Achille Varzi (1904 - 1948)

Send This Page To A Friend
Fade To White
Achille Varzi (1904 - 1948)

Achille Varzi
As with any glamorous activity, motor racing has always had its superstars - men who become more than just racing drivers in the public eye. Graham Hill was the perfect example of this. Years past his greatest, he was still the number one quarry for newspaper reporters television interviews, and autograph hunters. As with Jackie Stewart, the public knew all about him.

Yet there was another type of superstar, an entirely different breed of racing driver. Phil Hill, for instance. Here was a man who, in many ways, enjoyed the perfect racing career, one who won virtually everything there was, and was never once seriously hurt in a racing car. But of Phil Hill, World Champion in 1961, remarkably little is known. He always shunned any kind of publicity: he was a racing driver and that meant that he drove racing cars. Nothing else.

Achille Varzi did not revel in publicity, either, but there was very little he could do about it. He was instant copy, wherever he went, whatever he did. To some extent, Varzi lived in the shadow of Nuvolari. This sort of thing often occured in racing: in the fifties, you had Moss and Hawthorn, the two big stars of British motor racing, but it was Stirling who had all the limelight. By and large, the public identified with him, rather than with Hawthorn.

Before the war, Tazio Nuvolari was the number one figure in Italian motor racing, indeed in motor racing anywhere. Much has been written about Nuvolari, his flamboyance, extraordinary courage, and legendary drives in uncompetitive cars. Varzi was entirely different. He had a lot of guts, certainly and skill in plenty, but there the similarity ended. His driving was spectacular, his manner quiet, but many were those who considered him to be superior to Nuvolari.

Varzi was born in Milan in 1904, of wealthy parents. At 21 he took up motor-cycle racing, and the duels with Nuvolari began, but after two years, Achille decided to make the switch to cars. It was expensive, of course, but he had no financial problems whatever, and bought a P2 Alfa Romeo, at that time the finest racing equipment available. He was an immediate success, finishing second in the 1928 European Grand Prix at Monza, and in 1929 was a member of the Alfa factory team, winning four Grands Prix. In 1930, he alternated between Maserati and Alfa Romeo, winning several Grands Prix as well as the Targa Florio.

By now Varzi was classed with Nuvolari and Caracciola. But then, at the end of 1930, he left the Alfa Romeo team to join Bugatti, and many Italians never forgave him for it. Not that that bothered Varzi too much: he was not the type to concern himself with popular opinion. In fact, in all respects, he was as far removed from the typical Latin racing driver as could be imagined. He was quiet, usually polite, immaculate, and unbelievably calm. He hardly ever lost his temper, and around this calmness grew the myth that he had no sense of humour. Nothing could be further from the truth though his humour was extremely dry. Varzi's life-style was also vastly different from that of Nuvolari.

Money was no object, after all, and wherever he went, he stayed in the best hotels, wore the most expensive clothes (including immaculately pressed overa 's'. and surrounded himself with beautifu women. Eventually, it was a woman who brought about his downfall. Varzi remained with Bugatti for three years, and was well-nigh untouchable. Victory followed victory, at Avus, Monaco, Tripoli, and in the Mille Miglia; these were the great years of his career. Varzi's driving was always characterized by its smoothness; it had none of the spectacle that so endeared Nuvolari to the crowds. Achille never looked quick or flurried. He was a perfectionist in an age when the machinery didn't lend itself to perfection; the Grand Prix car of forty years ago was extremely difficult to drive smoothly, but Varzi made it look effortless, easy.

He rejoined Alfa Romeo for 1934, but this was the year of the German revival, and although Varzi had a phenomenal season with six major victories, it became obvious that a Mercedes or Auto Union drive would be necessary for 1935 were he not to be outpaced. Thus it was the Achille Varzi put his name on an Auto Union contract. Of all those who drove the rear-engined silver cars, Varzi adapted the best. This was an entirely different kind of racing car; unwieldy, heavy, immensely powerful. But Achille soon got used to the car, and altered his technique to suit it. In 1935, he won at Tunis and Pescara, the latter win being all the more remarkable since he beat the greatest of all Auto Union drivers, Bernd Rosemeyer.

Downhill After An Affair

But it was also in 1935 that everything started to go sour for Varzi. It began when he met the wife of another driver, the reserve in the Auto Union team. Varzi was very attractive to women, and this one was no exception. Unusually, though, Varzi fell for her, too. Almost immediately, she left her husband and went to live with Varzi and, almost immediately, the suave Milanese began to change. The crunch came in Tripoli in 1936. Varzi had won the race for the third time, but discovered in the evening that he had been allowed to win. Teammate Hans Stuck had been slowed down near the end of the race, and Varzi beat him by a fifth of a second.

Stuck, understardably, was upset. This was in the days of The Rome-Berlin Axis and apparently von Ribberitrop had given orders that, whenever possible. Italian drivers should win Italian events, even when driving German cars. Matters came to ahead at the banquet that night when the Governor of Tripoli lifted his glass and proposed a toast to the winner ... Hans Stuck! Varzi may have been first across the line, but everyone knew who the real winner was.

For Varzi, this was too much. He had been ignorant of the fixing of the race, thought he had won on merit, and now was publicly shamed for it. That night, his rage was such that sleep was impossible until his mistress produced a hypodermic syringe and a glass phial. At first, Aehille refused; indeed he was horrified at the suggestion, and at the realisation that she was a drug addict but eventually he relented. Everything about the man changed, not least his driving.

Battling Drugs

Two weeks later, Aehille arrived in Tunis for the Grand Prix, a race he had won the year before, and it was clear that everything had changed. Gone was the calm, the immaculate apearance; gone, too, was the impeccable precision which characterized Varzi's driving. Normally reserved, Varzi now chattered incessantly, without making a great deal of sense most of the time. Then he would lapse into bouts of silence, and become completely unapproachable. His appearance was now untidy, his driving sloppy and unpredictable, and of course the results went from bad to worse.

At this stage, nobody really knew what was wrong. Aehille had never been a prima donna. People shook their heads, talked of his mistress, and said they had seen this coming from the moment they had met. After a couple more races, Varzi disappeared. Nobody knew where he was, not even his parents. Finally it was discovered that he had rented an expensive villa in Rome. A little while after, the Auto Union team's doctor realized what had happened, and Varzi was out of a job. Suddenly no team manager in the business wanted to know.

Throughout most of the 1937 racing season, there was no sign of Varzi. By now his addiction had complete hold, and he lived in a hotel in Milan, without friends or cares. Only his mistress remained, and there were signs, too, that all was not well between them. Finally Varzi walked out. A little while later, he turned up at Leghorn for the Italian Grand Prix, to plead with the Auto Union team manager for one more try. He had had treatment, he said; all that was behind him, and all he wanted was to return to racing. Rosemeyer pleaded his case, and Aehille was tentatively booked for the last three races of the season.

The immediate results were quite sensational. In practice, Varzi annihilated the lap record time and again; only Caracciola was quicker, Clearly the flair was still there. But in the race it was a different story. Varzi's stamina had evaporated. Long before the end of the race he had to stop, to be lifted from the car, totally exhausted and soaked in sweat. Auto Union had no alternative but to cancel the agreement. The man was clearly not fit to drive a racing car.

Post War Racing

In racing circles Varzi was not seen again until after the war. In 1946, he returned to drive for Alfa Romeo once more, and it was immediately apparent that this was the Varzi of old. He was now 42 years old, but looked fit and well. More than that, his driving was back to normal too. In the intervening years he had kicked the drug habit, married again and quite reverted to his old self. New successes began immediately. With the great Jean-Pierre Wimille as his team-mate the Alfa Romeo team's supremacy was total throughout 1946 and 1947. In 1948, Aehille was practising for the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, when his car inexplicably left the road, killing its driver.

Varzi's great friend Louis Chiron was following the Italian when he crashed, and could offer no explanation for the accident. Varzi was a master of the power slide, but for some reason, on this occasion, the car got away from him. This was only the second major accident of his career: in the first, he escaped unhurt when his Auto Union somersaulted end over end at the Tunis Grand Prix in 1936 after a freak gust of wind had blown it off the road at well over 240km/h. Varzi's is a very sad story. Many who saw him at his best consider that, for sheer artistry at the wheel, he will never have an equal. He made the art of Grand Prix driving seem absurdly simple, as is the case with perfectionists in any activity. He could have been the greatest the world has ever known.
Achille Varzi
Achille Varzi (4th from left), Giuseppe Campari (6th) and Tazio Nuvolari (10th) of Alfa Romeo with Italo Balbo (8th) and Prospero Gianferrari (7th).
Latest Classic Car Classifieds