In this series, Carboretta will lend colour to those motorsport figures that time forgot. Whilst fans bemoan the PR-driven racers of today, the past is littered with characters of genuine complexity.
In this, the first instalment, we take a closer look at Achille Varzi, one of the greatest drivers of the pre-war era.
“Perhaps you were destined to die, Achille, because in your driving there was something of that genius which is one of Nature’s greatest mysteries, and Nature strives to destroy those who come too close to her.”
The most fascinating of stories tend to follow a roughly similar arc. It reads as follows: the main protagonist rises through the ranks, tasting the spoils of victory along the way — only to suffer a dramatic fall. Undeterred, they pick themselves out of the dust and reclaim their throne, but with ultimately tragic consequences. It is a wholly Shakespearean template, but one that Varzi emulated spectacularly during his colourful life.
Achille was an enigma. He was a cold, calculating character; and, whilst Italian, he hailed from the northern Piedmont region, demonstrating few of his country’s traditional stereotypes. Varzi’s driving style was not flamboyant or dramatic. He was no extrovert, but a clinical artist.
Yet his downfall was as dramatic and erratic as any in world sport. A serial race winner in the early 1930s, by the end of the decade Varzi was holed up in a Milanese hotel room clinging to a morphine addiction.
I digress. To comprehend this tragedy, we must understand what made him such a colossus in the first place.
Varzi was no working class hero. He didn’t rise up out of the dirt. In fact, Achille was born into a family enjoying the fruits of a profitable cotton business — in Giallate, near Milan.
Following a successful motorcycle career in his youth, Varzi decided to make the leap onto four wheels. Leaning on his affluent background, the Italian went out and bought an Alfa P2 in 1928.
With all the rumblings about pay drivers in modern Grand Prix racing, it is easy to forget that motor racing has always been a rich man’s game.
This privateer effort quickly translated into a works Alfa Romeo drive, and for the next couple of years Varzi enjoyed considerable success. By 1930 he had earned the title ‘Champion of Italy’ thanks to his virtuoso performances. This included a spectacular drive in that year’s Targa Florio road race – Varzi breaking the French Bugatti team’s stranglehold on the proudly Italian event. Later in the year he switched to Maserati, again tasting glory on a number of occasions.
Three years later, having in the meantime become a ‘traitor’ by switching to Bugatti (but maintaining his glittering run of form), Varzi completed a full-circle by returning to Alfa Romeo.
It was during these years that his now legendary rivalry with Tazio Nuvolari was reaching fever pitch. Fans savoured countless scintillating battles between the Latin pair. The 1930 Mille Miglia – in which Nuvolari snatched the race after a late lunge on his countryman – comes to mind, as does the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix; in which Varzi triumphed after exchanging the lead several times with Nuvolari.
Considered the two stand-out performers of the era, they were nevertheless beginning to struggle against the increasing might of the Germans. Mercedes and Auto Union were beginning to decimate the opposition.
Varzi, in another seemingly inspired move, joined the latter in 1935, leaving Nuvolari patriotically steadfast but floundering in Scuderia Ferrari’s Alfa Romeo. Surely the ruthlessly efficient combination of Varzi and Auto Union would bestride the Grand Prix scene?
As it happened, the agreement consigned this otherwise great Italian to the deep.
It was not the team that instigated this tragic course of events. Quite the opposite, in fact; Varzi quickly began a serial winning streak, with victories at Tunis and Pescara. No, what caused Achille’s fall was something far more predictable. Love, and human weakness.
Varzi met Illse, the beautiful wife of fellow Auto Union driver Paul Pietsch, early in 1935. An affair was struck up between the two almost immediately, and the new couple soon made little effort to hide their affection for one another. And so it went on.
Achille remained with Auto Union the following year, and nothing seemed unusual until Tripoli. Varzi loved the place, having won there on two previous occasions. Moreover, given that Libya was then an Italian colony, it was thought fitting that Varzi should be guaranteed a third victory, over his team-mates Bernd Rosemeyer and Hans Stuck. Varzi duly snatched the win, having overtaken Stuck in the final sprint to the flag. The Italian had averaged 142mph on his final lap, smashing the existing record.
It was only after the event that matters turned sour. At the traditional post-race dinner, the Governor of Libya committed an excruciating faux-pas by toasting Stuck as the moral victor. Varzi, beside himself with embarrassment and rage, trudged away to his hotel room, and into Illse’s arms.
Until this point, Varzi was unaware of his partner’s morphine addiction. But then (it is understood), cloaked by the room’s darkness, enveloped by shame and insomnia, Illse offered him release of a most destructive kind. Achille, the calculating, ruthlessly disciplined sportsman, reluctantly surrendered to the hovering syringe.
When Varzi eventually emerged, blurry-eyed, from that hotel suite, one of pre-war racings’ glistening beacons had been extinguished.
The alteration in Varzi’s temperament was immediately apparent during the next Grand Prix at Tunis. His persona was erratic. Whilst the man of old was brooding, measured and reserved, this morphine-sullied figure was prone to bouts of sudden chattering, followed by hushed silence. He was unshaven, shaken and fragile. To put it more bluntly, Varzi had rapidly declined into Auto Union’s answer to Jesse Pinkman.
That weekend he escaped a monumental 150mph accident, Achille flipping the car but emerging mercifully unscathed. The shock of the crash caused him to sink further into himself, and, after another clutch of anonymous performances, Varzi disappeared into thin air at the end of the year, a ghost. His contract un-renewed, it seemed that Varzi’s racing career was over.
Actually, for a time it seemed his life was over. No one could find him. Not even his parents had the first clue as to where their skeletal junkie son had slinked off to. Eventually, Auto Union located its former charge; slumped in a Milanese hotel room, living day-to-day on a concoction of alcohol, cigarettes and Italian coffee. By this stage his ruinous relationship with Illse had run its course, but Varzi was no closer to recovery.
This anonymity remained during 1937, until Varzi decided to enter his own Maserati into the San Remo Grand Prix. Although the strength of opposition was debatable, Achille nevertheless won convincingly, which encouraged him to try and get back into bed with Auto Union. Naturally reluctant, the Germans eventually gave in, gifting him a drive for the final three races.
It was immediately clear for all to see that Varzi had lost none of his flair – his sparkle. Second only to Caracciola’s Mercedes in practice, had the addict beaten the odds? Was the Varzi of old alive after all?
The short answer is yes, and no. Although Varzi’s speed was unarguable — running comfortably near the front – the stamina required to last the duration was predictably absent. Rolling into the pits, bathed in sweat, Varzi was promptly dropped from the team.
Achille returned to the shadows that by now fitted like an overcoat, slipping off the radar until the war had ended. By the time Grand Prix racing rejuvenated itself, Varzi was transformed. He had married a steady, wholesome lady in Norma Varzi, whom he knew from before his downward spiral, and had sought professional help for his addiction. The artist had returned from the brink.
Alfa Romeo had signed this new, changed Varzi to lead its assault on the races, with Jean-Pierre Wimille in the other car and Norma by his side.
Varzi savoured his post-war renaissance until the opening Grand Prix of 1948, at Bremgarten, in Switzerland. With the circuit treacherously greasy, Varzi slipped off the road during practice at the high-speed Jordenrampe corner. Smacking a barrier, Achille’s Alfa spun and turned over, crushing its driver on impact. Varzi was 43.
Quite the tale, I’m sure you’ll agree.