The Prewar Master


klemcoll, Nuvolari, Auto-Union

Before the World War II, the acknowledged master of Grand Prix racing was Tazio Nuvolari. Here he is on the very slippery when wet stone block surface of the Bremgarten circuit near the middle of Bern during practice for the Swiss Grand Prix which would take place on August 21, 1938. Nuvolari had left Alfa Romeo and joined the Auto-Union team during the latter months of the 1937 season and after driving an Alfa again at the beginning of the new season, he finally switched to Auto-Union full time, staying with the German team until the end of all racing late in 1939. At Bern he would drive this Type D Auto-Union which had a supercharged V-12 three liter motor producing well over 500 hp.

The problem with all the Auto-Unions was their handling that was a function of lots of power and a swing axle rear suspension which, when combined with the hard and narrow tires of the 1930s, resulted in the potential for considerable oversteer. This characteristic was of course amplified in wet conditions. The only driver who seemed to be at home with an Auto-Union was the talented Bernd Rosemeyer but he had died in a high speed record attempt in January 1938. The Bremgarten circuit, located in a forested park of the same name, was approximately 4.5 miles long. It had one slow corner leading to the start/finish area but the rest of the road was a series of very fast sweeping bends with no real straight as such. The road, originally designed for motorcycle racing, was quite narrow and bordered closely by large trees. The resulting changes from light to deep shade often made visibility difficult. Due to the stone surface as seen above it was particularly treacherous when wet.

In practice for the Bern race, Nuvolari was no doubt as shocked as all the rest of the drivers when Richard Seaman with his Mercedes-Benz W154 achieved a practice time over three seconds ahead of everyone else. Nuvolari qualified in the third row of the grid. At the start the road was already damp and not long afterward the rain came down heavily which made both visibility and adhesion even more dicey. In these conditions Nuvolari was taking no chances and fell steadily back to eventually finish ninth, even being overtaken by René Dreyfus in a privately-owned and far less powerful Delahaye 145. The winner was Rudolf Caracciola, correctly referred to as the “Regenmeister,” with a Mercedes W154, followed by the early race leader Seaman.

After this difficult race, Nuvolari finished out the season very successfully with a strong win with his Auto-Union at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza where he won by two laps. In the photo at the left, taken before the at the end-of-year Donington Grand Prix he won again, closely defeating Herman Lang’s Mercedes.

Photos by Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection –

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One comment

  1. Jim sitz · · Reply

    The incredable Littler Man who won his
    final GP at age 46, just like Fangio in 1957.!

    Jim sitz


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