I remember talking to a driver just out of hospital after a major accident He was recovering well, but for a while, his pain had been so acute that they had given him morphine. “If I’m ever in that situation again,” he said, “I will do without it. Nothing was as bad as going cold turkey when they stopped the morphine.” I was reminded of Achille Varzi, whose career was swept away in that same tide.
“In those times,” Enzo Ferrari said of the early 1930s, “the outstanding man was Nuvolari. But he had a worthy adversary in Varzi, who surpassed him in his cool, perfect, style.”
As drivers, they shared only speed. Nuvolari was the great improviser, relying on reflex and intuition, while Varzi was of ice, the classical artist, at his deadliest in pursuit, inducing mistakes in others, making none. Rudolf Caracciola said: “When you saw Varzi behind, you shivered.”
Coming from a wealthy family in Galliate, near Milan, Varzi’s arrival in grand prix racing was painless. After a successful motorcycling career, he simply bought himself an Alfa Romeo P2 in 1928, which led to a factory drive — and many victories — for the next couple of seasons.
For 1931, while Nuvolari remained with Alfa, Varzi moved to Bugatti, a decision thought traitorous by many Italians. He was unmoved, for his only requirement of a car was its competitiveness. After three successful seasons, he returned to Alfa Romeo, again a purely pragmatic move.
These were the great years of his rivalry with Nuvolari, a blessed time for sports writer and gossip columnist alike. limo was the embodiment of extrovert heroism, the true Italian who talked with his hands and loved children; Achille was remote, dry of wit, apparently irresistible to women.
He dressed elegantly, did not kiss babies. For all these differences, and despite a pitiless professional rivalry, they got along well — indeed, so long as Nuvolari was not around to hear it, Yarn would invariably refer to him as ‘Maestro’.
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. 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-one else close. Towards the finish, Varzi, who had started 10 minutes ahead of Nuvolari, began to suspect the game was lost, for he recognised in his mirrors the headlight pattern of his rival’s Alfa. Then he began to hope again. The lights had gone. Was Nuvolari out?
He was not. He had been sitting there for miles, lights off. If there can be no sweetness in defeat, perhaps Varzi was consoled by the implicit compliment he had been paid.
Four years later, in Alfas again, it was Nuvolari who had the earlier start time, Vaal who passed him, and who went on to win. But by now grand prix successes were coming hard for them. German domination was dawning, and while Tazio committed himself to the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas for 1935, Achille signed with Auto Union. It was this decision, again taken for entirely logical reasons, which led ultimately to his downfall.
The association began well. With talent as natural as his, Varzi adapted readily to the immense power and wayward handling of the rear-engined cars, and won at Tunis and Pescara. By common consent, he was at the height of his powers.
Early that year, however, he had met Ilse, the stunning wife of Paul Pietsch, Auto Union’s young reserve driver. An affair began almost immediately, discreet only for a while; soon they were together everywhere.
For 1936, Varzi remained with Auto Union, his team-mates Hans Stuck and meteoric Bernd Rosemeyer. All was well until Tripoli, his favourite circuit He had won there twice, and now came a third victory, from Stuck, whom he overtook on the run-up to the line. On the last lap — this is 66 years ago — he had averaged more than 141mph.
Auto Union team orders had dictated that, Libya being an Italian colony, Varzi should win. At the banquet that evening, the Governor of Tripoli asked for silence, lifted his glass and proposed a toast to the winner … Hans Stuck! There was, said Manfred von Brauchitsch, an excruciating silence. Then Varzi, humiliated, stalked out.
His mind in turmoil, he found sleep impossible, and it was then that llse held out a syringe. They had been together a year, but this was the first he knew of her addiction, which had started in hospital after an operation. Hours later, still sleepless, he gave in.
Had he been an undisciplined man, the change in Varzi might have been imperceptible for a while. But in one such as he, the transformation was startling, apparent in Tunis only a week later. Never exactly garrulous, now he chattered, then lapsed into bouts of silence. As well as that, his driving was stripped suddenly of its precision. That weekend he had the first major accident of his career, the Auto Union somersaulting at around 150mph. Somehow he came out of it without injury, too shocked even to hold a cigarette.
At the end of the season, Varzi disappeared. Even his parents didn’t know where he was, but Auto Union finally traced him to Rome, where he was existing, according to the team’s doctor, on champagne, coffee and cigarettes. The morphine had complete hold, and he was slipping away from reality, an old man of 32. Not surprisingly, Auto Union decided against a new contact for 1937.
There was no sign of Varzi through most of that season. He’d moved to a Milan hotel. In his saner moments, Achille thought of the career he had tossed away. At the San Remo Grand Prix, he drove his own Maserati, winning against indifferent opposition. He then turned up for the Italian Grand Prix at Leghorn, pleading with Auto Union for one last chance. He had been treated, he said, and was cured. Rosemeyer supported him, and Varzi was tentatively hired for the last three races of the season.
At first, it was as if he had never been away, for he qualified second at Leghorn. The race was a different matter. If his genius remained, his stamina had evaporated, and he fell away to a distant sixth place.
In early 1938, Rosemeyer was killed in a record attempt, and Auto Union had desperate need of a top-class driver. They thought briefly of Varzi, but there was no way. He was still in morphine’s snare, and it was Nuvolari, ironically, to whom they turned.
Achille was seen no more until racing resumed after the war. Once more a member of the Alfa team, he was himself again, free of addiction, and married to Norma, whom he had known before the years of tribulation. On the track, and off, he had regained all his former grace. With Jean-Pierre Wimille as his team mate, Alfa dominated the early post-war years.
The first GP of 1948 was the Swiss at Bremgarten, and early evening was settling as Varzi went out on the opening day of practice. It was damp and murky, the track slick. While Louis Chiron followed, the Alfa went into a slide, then clipped a barrier and somersaulted, throwing Varzi out.
Chiron stopped, but there was nothing to be done. Varzi, as ever wearing only a linen helmet, had been killed instandy. His wife, already evident as a woman of fortitude and dignity, said no, she did not wish Alfa Romeo to withdraw; rather, the team should honour the name of Varzi by winning the race, and on Sunday Felice Trossi’s 158 duly triumphed.
No-one grieved more deeply than Fangio. He’d met Varzi in Argentina, and they had become firm friends. When Juan Manuel came to Europe in 1949, his team raced under the name of Squadra Achille Varzi.
“To me, Varzi was a god,” Fangio later said. “He gave me precious advice, and is probably the driver I have most admired in my life, a man who cared only for his art.”