Friday, 2 June 2017

One last great race - Nuvolari’s last Mille Miglia

For the 1948 Mille Miglia an impressive array of drivers and cars lined up.

For Maserati there were 4 new A6GCS 2 litre cars that would be driven by Ascari, Tassara, Capelli and Auriechio. Taruffi and Bonetto would drive Cistalia cars. In Enzo Ferrari’s machines would be Biondetti, Cortese, Righetti and one other last minute addition….

By 1948 Tazio Nuvolari was a very ill man. Both his sons had died tragically and Nuvolari himself was in a bad state of health due to years of breathing toxic racing fuel fumes. Due to his destroyed lungs, his wife insisted that he rested in a convent at lake Garda instead of being in his hometown of Mantova. However Tazio could not keep himself away from the racing fraternity and insisted on joining the crowds to observe scrutineering at the Piazzale della Vittoria in Brescia for the 1948 Mille Miglia.

Mille Miglia route

It was here that Enzo Ferrari saw Tazio. During the brief meeting, Enzo asked Tazio if he would like to come and see that year’s racing car at the factory. Tazio agreed and not long after seeing the car it was clear what the outcome would be. Enzo had to contact one of his customers to explain that he would be driving a different car in the Mille Miglia, as Nuvolari had commandeered his. Just three days later, Nuvolari would be lining up at the start of the great 1000 mile race. He would been in a car he had only just seen and never tested.

It was a Ferrari 166S that Nuvalari would compete in. Tazio would drive it with a bottle of cordial tied round his neck which would be used to relieve him of his breathing difficulties. Of the 187 participants in the Mille Miglia all eyes were to be on one man, a man whose myth had already passed into folklore. How would the Flying ‘Mantuan’ be able to cope with passing years and declining health in a car he had never driven before in the great 1000 mile race? It was Sergio Scapinelli who would have the front row seat acting as Nuvolari's co-pilot.

Nuvolari and Scapinelli prior to their great race

The race started at midnight in wet conditions and the leaders at the start of the race were all in close proximity as they raced through Verona and Vicenza. By Padova, Ascari in the Maserati was leading.

However it was at the first crossing of the Apennine mountains where the race really came to life; the old master, Nuvolari, started driving in full attack mode. The news began to break that ‘The Flying Mantuan’ really is flying. Nuvolari was driving like a man possessed to the extent that by Pescara he was leading. But it did not stop there, Nuvolari was leading by 12 minutes in Rome, by Livorno he had extended the lead to 20 minutes and by Florence it was 30 minutes!  

Nuvolari's car already falling apart

All was not well however as Nuvolari’s car was struggling to keep up with his pace. First a front mudguard fell off which destabalised the car a little, but it did not slow Nuvolari. It was just after Rome that the bonnet became unfastened and a gust of wind blew it just over Nuvolari’s head. Nuvolari’s mechanic was terrified by this point about a car falling apart around them; Nuvolari tried to calm the situation by shouting to his mechanic “That’s better.. the engine will cool more easily now”. Nuvolari was also not well and was coughing up blood. However through all this he was still extending his lead over the opposition.

The fan's favourite: Nuvolari in the 1948 Mille Miglia

All of Italy was glued to the radio wondering if Nuvolari could possibly win and praying that he would live.

After Florence things got even worse for Nuvolari’s car as the bolts holding his seat in place came adrift. At this point Nuvolari decided to throw his seat out of the car and instead replaced it with a bag of Oranges he picked up at a shop on the side of the track!

As Nuvolari pulled into Bologna he still had his huge lead, but his team told him that he cannot continue as the car is literally falling apart around him. Nuvolari did not listen to his team and sent out a clear message by putting his foot down hard on the stretch along Via Emilia.

At Modena, Enzo Ferrari personally begged Nuvolari to stop. This would have been Ferrari’s first victory in the Mille Miglia, but the terrible health of Nuvolari and his car made it apparent that they could not continue. Enzo pleaded with his friend to retire with dignity and could only weep as he realised that Nuvolari would not stop and that his car could not possibly hold out.

Period cartoon of Nuvolari continuing with his car is falling apart around him

Finally on the homeward stretch the inevitable happened as there was a failure that even Nuvolari could not drive through; seized brakes and a broken rear leaf spring meaning he has to stop at Villa Ospizio.

Given his terrible physical condition, Nuvolari had to be lifted out of his car by locals and was taken to the local priest’s house where he was put to bed. Scapinelli had to phone ahead to break the news that the Flying Mantuan had been stopped. Enzo Ferrari rushed to Nuvolari’s bedside where he tried to console his friend by saying "...cheer up Tazio, the race will be yours next year". Nuvolari replied "Ferrari, at our age there aren't many more days like this; remember it and try to enjoy it to the full, if you can".

Tazio Nuvolari and Enzo Ferrari

The benefactor of Nuvolari’s retirement was Biondetti who took over the lead and maintained it to win the race. However the 1948 Mille Miglia will be remembered for one man’s performance only. It is for this reasons that in his winners speech, Biondetti’s first line was  "Excuse me for having won".

A previous article written on the exploits of Nuvolari: Nuvolari - Son of the Devil. Obituary

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