The Great National Lottery scandal!

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Achille Varzi.
Achille Varzi.

Gentle reader, please do not immediately jump to the conclusion that there has been another attempt to alter the course of chance (or justice) in the Thai national lottery. Quite the contrary, the following tale is true and represents inspired thinking, incredible collusion and damned hard work to bring it all off. And it didn’t happen here.

At the outset, be aware that corruption has been all around us, and I’m not talking Thailand. I am talking motor sport. Le sport pure. And Grand Prix racing in particular. May I present the 1933 Grand Prix of Tripoli!

The Tripoli GP was a star spangled affair, proposed by Marshall Italo Balbo, the military governor and viceroy of Libya. For 1933 they decided to throw in a nationwide lottery which would be held in conjunction with the GP. The concept was simple. Twelve lucky punters would draw one of the names of the twelve drivers, and the winning driver and his ticket holder would share the prize money. Prize money – ah, how does the equivalent today of 860 million baht sound? It sounded then just like the large fortune that it is today and enough to get some of the greatest racing brains more than slightly revved up.

So the plot was hatched. Four of Italy’s best drivers, Nuvolari, Varzi, Campari and Borzacchini got together with the holder of the “Varzi” ticket and they agreed to pool their winnings and share the proceeds, after Varzi had won the event with their help.

Of course, there were eight drivers not “in the know” and any one of these could ruin the master plan. In the first few laps, that was just how it looked as Sir Henry (Tim) Birkin, stiff upper lip and all, roared into the lead in his Maserati.

Fortunately, the Englishman developed tyre trouble and after a botched pit stop rejoined well down. Unfortunately, Varzi also had tyre trouble and his pit stop took even longer. During the lengthy stop his engine temperature rose and when Varzi rejoined, the Bugatti was definitely off song.

Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the race there were the three Italian co-conspirators. On cue, Campari and Borzacchini developed tyre and mechanical problems and they dropped out, leaving Nuvolari in the lead.

Once again Birkin became a bother as he stormed through the field to get within 10 seconds of Nuvolari, by the half way mark, who was driving looking over his shoulder for the non-appearing Varzi!

Again luck was on their side as Birkin’s tyres said enough and the English threat was over. However, there was now another problem. No matter how slowly Nuvolari was driving, Varzi’s Bugatti could not catch it. With great creative thinking, Nuvolari began to make several unannounced pit stops, changing anything that was changeable on the Alfa Romeo. This became so frequent that one mechanic was heard to mutter, “We’ve rebuilt everything. If he comes in again it must be for a pee.”

Now while this managed to get Varzi back into the lead, the locals began to get restive. They could smell a rather large rodent. Race fixing was almost a national event in the camel racing stakes, after all they had been perfecting it for over 2000 years. There were more than mutterings from 90,000 enraged locals and 11 unhappy ticket holders.

Nuvolari then attempted a new ploy. He would break his Alfa Romeo. Unfortunately, that Alfa Romeo was made of stout stuff and refused to break, no matter what the little Mantuan tried to do to it and it looked as if Nuvolari was going to be forced to win.

Again fate smiled on the “Varzi” ticket holder, when his driver scorched into the pits, ripped off the air filter and the Bugatti sprang to life again. Simultaneously Nuvolari experienced genuine tyre problems and was forced to pit. When he rejoined, Varzi was in the lead and the two Italians put on a brilliant display of scripted choreographed racing, with Varzi getting to the chequered flag first. He declined his “lap of honor” and Nuvolari disappeared. But the race was not to end there.

There were numerous protests, probably ninety thousand and eleven, but history has not recorded that fact. After deliberations, the Club Royale degli Automobile di Libia cleared all four drivers of any wrong doing. Cynics noted that within a few weeks three of the five board members were driving new Lancias, the fourth a new Alfa while the fifth suddenly found the money to visit an aged uncle in Chicago.

Riley RM.
Riley RM.

The only real loser (other than the 11 remaining ticket holders) was in fact Marshall Balbo who died a war hero after being shot down by his own anti-aircraft gunners! Perhaps a fitting end?

So if you read in the future that Red Bull has protested about the size of Hamilton’s rear vision mirrors or something equally as fatuous, you can see just how petty we have become since 1933. Races were run and won with panache. And a fair bit of trickery to boot.

The tale of the Tripoli GP was written by the late Leo McAuliffe, a true enthusiast, who incidentally taught me to drive by making me go from rest to 3rd gear and back to rest without spilling any water from a paper cup sitting on the bonnet of his RME Riley. A classic British motor car, with many kept in enthusiasts garages these days. The bodywork was ash-framed and the engine was either a 1.5 or 2.5 liters. I wish I had one today.