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How the great Tazio came to ignore a black flag... and got away with it



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Tazio Nuvolari


Scuderia Milano Maserati 4CL




I GP des Nations (21 July 1946)


Jean-Pierre Wimille must have been pretty miffed with the Schumacher stunt Tazio Nuvolari pulled on him halfway through the final of the 1946 GP des Nations. About to be lapped - what a disgrace that must have been to the greatest racer of all - the pre-war Grand Prix star swerved his Maserati in front of the Frenchman's faster Alfetta and punted Jean-Pierre's car off the track. It put an end to Wimille's chances of winning the race while Nuvolari got blackflagged for his actions. Turning a blind eye, Tazio raced on and on until the organizers just gave up waving their flags. And no, he wasn't banned for the next three races…

In July 1946 Europe was on its way trying to rally from the devastation of the war. Post-war racing had started off in a small scale at Bois de Boulogne in 1945. Now in 1946 a great effort was made to produce a real Grand Prix season.

Most of the great race tracks from the pre-war era had either been destroyed or were in no condition to arrange races. Some of the tracks like Brooklands would never see any racing again, others like Monza would be back in the calendar only after huge reconstruction work. For natural reasons, the calendar was now filled with races on temporary street circuits in town centers. The enormous crowds that had not been able to see racing for seven years could thus easily reach the tracks without transport in this era of strict petrol rationing. The racing cars of course used alcohol-based fuels.

Not unexpectedly Switzerland had at that time perhaps the best ability in Europe to arrange races and it was in Geneva where the top Grand Prix drivers met in July 1946 to take part in perhaps the most prestigious race of the season, the Grand Prix des Nations for supercharged 1.5-litre cars, the former voiturettes from the pre-war era. The course was a 3km long street circuit with all the hazards that such circuits could offer such as tram lines, tight chicanes, high kerbs and lots of lamp posts. On one place the street was divided into two lanes with a barrier, the cars racing that section in both directions.

The Alfa Romeo team had sent four of their Tipo 158 cars, two pre-war cars and two new ones with two-stage supercharging. Before Geneva the team had made only one post-war appearance, at St. Cloud on 9 June, where their cars had been forced to retire with clutch trouble. The new cars were raced by team leader "Nino" Farina and by Achille Varzi, who had recovered from his pre-war misfortunes and now was ready for his comeback to Grand Prix racing. One of the older cars were raced by Wimille, who only now was starting off his real GP career. He had already won at Bois de Boulogne, Perpignan and Dijon with an Alfa 8C-308. After those successes he had now earned a guest drive for the works team. The fourth driver was Count Trossi, the street circuit specialist, who had now changed back his Regia Aeronautica helmet for a racing ditto, but who for most of his post-war career would be hounded by the illness that would ultimately cost him his life.

Maserati had built some new 4CL cars for the 1946 season. The works team was no longer taking part in racing, leaving Scuderia Milan to represent the company. Scuderia Milan entered three top drivers that all already had been victorious during the season: Villoresi, Sommer and Nuvolari.

Luigi Villoresi had won the season opener in Nice on 22 April, Sommer had taken his private car to victory at Marseilles and the GP du Forez and he had also won for Scuderia Milan at St. Cloud, while Tazio Nuvolari came to Geneva straight from a victory at Albi, one week before. However, at Albi it could be seen that everything wasn't well with Nuvolari. Exhaust fumes had entered the cockpit during the race and he had collapsed straight after receiving the winner's wreath. Nuvolari, who had seen both his sons die due to various illnesses, was now 53 years old and an ill man himself. His body had developed a respiratory disease and inhaling the exhaust fumes caused severe asthma. The doctors had forbidden him to race but as usual Nuvolari would ignore the doctors' orders. He would instead wear a face mask to filter the fumes.

There were several private Maseratis on the entry list, drivers included Reg Parnell, Marquis George Raphaël Béthenod de las Casas (better known as "Raph") and Harry Schell, son of Lucy O'Reilly Schell, racing a white car with a red line and a large American flag. Local drivers Emanuel de Graffenried and Max Christen were also present, the latter with a Alfa Romeo inspired re-bodied Maserati, and the almost unknown privateer Josef Vojlectovsky in an old 6CM.

The old ERAs showed up with old and new drivers. Prince Bira was back. So was Mays, probably with his head full with plans of the new BRM project. Ian Connell was back to racing after having spent the war with the famous "Desert Rats". French sportscar driver Louis Gerard entered an ERA as did Whitehead, Brooke and Bainbridge. Even the old ex-Seaman 1.5-litre Delage was on the grid, raced by David Hampshire. Abecassis' Alta completed the field.

The race was run in two 32 laps heats with the top six drivers from each heat going to a 44-lap final. The first heat started on a wet track, Wimille leading the field from pole position to be followed by Varzi and "Bira". "Bira" was soon passed by the Maseratis of Villoresi and Parnell. The Alfa Romeo cars were however in their own class, with Wimille driving away from his teammate Varzi. By lap 20 Wimille had lapped everyone in the field at least once except for Varzi and Villoresi and he could slow down his pace a bit. Varzi was falling back and Villoresi was able to close the gap to 3 seconds. The final result of the first heat was:

1 Wimille (Alfa Romeo)
2 Varzi (Alfa Romeo)
3 Villoresi (Maserati)
4 Parnell (Maserati)
5 "Bira" (ERA)
6 Sommer (Maserati)

The track had dried a bit before the second heat. The first row consisted of two Alfas and Hampshire's Delage. When the flag dropped it was Nuvolari who came from the second row to take the lead followed by Farina, Abecassis, de Graffenreid, Mays and Connell. Trossi on the first row had made a bad start and the fate of Hampshire was even worse as he had stalled on the line. But soon the Alfa Romeo cars started anew to show their superiority. They weren't only the fastest cars in the field but the stability and road holding was superior to the Maseratis. Trossi cut through the field, passing car after car, and Farina was following Nuvolari closely, gesticulating furiously to the "flying Mantuan" to give him room to pass. On the second lap Farina took over the lead and it took only eight more laps before Trossi also passed Nuvolari, making it into an Alfa Romeo 1-2. At the end of that lap Nuvolari, who was racing with the windscreen folded down to give the driver more fresh air to breathe, threw his goggles into the Scuderia Milan pit as he passed to show how he felt about the situation.

The top six finishers in the second heat were:

1 Farina (Alfa Romeo)
2 Trossi (Alfa Romeo)
3 Nuvolari (Maserati)
4 de Graffenried (Maserati)
5 Mays (ERA)
6 Abecassis (Alta)

In the final the starter had no control of the field as the three Alfa Romeo drivers on the first row decided to have a go. Wimille took the lead followed by Farina, Varzi, Sommer, Nuvolari, Trossi and Villoresi. Villoresi was all over Trossi and coming into a corner the Maserati driver tried to outbrake his opponent. However a brake grabbed and Villoresi found himself suddenly up on the pavement where he collided hard with a pile of logs, breaking his leg in the crash. In the confusion Parnelli spun and was unable to continue, the throttle rod had come off its spindle. That meant that two Maseratis out of five had retired even before the first lap was completed. The race continued as a duel between Farina and Wimille, the former taking over the lead on lap 3 only to be repassed by his French teammate. Trossi was also showing off his street racing abilities, passing both Sommer and Nuvolari to take third position in the race, as Varzi was in trouble and had to make several costly pit stops for plug changes, dropping back to the bottom of the field.

The duel between Wimille and Farina continued until the team had to give pit signals to the drivers to calm down with Wimille still leading. However the situation changed as the Alfas came up to lap Nuvolari. Before the chicane Wimille passed the Maserati and cut sharply in front only to be rammed hard from behind by Nuvolari in the chicane and pushed off the track.

That was perhaps not one of the nicest manoeuvres from one of the greatest drivers ever seen. If it had been Senna or Schumacher, a certain motorsport journalist would probably have called it "an act from a flawed genius". Obviously Nuvolari had not liked the way Wimille had made the passing manoeuvre. Was Nuvolari trying to put some respect into the new star or was it sheer frustration that had surfaced? We must also take into account that Nuvolari during that state of the race must already have been in a really bad physical condition from the exhausts. However one shall note that, regardless of what some modern journalists try to incline, hard pushes and close fights have always been part of Grand Prix racing, and throughout his career Nuvolari had showed that he never had any intentions whatsoever of becoming the underdog in any wheel-to-wheel duel, regardless of the opponent.

Luckily for Wimille the track continued downhill, so he was able to restart but he had lost positions both to Farina, who was the new leader, and to Trossi. Wimille and the Alfa Romeo team were furious and soon the black flag was shown to Nuvolari. Incredibly the "flying Mantuan" decided to totally ignore the flag and eventually the organizers just gave up and put away the black flag again!

The race continued without any more incidents, the only retirement except from the first lap Maserati duo was Abecassis, who parked his Alta with carburettor failure on lap 23. Farina took the chequered flag as the victor of the Grand Prix des Nations, half a lap in front of Trossi, to start off a long series of Alfa Romeo victories that would make the Tipo 158 a legend. Wimille, racing behind Farina, was able to follow the pace of the race leader with ease in his older, inferior Alfa Romeo but as he was a lap behind he finished a disappointing third. Results:

1 Farina (Alfa Romeo)
2 Trossi (Alfa Romeo)
3 Wimille (Alfa Romeo)
4 Nuvolari (Maserati)
5 de Graffenried (Maserati)
6 "Bira" (ERA)

Albi 1946 proved to be Nuvolari's last Grand Prix victory, but it was not for lack of trying. Two months after Geneva his condition had deteriorated so much that he was driving with one hand while holding a blood-stained handkerchief to his mouth with the other. It was therefore a sensation when Nuvolari declared that he would take part in the 1947 Mille Miglia with a little Cisitalia. Racing against much superior equipment, Nuvolari forced himself into the lead but had to be content with second place after technical problems. At the finish the driver had to be carried away from the car.

Rumours started to spread that Nuvolari was seeking his death on the track rather than having to die in his bed. His driving seemed to be more and more desperate. In 1948 he was back at Mille Miglia again. During the race the bonnet flew away and the seat broke. Nuvolari replaced the seat with a bag of oranges and raced on! Finally with the race almost finished he had to abandon the car after brake failure. Nuvolari's last race was at Monte Pellegrino on 15 April 1950. Nuvolari's condition deteriorated even further and he became paralyzed on his left side. After having being hospitalized he asked to be sent home to die there. He finally passed away on 11 August 1953 and was buried in his yellow jersey, blue trousers and helmet.

Reader's Why by 'Uechtel'

It is not easy to answer the question for the greatest driver ever. Several names turn up in one's mind, names of drivers, who were the outstanding figures among their contemporaries, like Felice Nazzaro, Rudolf Caracciola, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna. But certainly no such list can be regarded complete without the name of the driver who can be seen on this picture, the "Flying Mantuan" Tazio Nuvolari.

The first time he turned up in my record books was as early as 1921 when he raced an Ansaldo in the race at the Lake Garda. Despite being more famous as a motorcycle racer during the early twenties (like so many of his driver colleagues) from then on his star rose and rose until he became the man of his era, on whose shoulders allone finally rested the hope of his home country against the overwhelming superior Silver Arrows.

There are so many stories to be told about him that it fills books. To tell about his rivalry with Achille Varzi, about his domi-nation in the early thirties with the Scuderia Ferrari and later also with Maserati, his splendid victories against the overwhelming Silver Arrows, even on their home ground at the Nürburgring in 1935, at Barcelona, Budapest, or the Coppa Ciano in 1936, and finally the fact that he was the last winner of a Grand Prix in the pre-war era, when he brought home his Auto Union first in the Belgrade Grand Prix (in fact the race took place two days after the war had already begun) would really take too much space and time for me to do it within this game. So, fitting to the photo, I will concentrate on the less famous period of his life, when he tried to make a come-back after the war with an already bad state of health until the end of his career.

He reappeared in May 1946 for the Marseille Grand Prix where he was as fast as ever, fighting his way from initially fifth position into the lead during his heat until he was let down by his ancient and now already second-rate machinery, when a valve failed at his Maserati. With neither of the Italian factories being engaged the best drive he could get was one of the Maseratis of the newly formed Scuderia Milan, founded by the Ruggeri brothers. The 4CL was a competitive car, one of the backbones of the starting fields during the early post-war years, always able to score a victory, provided that there was none of the Alfa Romeos in the race, and on a good day it could even give at least some kind of challenge for the Alfetta. But like most designs from the Bologna (and later Modena) factory the 4CL had not the best reputation regarding its reliability.

That this reputation was deserved is confirmed by the fact that Nuvolari had also to retire early in the next two races at Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne and again in the St. Cloud race, after having been among the leading group on both occasions.

For the Albi Grand Prix the Scuderia Milan cars appeared too late for practise. Therefore he was installed in Enrico Platé´s similar car and he made the best of it by winning in heat one and finishing second in heat two, which gave him victory on aggregate results in front of Frenchmen Henri Louveau and Geroges Raph, who had driven in similar cars.

The next race was the important Grand Prix des Nations at Geneva, where, of course, also the Alfa Romeo factory team was present. This meant that everybody else was regarded in no position to challenge, but Nuvolari did. He shot into the lead of his heat and defended it against the Alfetta of Farina until he finally was overtaken on the third lap. As the first six finishers of each of the two heats qualified for the final Nuvolari was content with his third place behind Farina and Trossi.

So for the final his starting position on the second row was the best of the non-Alfa drivers. But the start was a mess and somehow Sommer had managed to get into third position from the last row of the grid, following the three Alfettas of Wimille, Farina and Varzi. After him came Nuvolari in front of Trossi, but soon the driver of the fourth Alfetta had fought his way past the two Maserati drivers to form the expected 1-2-3-4 lead of his team.

At the front there was a fierce battle between Farina and Wimille who came up behind Nuvolari to lap him on the 32nd lap. Nuvolari seems to have not been pleased by this and on the next corner he punted Wimille off. Luckily the Frenchman was able to restart his machine after Trossi had passed by, but of course he was furious and Nuvolari was shown the black flag.

But perhaps his pride told him that a driver of his fame was not to be blackflagged and so the Mantuan simply ignored it and raced on until the organizers finally gave up and withdrew the flag again. You think this could not happen nowadays? Just think of Michael Schumacher at the 1994 British Grand Prix! But unlike his successor Nuvolari was not disqualified afterwards and so he was able to finish fourth, first Maserati driver behind the three Alfas of Farina, Trossi and Wimille.

After this exciting race Nuvolari appeared again in his Maserati for the Valentino Grand Prix at Torino, the very first race according to Formula 1 rules ever. Again there was a strong Alfa Romeo entry of five cars, Nuvolari having to be content with a second row grid position, but when Farina overstressed the transmission of his car at the start, the leading Maserati driver found himself in the middle of an four-car Alfetta bunch consiting of Varzi, Wimille, Trossi and Sanesi. But before he could take full advantage of this day's poor Alfa reliability, Trossi and Sanesi also dropping out, Nuvolari himself was let down again by his car, first suffering from a broken shock absorber and later even losing a rear wheel altogether. So again the race was a true Alfa Romeo affair, Varzi winning from Wimille with everybody else being two laps down.

Things went hardly better at the next race at Milano, Nuvolari again retiring during the early stages of the final, when he had again been the first Maserati driver and after having qualified third in his heat behind the two Alfa Romeos of Varzi and Trossi. At this time the state of his health was already really poor.

So his appearences became scarcer and he did not take part in a Grand Prix during 1947 altogether. The next time he turned up was at the 1948 Monaco Grand Prix, this time at the wheel of a tiny unsupercharged 1100 cc Cisitalia. Even if this disadvantage was somewhat diminished on this twisted circuit and even when there was no Alfetta present he did not have any chances against the new Maseratis of Villoresi and Farina and he retired with an engine failure after 16 laps in the midfield of the race.

At the Formula 2 race at Bari he was invited by Enzo Ferrari to drive again for his Scuderia, for which he had earned so much success before the war. But by now he did not have the strength to endure a full race distance any more and had to hand over the car to Franco Cortese who finished fourth.

Naturally he also took part in the next race at his home town at Mantova, where the cup was presented in honour of his two sons who had both died in young years from a mischievous disease. Of course the crowd was very pleased when he stormed into the lead at the start of the race, where he stayed for six laps before he began to drop back and finally gave up exhausted.

He appeared again at the French Grand Prix, where he shared the new San Remo Maserati with Luigi Villoresi as he was not fit enough for the full race distance. When took the car over he was already a long way back after Villoresi having to pay the price for his early speed in the race by having to make several pitstops. So Nuvolari finished seventh, five laps down, in what was a very unspectacular race for him.

But he was to have two last sensational moments when he lead the 1947 Mille Miglia shortly from the finish again in the tiny Cisitalia only to be passed by the 2900 cc Alfa Romeo of Biondetti on the long final straight. During one stage of that race he had suffered from a petrol posioning and when he climbed out of the car he was only half conscious.

In 1948 he performed even more sensationally. Aged now 55 he led with his Ferrari only to have to retire after 1300 of the 1600 kilometers of the race. Earlier in the race he had already threw away the bonnet of the car, later he lost also a mudguard in a collision before finally the rear suspension broke.

It seems as if his braveness was now even more fed by desparation, caused by the loss of his sons. To some of his closer friends he had told that he wanted to die at the steering wheel of a race car but just he, one of the most audacious and daring of all would have to end his life on the sick-bed in 1953.

He appeared one last time in a race 1949 at Marseilles in a Maserati but by now he did not even have enough stami-na even for his short heat and handed the car over to Piero Carini who did not manage to qualify it for the final. A really sad end for such a great career!