Nuvolari and His Most Legendary Drive: The 1935 German Grand Prix

Matt HillContributor IIINovember 16, 2010

Every so often a race earns immortality due to a spectacular event. The 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington when Senna in a underpowered Mclaren went from fifth to first on lap one and then went on to win by a huge distance. The 1979 French Grand Prix when Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux had one of the greatest battles in Formula 1 history for second place. The list goes on...

However, one drive for me eclipses any drive that I have ever seen or read about. This was a drive in the pre-championship era when safety was virtually non-existent. This was the drive by Tazio Nuvolari at the 1935 German Grand Prix.

The 1935 German Grand Prix was held at the world famous Nurburgring race circuit. The 174 turn, 22.8 kilometre race track provides a daunting prospect for those who drive it now, but what it most of been like to drive in 1935 with the total absence of safety equipment is testament to the bravery of the men behind the wheel of the cars.

The 1935 German Grand Prix in some ways is comparable to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Both events were staged by the Nazi Party to try and prove their theories as well as providing propaganda. The Nazi Party was desperate for one of the German driven, German built Auto Unions or Mercedes to triumph against the competing Maseratis or Alfa Romeos. The Nazi Party was investing as much 250,000 Reichmarks per year into the German companies to try and ensure their victories.

Nuvolari blasting through
Nuvolari blasting through

On paper the race did seem a formality. The Auto Union and Mercedes cars were state of the art both having new 375 brake horsepower engines. They also had formidable driver line ups with names such as Bernd Rosemeyer, Hans Stuck, Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang all driving in the German cars, they weren't short of driving talent either. Compared to this the old and past its sell by date Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B that Nuvolari had around 265 brake horsepower. A gap of 110 brake horsepower is, in racing terms, absolutely huge. There were other cars in the field such as a Bugatti and E.R.A's but I will focus on the others

Rather incredibly two of the underpowered Alfa Romeos managed to beat the German machines at the front with Renato Balestrero on pole with Nuvolari second, Stuck third, Lang fifth, Caracciola seventh and Rosemeyer way down in twelfth. Whatever the German teams or drivers were trying it didn't work.

When it came to the race though things couldn't of started much worse for the Alfas. Balestrero crashed immediately and Nuvolari had a truly appalling start, dropping him from second down to fifth as the German cars blasted past. The race from their should of been a formality for the Germans using their power advantage to blast away from the field.

However, Nuvolari on the most challenging race track of them all began his fight back. He drove his Alfa on the very limit and gradually caught up the cars the leaders and when the leaders pitted he moved up the order. Nuvolari worked his way up to second and then it came to his pit stop. Disaster doesn't even begin to describe it. The fuel pump in the pits broke so Nuvolari's car had to be filled up by fuel left in cans, manually by the mechanics.

This lost Nuvolari a full six minutes of time. To put that in perspective if you lost that amount of time at Monaco in current Formula 1 machinery you would be around 5 laps down. The race now looked totally over. At this moment Nuvolari produced the greatest drive of his life.

Nuvolari somehow managed to make up all of the 6 minutes. How he did that I don't know, and passed car after car and was up to second place heading into the last lap.

Manfred Von Brauchtisch the race leader at time was a full 35 seconds in the led at the start of the last lap. But Von Brauchtisch had been pushing so hard though to get the win that his tyres were totally destroyed and the great Nuvolari passed the German when the Germans tyres finally gave up and fell apart and Nuvolari took the chequered flag to win the race. Von Brauchtisch was nearly inconsolable but it was due to the pace of Nuvolari that the German had to drive so aggressively which was the Germans downfall.

When it came to the podium there was a couple of problems that showed how confident the Germans were of success. The first being that they didn't have a copy of the Italian National Anthem as they were so convinced they would win that they only bothered to bring a copy of the German Anthem. The second was the size of the victory laurel. Yet again it was made for the German drivers who were huge compared to Nuvolari meaning that laurel was nearly as big as the diminutive Italian.

This incredible win was later followed by a similar event involving, in my opinion the greatest driver of them all, Juan Manuel Fangio at the 1957 German Grand Prix. There has been many incredible driving performances over the years and if you think you know of a better on please tell me about it.

But for me this is the greatest ever win. To come from so far back, with an underpowered car, against quality drivers on the most daunting track of them all is something just a little bit special.

Here is just a small bit of footage of the race,