Dear Nigel,

I would like to ask your opinion about Achille Varzi. I read a story about him in a Dutch magazine about his great but tragic life. How good was Achille compared to Nuvolari? And how much did his morphine addiction ruin him?


Dear John,

As long as I can remember, Achille Varzi has fascinated me, and I suppose his story has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. It’s a tale worth telling.

I remember long ago talking to a driver just out of hospital after a major accident. He was recuperating well, and knew he was lucky to be alive, but for a while his pain had been so intense that they had given him morphine.

“If there’s a next time,” he said, “I’ll get through without it. The pain was nothing compared to going ‘cold turkey’ when they stopped the morphine. And all the time you know that another shot would make you feel fine – for a while…” The conversation not surprisingly set me thinking of Varzi.

“The outstanding man,” Enzo Ferrari said in the early 1930s, “was Nuvolari, but he found a worthy adversary in Varzi, who surpassed him in his cool, perfect style…”

In character, the two men could hardly have been more different. Where Nuvolari was an uncomplicated hero of the people, his rival was a creature of mystery, uncommunicative and aloof. They incited in their countrymen such passion that Italian motor racing splintered into ‘Nuvolariani’ and ‘Varziani’.

On the track they shared only speed. Nuvolari was the great improviser, living on intuition and reflex, an emotional man often seen to beat the side of the cockpit of his frequently uncompetitive cars. Varzi, by contrast, was a man of ice, impeccable of line, the classical artist, at his deadliest in pursuit, inducing mistakes in others, while making none himself.

“His style,” according to Ferrari, “reflected his personality: intelligent, calculated, ferocious in making the most of his opponents’ weaknesses. I’d say he was ruthless.” The great Rudolf Caracciola put it this way: “When you saw Varzi behind, you shivered…”

Born into a wealthy Milanese family, Varzi came into Grand Prix racing quite painlessly. After a successful motorcycling career, he simply bought himself an Alfa Romeo P2 in 1928, which led to a factory drive – and many Grand Prix victories – for the next couple of seasons.

For 1931, while Nuvolari remained with Alfa, Varzi moved to Bugatti, a decision considered traitorous by many Italians, whose response left him completely unmoved. Achille’s only requirement of a car was its competitiveness, and at this point he considered the French one better. After three successful seasons he returned to Alfa Romeo, again a purely pragmatic move.

These were the great years of rivalry with Nuvolari, a blessed time for journalists. Tazio was the embodiment of extrovert heroism, the true Italian who talked with his hands and loved children. Achille, by contrast, was dry, remote, apparently irresistible to women. He dressed elegantly, stayed only in the finest hotels, did not kiss babies. Like most racing drivers, he lived for himself, but what many found unforgivable was that he didn’t trouble to hide it.

For all their differences in character, though, the two men got along well, and their mutual respect was absolute – indeed, so long as Nuvolari was not around to hear it, Varzi would invariably refer to him as ‘Maestro’.

Once a match race was proposed, an attempt to settle the question once and for all. “If I lose,” Nuvolari said, “I shall never again find peace. And if you lose, I shall feel sorry for you. Whatever happens, our friendship will be tainted. If you like, we’ll do it, but I don’t think it’s worth it.” They shook hands, and the matter was never raised again.

In the 1930 Mille Miglia – at that time a race of more than 16 hours, finishing in darkness – they fought the expected battle, no other car within half an hour of their Alfas. In the closing stages Varzi began to suspect that the game was lost, for he recognized in his mirrors the headlight pattern of Nuvolari’s car – and Tazio led on time by ten minutes. After a while, though, he began to hope again, for the lights behind were gone. Was Nuvolari out?

He was not. Within 30 miles of the finish, Varzi was jolted by the flash of lights and the blast of a horn. For miles Nuvolari had been sitting there on his tail, lights off. If there can be no sweetness in defeat, perhaps Varzi was consoled in part by the implicit compliment he had been paid: it takes faith to rely on another to guide you through the mountains at night…

In 1934, both in Alfas again, it was Varzi first, Nuvolari second, but Grand Prix successes were coming hard by this time, and each man knew that an era of German domination was coming. While Tazio eventually committed himself to the Scuderia Ferrari team of Alfa Romeos for 1935, Achille accepted an offer from Auto Union. And it was this decision, apparently so logical and dispassionate, which led ultimately to chaos in his life.

It started well. With talent as natural as his, Varzi adapted without problem to the power and wayward handling of the rear-engined cars, winning at Tunis and Pescara. By common consent, he was at the height of his powers.

Early in 1935, however, during testing at Monza, Achille had met Ilse, the wife of Paul Pietsch, Auto Union’s young reserve driver. Their affair began almost immediately, and soon they were together everywhere.

Varzi stayed with Auto Union for 1936, his team mates Hans Stuck and the meteoric Bernd Rosemeyer, and all was well until Tripoli.

This was Achille’s favourite circuit, fast and demanding, a track where precision was all. Already he had won the Grand Prix twice, and now there came a third victory – by a couple of lengths from Stuck, whom he overtook on the run up to the line. On the last lap he averaged more than 141 mph, and was afterwards a contented man – until the banquet that evening, at which the Governor of Tripoli lifted his glass and proposed a toast to the winner…Hans Stuck!

There was an excruciating silence – after all, Varzi had won the race, not Stuck. The Governor, though, would have none of it: Varzi may have finished first, but the real winner was Stuck…

And gradually the truth of the matter emerged. These were the days of the Rome-Berlin Axis, and General von Ribbentrop had directed that, whenever possible, Italian drivers should win Italian races – so long as they were in German cars, of course. In the closing stages Stuck had been slowed by his pit, allowing Varzi to pass. The race had been, in short, a political demonstration. A fix.

Varzi had known nothing of this, and believed he had won on merit. His honour publicly impugned, he stalked out. Mind in turmoil, he found sleep impossible, whereupon Ilse produced a syringe. They had been together a year, but this was the first he knew of her addiction, which had started, she said, in hospital after a minor operation. Achille, still sleepless, held out his arm for the needle.

Had he been an unkempt man, garrulous and undisciplined, the change in Varzi might have been imperceptible for a while, but in one such as he the transformation was startling.

His colleagues wondered what on earth could have happened. In Tunis, a couple of weeks later, he was unshaven, dishevelled and shaky, uncharacteristically chattering for much of the time, then lapsing into spells of silence.

As well as that, his driving too had changed. That weekend he had the first major accident of his career, the Auto Union somersaulting at very high speed, but he somehow escaped without injury, at first too shocked even to hold his ever-present cigarette.

After another couple of undistinguished races, Varzi disappeared. Not even his parents knew where he was, but the Auto Union management finally traced him to a villa in Rome, where he was existing, the team’s doctor discovered, on champagne, coffee and cigarettes. By now morphine’s hook had complete hold, and he was slipping away from reality. At 32 he seemed like an old man. Not surprisingly, Auto Union decided against a renewal of his contract for 1937.

There was no sign of Varzi through most of that season. By now he had moved to a hotel in Milan, friendless and without cares. Only Ilse remained, but the relationship was all but over, and Achille eventually walked out.

At the San Remo Grand Prix, though, he raced his own Maserati, and won against indifferent opposition. Enthusiasm reawakened, he then turned up for the Italian Grand Prix at Leghorn, pleading with Auto Union for one last chance. He had had treatment, he said, and was cured. Rosemeyer supported him, and Varzi was tentatively re-hired for the last three races of the season.

During practice at Leghorn it was as if he had never been away: in the Auto Union he was beaten only by Caracciola’s Mercedes. The race, though, was a different matter. If his genius remained, his stamina had gone, and before half-distance he was into the pits, exhausted, drenched in sweat. It was no surprise that Auto Union told him not to bother turning up at Donington.

Early the following year Rosemeyer was killed in a record attempt, and Auto Union had desperate need of a top-class driver. Again they briefly thought of Varzi, but realistically there was no way – he was back with Ilse, still in the snare of morphine, and it was to Nuvolari, ironically, that Auto Union turned.

Varzi was not seen at the circuits through 1938-39, but when racing resumed after the war he was back, now as a member of the Alfa Romeo team once more. What’s more, he was himself again, free of addiction after months in a home, and now married to a woman he had known before the years of tribulation. With the great Jean-Pierre Wimille as Achille’s team mate, Alfa dominated the early post-war years.

The first Grand Prix of 1948 was the Swiss at Bremgarten, and early evening was settling in as Varzi went out on the opening day of practice. It was damp and murky, and the track was slick. As Louis Chiron followed, the Alfa went into a slide through the fast Jordenrampe S-bend, then clipped a wooden barrier and somersaulted, throwing Varzi out on to the road.

Chiron immediately stopped, but there was nothing to be done. Varzi, as ever wearing only a linen helmet, had been killed instantly. Norma Varzi responded with amazing courage, insisting that she did not wish Alfa Romeo to withdraw from the race: rather, the team should honour the name of Varzi by winning the race for Italy. And on Sunday Felice Trossi’s car duly triumphed.

No one grieved more deeply than Fangio, at that time unknown outside South America. He had met Varzi in Argentina, where Achille had won, and they had become firm friends. The country had so captivated Varzi that he spoke of retiring there to open a racing school. And when Juan Manuel came to Europe a year later, his team raced under the name of Squadra Achille Varzi, based at Galliate.

“Varzi was, to me, a god,” Fangio said. “He spoke with great simplicity, and gave me precious advice. He is probably the driver I have most admired in my life, a man who cared only for his art…”