Tazio Nuvolari The original GOAT?
Click onto any MotoGP forum and from time to time you’ll see the debate about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
Rossi gets frequent nominations; Marquez is positioned as the upcoming title holder and from there the claims start to range back in time seeming to fizzle out round about the era of Mike “The Bike” Hailwood. The name Tazio Nuvolari would likely not be on the radar of most motorcycle fans and even amongst the car-racing aficionados the Flying Mantuan or Nivola as he was nicknamed, would probably strike a chord only amongst those of sufficient vintage. Yet Nuvolari was a giant of his time, a legendary racer who drove like a man possessed to repeatedly snatch impossible victories against all odds. In the annals of Grand Prix racing, his most famous win was in the 1935 German Grand Prix at the fabled Nürburgring. The Nazis were in power and the circuit was awash with swastikas, banners and uniforms. The diminutive Nuvolari in his vastly underpowered Alfa Romeo P3 faced an intimidating line-up of vastly more powerful cars. Five Mercedes Benz W25s and four Auto Union Type Bs were piloted by the best drivers the Germans could muster, and it seemed a forgone conclusion that the podium would be owned by the Third Reich. However, competitors and spectators alike were to be treated to a masterclass in race-craft, tactics, aggression and unbreakable resolve.
Lapping faster and faster, gaining on the corners and downhill runs, and piling on relentless pressure to force the leader to destroy his tyres, Nuvolari hunted down and humiliated his opponents to take the chequered flag. The crowd of 300,000 offered “polite applause” but the representatives of the Reich were enraged. The Germans had been so convinced of victory that they didn’t have a recording of the Italian national anthem. Nuvolari – displaying the sort of superstition common to racers – always carried a recording of the anthem with him and promptly sent his mechanic back to the pits to collect it. Pity Adolph Huhnlein, a leading motorsport official and the luckless individual who drew the short straw to phone Hitler to tell him neither German car nor driver had won. In his car racing career Tazio went on to amass a tally of 150 victories in total, of which 72 were major races including 24 Grands Prix, two Mille Miglias and two Targa Florios. But for all his justifiable fame as a racing car driver, Nuvolari’s prowess on a bike is shrouded in the mists of time and receives only passing mention in most biographies. Born in 1892 at Castel D’Ario near Mantua (Mantova) in Italy’s north, the shape of Tazio’s future may well have been pre-ordained, as his father Arturo and his uncle Giuseppe were bicycle racers of some note. Giuseppe had claimed multiple titles in the Italian national championship. The young Tazio greatly admired him and it seems the uncle would provide some defining moments in the boy’s early life. On Tazio’s thirteenth birthday Giuseppe gave him his first motorbike, which he mastered in a matter of days. That same year, Giuseppe took Tazio to see his first motor race in Brescia, some 60 kilometres to the north of Mantua.
Nuvolari first took out a motorcycle competition licence in 1913 but the war intervened, and racing did not resume until 1920. It appears he competed throughout those first years, but only became a serious – albeit struggling – campaigner in 1923. In June that year he turned the corner with a win against strong opposition in a bike race at Busto Arizio, a town 35 kilometres from Milan. That victory earned him a slot as a works rider on the Indian team. It appears though, that his stint with Indian may not have been stellar, as his contract was not renewed for 1924 and Nuvolari’s attention turned to cars with a notable race against Enzo Ferrari at Ravenna. That aside, bikes were his “thing” and he had established a reputation as a fiery rider who revelled in a challenge. He continued to race bikes frequently throughout 1924 and 1925 reputedly on such marques as Norton, Sarolea, Garelli and Fongri before being signed to ride for the much-acclaimed Bianchi company. Bianchi was regarded as a superb machine and aboard the 350cc – the Freccia Celeste (Light Blue Arrow) – Nuvolari was almost unbeatable. Tazio clinched the 1925 350cc European Motorcycle Championship by winning the European Grand Prix. He won the Nations Grand Prix four times between 1925 and 1928 and the Lario Circuit race five times between 1925 and 1929 – all on a Bianchi.
Typical of the man’s unconquerable fighting spirit was an incident in 1925. Nuvolari was testing for Alfa Romeo with the intention of driving in the Italian Grand Prix, however he crashed when the gearbox seized and was severely injured. This ruled him out of the Alfa Romeo drive, but he was determined to ride in the Nations Grand Prix at Monza just seven days later. The doctors bandaged him in such a way that he could be placed on his Bianchi in a riding posture – and with a cushion strapped to his stomach – he had to be lifted onto his motorcycle by his mechanics for a push start and held upright at the finish. In pouring rain and again defying all odds, Nuvolari won. He continued to rise to fame as a driver on the Grand Prix circuits across Europe and the world. With health failing, his last races were in 1950 and he passed away in 1953 following a second stroke. At least half the population of Mantua – between 25,000 and 55,000 people – turned out for his mile-long funeral procession. He lies in the family tomb in Cimitero Degli Angeli (Cemetery of Angels) on the road between Mantua and Cremona. The inscription over the door reads: ‘Correrai Ancor Piu Veloce Per Le Vie Del Cielo’ (You will race even faster along the roads of heaven). Those who saw him drive swear it was almost as if he had made a pact with the Devil…animated, gesturing, pounding the car, urging it on to victory or destruction.
It’s only that his driving and victories were of such mythical dimensions that they have tended to eclipse the story of his racing achievements on two wheels. Tazio Giorgio Nuvolari was the consummate racer and perhaps richly deserving of the title GOAT of his era…maybe of all eras.
ABOVE LEFT Nuvolari on his beloved Biachi. ABOVE RIGHT Tazio (seated) with two Bianchi team mates. BOTTOM LEFT Tazio Nuvolari, Bianchi and Pirelli – the combination to beat.