The rivalry between Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari was one of the fiercest in motor racing history. However, while Nuvolari ranks among the very great, there was a dark side to Varzi. He was troubled by drugs at a time when he should have been at the height of his powers.
Early bike racing career
The son of a Milanese textile manufacturer, Varzi was a steely competitor with a reserved demeanour. He started racing motorcycles while still a teenager and he won the Italian 350cc Championship in 1923. He raced in the Tourist Trophy a year later and was rewarded for sportsmanship with the Nisbet Award after crashing to avoid a fallen rider. Nuvolari and Varzi both rode for Bianchi in 1928, starting one of the legendary rivalries.
Car racing debut
Varzi also made his debut in cars that year when third at Tripoli with a Bugatti T35. He then finished second in the Italian Grand Prix sharing an Alfa Romeo P2 with Giuseppe Campari.
Varzi and the Alfa Romeo soon started winning with his 1930 Targa Florio victory among the highlights. Nuvolari also joined Alfa Romeo that year so Varzi defected to Maserati in the middle of the year. He won the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara, the Monza and Spanish GPs and Varzi was declared 1930 Italian Champion.
Grand Prix success for Bugatti
He joined Bugatti for 1931 and shared a T51 with Louis Chiron in the 10-hour GPs that year. They scored a resounding win over the works Alfa Romeos in the French GP at Montlhéry. His greatest victory was on the streets of Monte Carlo in 1933 when Varzi defeated Nuvolari after a race-long duel. However, his success a fortnight later at Tripoli was met with allegations of race fixing. With a massive lottery prize decided by the result of the race, the leading drivers were accused of deciding the finishing positions in order to share part of the winnings.
He returned to Alfa Romeo and Scuderia Ferrari in 1934 and won both the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio. However, his Alfa Romeo Tipo-B "P3" was outgunned by the new German teams in GP racing although Varzi was named as Italian Champion for a second time.
Switch to Auto Union
Varzi signed to lead Auto Union in 1935 and won on his debut in the rear-engine vehicle at Tunis. However, the Italian was eclipsed by young team-mate Bernd Rosemeyer as the year developed.
Varzi began an ill-fated affair with the wife of team-mate Paul Pietsch. He started experimenting with morphine and the habit enveloped his life. He missed the start of the 1937 season amid rumours of his private troubles but reappeared at San Remo in July to win the voiturette race for Maserati. A lapped sixth in the Italian GP for Auto Union, Varzi raced in the 1938 Tripoli GP before disappearing from the sport once more.
Post-war racing return
Varzi overcame his addiction during World War II, married Norma Colombo and returned to racing in 1946. He rejoined Alfa Romeo and showed his old speed in the all-conquering 158 Alfetta. Victory in the 1946 Turin GP confirmed his rehabilitation and he finished second in the following year’s Swiss, Belgian and Italian GPs. 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.
Renowned as a very precise driver, Varzi had only crashed once (a 180mph end-over-end roll at Tunis in 1936) during his long career. However, practising before the 1948 Swiss GP, he spun on the wet track at the Jorden curve. The car hit a wall of planks and overturned, crushing Varzi underneath.
He was always impeccably dressed and drove with a similar style. 15,000 locals attended the funeral in Galliate of a fallen hero who had rebuilt his life. He was Nuvolari’s greatest rival and that is praise indeed.