and possibly as many as 55,000 – more than the city’s recorded population.

His coffin was placed on a car chassis pushed by legendary drivers Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi and Juan Manuel Fangio, at the head of a mile-long procession.

Today, his name lives on as the name of a motor racing channel on Italian subscription television.

Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in  which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo car in
which he won the 1935 German Grand Prix
Nuvolari was not only a brilliant driver but one who willingly risked his life on the track in order to satisfy his lust for victory.

The performances that have gone down in Italian motor racing folklore include his incredible performance against his rival Achille Varzi in the Mille Miglia endurance event of 1930.

A significant distance behind Varzi as the race entered its night-time phase between Perugia and Bologna, Nuvolari took the strategic decision to switch off his headlights despite reaching speeds of more than 150kph (93mph).

Unable to see Nuvolari in his mirrors, Varzi was fooled into thinking he had the race sewn up and eased back on the throttle only for Nuvolari to appear alongside him with three kilometres remaining, at which point he switched his lights on, gave Varzi a cheery wave and accelerated ahead.

More than once, after serious accidents, he defied doctors’ orders to get behind the wheel again while still heavily bandaged, returning to action within days when he was supposed to rest for at least a month.

How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
How the start of a Grand Prix looked in 1935
His greatest performance, after which he was hailed as a national hero, came in the 1935 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, which had been set up by the Nazi propaganda machine as an opportunity to demonstrate the might of both the German drivers and their Mercedes and Auto Union cars.

Nuvolari had tried to join the Auto Union team only to be rebuffed and was obliged to tackle the race in an outdated and underpowered Alfa Romeo for Enzo Ferrari’s team, an arrangement brokered by none other than Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

It looked a hopeless cause.  Nuvolari had a poor start and lost more time through a refuelling delay, yet managed somehow to battle through the field to be second by the start of the final lap, on which he caught and passed the German Manfred von Brauchitsch to claim what some still believe to be the greatest motor racing triumph of all time.

The eight cars immediately in Nuvolari’s wake were all German.  As the Nazi hierarchy fumed, Mussolini seized the chance to score a propaganda success of his own.  As it happened, Nuvolari eventually got his wish to drive for Auto Union and his last three big wins – in the Italian and British Grands Prix of 1938 and the Belgrade event in 1939 – were under their flag.

A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the  French Grand Prix in 1932
A garlanded Nuvolari after winning the
French Grand Prix in 1932
Nuvolari’s daring was evident from a young age.  As a boy, he designed a parachute made from various pieces of material he had gathered up around the family home and decided to test it by jumping off the roof of the house.  He suffered serious injuries but survived to tell the tale.

In the First World War, despite his tender years, he persuaded the Italian army to take him on as an ambulance driver only to be deemed too dangerous behind the wheel to be entrusted with wounded personnel.

After the Second World War, Nuvolari did return to racing but his health began to decline in his 50s. He began to develop breathing problems attributed to years of breathing in dangerous fumes and suffered the first of his two strokes in 1952.

Dubbed "the greatest driver of the past, present and future" by Ferdinand Porsche, founder of the company which shares his name, in addition to his Grands Prix successes, Nuvolari also won five Coppa Cianos, two Mille Miglias, two Targa Florios, two RAC Tourist Trophies, a Le Mans 24-hour race, and the European Grand Prix Championship.

The son of a farmer, Arturo Nuvolari, Tazio had grown up with speed.  His father and brother, Giuseppe, both enjoyed success on two wheels. Indeed, Giuseppe was a multiple winner of the Italian national motorcycling championship.

Nuvolari was married to Carolina Perina, with whom he had two sons, Giorgio and Alberto, both of whom sadly died before they had reached the age of 20.

Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Mantua is surrounded by water on three sides
Travel tip:

Mantua has scarcely altered in size since the 12th century thanks to the decision taken to surround it on three sides by artificial lakes as a defence system. The lakes are fed by the Mincio river, which descends from Lake Garda, and it is largely as a result of the restrictions on expansion imposed by their presence that the city’s population has remained unchanged at around 48,000 for several centuries.  The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the 2017 European Capital of Gastronomy, famous for its pumpkin ravioli (Tortelli di zucca alla Mantovana), its pike in tangy parsley and caper sauce (Luccio in salsa) and its pasta with sardines (Bigoli con le sardelle alla Mantovana).

The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
The monument to Tazio Nuvolari in Castel d'Ario
Travel tip:

The life of Tazio Nuvolari is commemorated in several ways around Mantua and Castel d’Ario.  He is buried in the family tomb in the Cimitero Degli Angeli, on the road from Mantua to Cremona, and his home on Via Giulia Romano how houses a museum dedicated to his achievements.  In Castel d'Ario there is a bronze statue of Nuvolari reclining against the bonnet of a Bugatti racing car in an open space behind the town hall as well as a square named after him.





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