Classic Spotlight - Achille Varzi
Another throwback this week that shows you that they just don't make racing drivers these days like they used to.
There are many drivers on any list of those said to be the greatest or fastest racing driver of all time. Though few would argue that the name of Tazio Nuvolari would feature highly on any list - Achille Varzi was Nuvolari’s greatest rival and a driver that many may sadly never have heard of. This is his story.
Achille Varzi was born on 8th August 1904 in Italy. The son of a wealthy cotton manufacturer and came from Galliate, near Milan, Italy, as a young man, Varzi was a successful motorcycle racer, riding Garelli, DOT, Moto Guzzi and Sunbeams. Varzi first came into the public eye as a motor cyclist (as did his brother Angelo) riding the most expensive and best machines. A steely competitor with a reserved demeanour, he started racing motorcycles while still a teenager and he won the Italian 350cc Championship in 1923.
Varzi raced in the Tourist Trophy in 1924 and was rewarded for sportsmanship with the Nisbet Award after crashing to avoid a fallen rider – which as you can imagine was a bloody dangerous but brave thing to do. In the same year, Varzi entered the Isle of Man TT, a feat he would repeat seven times with a best finish of fifth place in 1927. It was during this time that he met a fellow motorcycle racer and competitor, Tazio Nuvolari. They would both go on to ride for Bianchi in 1928, starting a legendary rivalry that would last both their lives, dividing racing fans across Italy in the process.
During 1928, Varzi switched to racing cars and made his debut with a third place finish at Tripoli in a Bugatti T35. It was common in those days for cars to carry both driver and a mechanic and so Varzi took Guido Bignami as mechanic - an association which was to last throughout Varzi’s racing career (Bignami subsequently became a certain Juan Manuel Fangio’s mechanic). He then finished second in the Italian Grand Prix sharing an Alfa Romeo P2 with Giuseppe Campari. Over the next decade, Varzi would rival Tazio Nuvolari, Rudolf Caracciola and Bernd Rosemeyer.
For a time, the two great rivals were actually partners, racing together though after only a few races, Varzi felt that his style was being cramped by Nuvolari. So, using some of his family money, he bought himself a P2 Alfa Romeo, and set up on his own in the latter part of 1928. During 1929, Varzi won so many victories that Nuvolari was forced into buying a P2 of his own so that he could compete on equal terms for the coming season.
In 1930 Varzi, always looking to stay at least one step ahead, bought himself a Maserati, which he drove as well as the Alfa Romeo, winning the Italian racing championship. This was also the year that, in winning the prestigious Targa Florio, he not only bettered the pre-race favourite Louis Chiron but claimed a historic victory for Italy.
The 1930 Targa Florio was a significant race in Varzi’s career. The previous five Targas had been won by French Bugatti cars – something that was simply intolerable to the racing-mad Italians, and so there were high expectations of Varzi in his 2-litre Grand Prix Alfa Romeo. Achille started twelve minutes behind the Bugatti of Louis Chiron, but in the first twenty miles, he gained a minute on the French champion. The race became a duel between the two men. The extremely rough surface caused the spare wheel on Varzi’s car to come adrift and, after having rubbed a small hole in the petrol tank, to fall off onto the road. The last two laps had to be run without a spare with Varzi knowing that a single puncture would destroy his race. Chiron had handicaps of his own to consider – his mechanic was sick and he had two damaged wheels, but only one spare. The damaged wheels, together with the jack and tools were left at the side of the road as Chiron leapt back into his car and continued to race. Meanwhile, as Varzi left the pits after changing tyres at the beginning of the last lap, his fuel tank began to leak from the hole caused by his earlier loose wheel. There suddenly became a serious risk that he might run out of fuel before he reached the flag. The engine began to pop, indicating that the fuel level was getting low. Luckily there were a number of fuel stations set up around the track and Guido Bignami was instructed to grab one as they passed. With the can in hand the mechanic attempted to pour its contents into the tank without stopping – what could possibly go wrong? Much of the fuel spilled over the tail of the car with some falling on the hot exhaust pipe with inevitable results. Flames soon began to engulf the car, reaching the back of Varzi’s neck, but he refused to stop. Crouching forward, and edging himself sideways in the seat, he gave Bignami his seat cushion for him to use to fight the flames.
Due to a combination of speed, the mechanic’s fantastic efforts and an enormous amount of luck, the fire was extinguished, though the incident had caused the loss of nearly a minute. Varzi roared through Campfelice and entered the five-mile straight along the sea-shore – the only portion on which top gear could be used and where his GP racing model gave him an advantage. Achille Varzi knew from the wild roar which went up from the grandstands that he had won the race – and by a whopping 1 minute and 48.4 seconds. A red car had won and Italy was wildly triumphant.
Varzi joined Bugatti for 1931 and shared a T51 with Louis Chiron in the 10-hour Grand Prixs that year. They scored a resounding win over the works Alfa Romeos in the French GP at Montlhéry but his greatest victory came on the streets of Monte Carlo in 1933 when Varzi defeated Nuvolari after an epic race-long duel. In the race, Varzi led from pole with Nuvolari back in fourth place behind Borzacchini and Lehoux at the end of the first lap. By the end of the third lap Tazio was second and the two of them got down to an incredibly close struggle which was to continue until the last lap. The lead swapped between the two rivals every second or third lap - at half distance Varzi led - the shorter wheelbase of the Bugatti giving him some slight advantage through the corners, whilst Nuvolari’s car had the better acceleration.
As the 98th lap ended, the cars were almost side by side with Achille just edging ahead as they started their 99th and final lap. Climbing the hill towards Casino for the last time, Varzi held on to third gear, stretching his engine to the limit. Nuvolari stayed with him but only briefly as he over-revved his engine and one of the pistons failed, spraying hot oil onto the exhaust. Varzi drove on alone for the first time in the race and took the chequered flag. Behind him, as his car stuttered toward a halt on the run down from the tunnel, a yellow shirted figure jumped onto the track and started to push. A mechanic, worried about a fire breaking out, came to assist but unfortunately, this Good Samaritan was judged as outside help and Nuvolari was disqualified. The epic fight for the lead of the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix had lasted for 97 of 100 laps and is unique in Grand Epreuve history. Nuvolari led for 66 laps, Varzi led for 34 laps.
Varzi went back to Alfa Romeo for 1934, winning nine races with his P3 as well as taking the Mille Miglia in a Monza Alfa. Varzi was declared Italian Champion for the second time and became the first driver in history to hold both the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia titles in one season.
Nuvolari rejoined Scuderia Ferrari (who raced the Alfas) in 1935 so Varzi went to Auto Union, racing for them between 1935 and 1937. His extremely quick reaction time and delicate touch enabled Varzi to get the best from the rear-engined Auto Union extraordinarily quickly. In his first season, Varzi won at Tunis and Pescara, despite the car being dogged with minor development troubles through most of the year. In 1936, he won at Tripoli, with a record lap of nearly 142mph, but was increasingly overshadowed by his young team-mate Bernd Rosemeyer. His results began to suffer as this period coincided with Varzi having serious personal problems. These included becoming addicted to morphine and also having a ‘difficult’ affair with Ilse Pietsch (the wife of fellow driver Paul Pietsch.) During the season his health started to deteriorate, and he only finished on the podium four times that year. But he did still manage to win his third Tripoli Grand Prix, in his third different vehicle which considering everything else, is impressive to say the least.
Varzi didn’t race for the majority of 1937 and by 1938, had dropped out of sight and nothing much more was heard of him. Nuvolari felt this loss and it was said that Varzi was the ice to his fire, the man he most wanted and needed to beat. Then World War II came along and mucked everything up for motor racing in Europe. Bloody Nazis. Again.
The battle between Varzi and Nuvolari was resurrected after WWII – but it wasn’t quite the same. Varzi had overcome his drug addiction, had a new wife and was nearly 43 when he made a surprise and welcome return to his old form with two successful seasons in the Alfa 158. Unfortunately, Nuvolari’s continuing ill health left him increasingly breathless.
Varzi’s victory in the 1946 Turin GP confirmed his rehabilitation before he went to America where he attempted to race a Maserati for the Indianapolis 500, though he failed to qualify. In 1947 he took second place in the Swiss, Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, though unfortunately, his 1947 Swiss GP was marred when a young boy ran in front of Varzi’s car as he returned to the pits after a heat and was killed.
At Geneva in 1946.
He also travelled to Argentina to race in the Buenos Aires Grand Prix. Varzi raced successfully in South America and also became very popular with the Argentineans, so much so that he planned to live in their country when he retired. Whilst in Argentina, Varzi founded the Scuderia Achille Varzi, which set Juan Manuel Fangio on the road to fame.
Back in Europe, Varzi and Nuvolari paused before embracing at the 1948 Circuit of Mantova – held in memory of Nuvolari’s sons Giorgio and Alberto, both of whom had succumbed to illness during their teenage years. Both knew that it was, to all intents and purposes, over for Nuvolari at least - Varzi was still considered good enough to warrant a seat in the world’s best GP car, Alfa Romeo’s 158.
The 1948 Swiss and European Grand Prix was held at the Bremgarten track, near Bern. During a practice run after a light rain had fallen, Varzi's Alfa Romeo 158 sped along the damp track. It was July 1st and the sun was rapidly drying the sodden track, creating a light mist. The Alfa, in the middle of a five year unbeaten run, was the car to beat and Achille was close to rediscovering the form he had shown in the late twenties and early thirties, when he had been Tazio Nuvolari’s greatest rival. Varzi was regarded as a courageous but very safe driver, who had only ever had one serious accident - a 180mph end-over-end roll at the Swiss Grand Prix in 1948 . Suddenly, near the Jordenrampe curve, the car went into a skid at 110mph before spinning several times, then, after almost coming to a stop against a wall of wooden planks, the car flipped over crushing Varzi.
Varzi's death resulted in the FIA mandating the wearing of crash helmets for racing, which had been optional previously. Varzi’s coffin stood for three days and nights on the chassis of a racing car in the church at Galliate, and his friends stood vigil over it. Some fifteen thousand people attended his funeral. Achille was buried in his hometown.
Tazio Nuvolari continued racing until April 1950 and died in 1953 at the age of 60 – he had outlived many of his rivals. He missed them all, he said, but he missed Achille the most.
Achille Varzi was considered one of the world’s best drivers until the mid-1930s and a rival to the legendary Tazio Nuvolari – the rivalry between Achille and Nuvolari was one of the fiercest in motor racing history. Over the course of his career, Varzi won 28 Grand Prix events in eleven years including the most difficult races, and was admired for his sober, efficient driving style. Some of his 33 race wins from 139 races included the Avus-rennen 1933, Monza Grand Prix 1929 & 1930, Tripoli Grand Prix 1933, 1934 & 1936 and the Turin Grand Prix 1946.
A Formula One team entered some races in 1950 as Scuderia Achille Varzi. The team was equipped with Maseratis 4CL and 4CLT and featured drivers José Froilán González, Antonio Branca, Alfredo Pián and Nello Pagani.
On 5th June 2004, Poste Italiane issued a stamp commemorating Achille Varzi.
What do you think of Varzi's story? Let me know in the comments below.