The greatest driver of all time?


Who was/is the greatest driver of all time? Lots of candidates, with Juan Fangio one of my favorites, in addition to Rudolf Caracciola and Tazio Nuvolari.

Comparing drivers across many decades is difficult, to almost impossible, but if we were to look at bravery instead of wins, then one driver stands out – Tazio Nuvolari, the Flying Mantuan.

Perhaps his bravery was almost suicidal, such as hoisting a plane on the roof of his father’s house and trying to fly from there. Fail!

But by the 1920’s he was well known for his exploits on motorcycles, such as breaking his legs and getting the casts applied while sitting on his racing motorcycle, having the crew hold his bike upright for the start, and again when he finished. First of course!

His racing car career began when he borrowed a Bugatti and won the Rome Grand Prix.

Tazio Nuvolari.

Joining the Alfa Romeo team in 1930, he won the European Championship title with two wins and three seconds in 1932, as well as victories in four non-championship grand prix. Nuvolari and co-driver Battista Guidotti won the Mille Miglia in a Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS, becoming the first to complete the race at an average of over 100 km/h. At night while lying behind his team-mate Achille Varzi, he tailed Varzi at speeds of up to 150 km/h with his headlights switched off, so that he could not be seen in the other car’s rear-view mirrors. He eventually switched them on to overtake “the shocked” Varzi near the finish at Brescia.

When Alfa Romeo withdrew from racing in 1933 he remained with Scuderia Ferrari who ran the Alfa Romeo cars on a semi-official basis. Later in the season he switched to Maserati, but it too pulled out at the end of 1934 and although Ferrari initially refused to take him back, the intervention of Mussolini led to a change of heart.

In 1935 he enjoyed his greatest season against the might of the state-sponsored German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams, winning the grand prix of Pau and Nive. Perhaps his most stunning performance came in the German GP when he beat the fancied home teams despite his car being totally outclassed and a botched pit stop. The 300,000 crowd rose to acclaim him but the Nazi elite looking on were furious. The German organizers claimed they had lost their recording of the Italian anthem, to which Nuvolari presented them with a recording he had brought to the meeting! In 1936 he enjoyed similar success.

In 1938 he ran an Auto Union car at the Swiss Grand Prix, ostensibly as a one-off but the move became permanent in 1938 and he remained until the cessation of racing at the outbreak of World War Two, winning the last race in Belgrade on the day war broke out.

Although he resumed after the war, he was in his mid-fifties and his health failing. Nevertheless, there were still triumphs. He won the Grand Prix de l’Albigeois in a Maserati in 1946 and drove brilliantly to finish second in the Mille Miglia the following year.

His final race was in 1950 – by then he admitted he was no longer able to withstand the effects of exhaust fumes, and even before he quit he often coughed up blood while driving. There are photos of him driving with one hand, and holding a blood stained handkerchief to his mouth with the other hand.

He suffered a stroke in 1952 and died from a second one a year later.

Thousands of Mantuans attended his funeral in a mile-long procession, with the coffin placed on a car chassis that was pushed by Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, and Juan Manuel Fangio.

Dr Ferdinand Porsche called Nuvolari “the greatest driver of the past, the present, and the future”. Enzo Ferrari once drove with him and recalled even on bends “he never took his foot from the accelerator”.

Tazio Nuvolari still generates a passionate following such as this testimonial “I don’t care what anybody says ever, before, now, or for ever after. Tazio was and is and for ever will be the greatest driver of all to ever sit behind the wheel. Anyone, and I mean anyone who disagrees is an uninformed idiot with no clue of racing history. Racing, even at the highest levels, to-day is a pathetic joke compared to the 202s to the early 702s. The cars don’t really go all that much faster than they were capable of on straightaways in the mid 302s. Tazio rules!”

I don’t think we have to be quite so one-eyed, but undoubtedly the life of Nuvolari is one of legend.

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