Achille Varzi was one of the greatest drivers of all and master of a smooth driving style that was fast and effective. Always elegant and immaculate in his personal style his racing career was virtually error free. He only had two on track incidents caused by driver error, and the second one cost him his life.
Born in Galliate, Novara, Piedmont, Italy, Achille Varzi was the son of a prosperous textile manufacturer.
He started competing on motorcyles like his brother Angelo. He was soon winning taking his first victory at the circuit of Tigullio in 1922, with a Garelli 350.
In the 1923, at the age of 19, he won 350 Italian Championship, winning at Perugia, Busto Arsizio, Padova, Parma-Poggio Berceto and Lario. Late in the year he raced a 500cc Norton in the Grand Prix of Nations at Monza.
In 1924 he took wins in both the 350 and 500 class and won the Nisbet Shield at the Tourist Trophy for sportsmanship after another rider fell infront of him. In a split second he had to choose between running over him or crashing into a wall. He chose the wall and was fortunate not to be injured.
In 1925 he rode for Sunbeam but it was a bleak season with a win at Novara and the Visitor's Cup at the Tourist Trophy.
1926 saw a return to the top in the 500cc class. Winning at Stradella, the circuit of Belfiore, Lodi, circuit of the Adriatic and Monza, after a great duel with Arcangeli. He won the Visitor's Cup at the British TT again and then driving a Bugatti, he made his four wheel debut. He retired with mechanical problems but declared: "...it was easy and natural like if I had driven all my life...". His natural talent in cars was even greater than on two wheels.
In 1927 he continued racing motorcycles, joining Moto Guzzi. He won at the circuit of Savio on a 250 butw the rest of the season was hampered by mechanical problems.
In 1928 Varzi joined the Bianchi team with Nuvolari. Together they won numerous races. Then Nuvolari started his own team in order to race cars and Varzi joined him, though he would continue to race and win on motorcycles up until 1930.
Nuvolari and Varzi started racing in Type 35 Bugattis. Varzi employed Guido Bignami as his mechanic. Bignami worked with Varzi throughout his career before becoming Fangio’s mechanic. However to gain a competitive edge on Nuvolari, Varzi bought a P2 Alfa Romeo, and late in the year set up on his own. In 1929 Nuvolari was forced into buying a P2 to keep up with Varzi. So Varzi, trying to keep one step ahead, he also acquired a Maserati, and driving this and the P2 he won the Italian Championship in 1930.
In 1930 he entered the Targa Florio with his 2-litre Grand Prix Alfa Romeo. Starting 12 minutes behind the favorite, Louis Chiron, he gained a minute on the French champion in the first 20 miles. During the race, his spare wheel rubbed a small hole in the petrol tank. Varzi was in the lead but Chiron was closing. Chiron’s mechanic was sick and he had to replace two damaged wheels. Meanwhile Varzi started the last lap with no spare wheel as the bracket had broken and his fuel tank was still leaking. Near the finish he had to stop o pick up a can of petrol and his mechanic endeavoured to pour its contents into the tank while still racing. Some of the fuel spilt onto the hot exhaust pipe and ignited. With the flames almost reaching Varzi he pressed on, leaning forward, to give Bignami as much room as possible to put the fire out with a seat cushion. Varzi had lost nearly a minute to Chiron as he roared through Campfelice and entered the five-mile straight that ran along the sea-shore. Here he had an advantage with the top speed of the Alfa. He went on to win by 1 min.48.4 secs, his first major victory.
1931 saw Varzi return to Bugatti with a Type 51 taking three victories, including the French Grand Prix sharing with Chiron. 1932 was a poor year, but in 1933 he won the Monaco Grand Prix after an epic duel with Nuvolari that lasted for 97 of the 100 laps. Following his win at the Tripoli Grand Prix, Varzi was at the forefront of allegations that the race had been fixed.
Returning to Alfa Romeo in 1934, Varzi won 9 races with the P3 and the Mille Miglia in a Monza Alfa. Varzi won the Italian Championship for the second time.
In 1935 Nuvolari was back driving for Enzo Ferrari in 1935 so Varzi decided to join the Auto Union team, racing for them between 1935 and 1937. A lover of the good life, Varzi began having serious personal problems, including an addiction to morphine and a difficult affair with Ilse Hubach, the wife of a fellow racecar driver. Quickly overshadowed by team-mate Bernd Rosemeyer, his trips to the winners circle dropped to only four but he did win his third Tripoli Grand Prix in his third different vehicle.
He was out of racing for much of 1937 and by 1938 he had dropped out of sight. Then with the advent of World War II, racing ended in Europe. During the war, Varzi overcame his drug addiction and settled down with his new wife, Norma Colombo.
After the war he made a surprise return to form with two successful seasons in the Alfa Romeo 158. He also raced in South America and became very popular with the Argentineans, planning to live their when he retired. In Argentina he formed the Scuderia Achille Varzi and it was with this team that Juan Manuel Fangio started out.
In 1947, he won three minor Grand Prix in Europe and raced in theGrand Prix of Buenos Aires.
Then in practice for the Swiss and European Grand Prix on July 1st 1948 at the Bremgarten track, Varzi, immaculate as always, driving his 158 Alfa Romeo on a damp track, skidded on the Jordenrampe curve spun several times and then, after almost coming to a stop, rolled over and was crushed. Varzi's first real mistake cost him his life.
Buried in his hometown, Achille Varzi is still a racing icon in his native Italy. In 1991, author Giorgio Terruzzi told his story in a book titled Una curva cieca - Vita di Achille Varzi.
Varzi’s coffin stood for three days and nights on the chassis of a racing car in the church at Galliate, and his friends stood vigil over it. Some fifteen thousand people attended his funeral. Part of the farewell address at his grave went: "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. Beethoven was struck with deafness when he seemed about to transcend man's powers of musical expression. Galileo was blinded when he tried to probe infinity and its laws. Leonardo da Vinci's hands were crippled when he was about to come nearer to perfection than any man before him. And you too, Achille, were destroyed when you sought to cross the known frontiers of man-made speed.
During his career, Achille Varzi competed in 139 races, winning 33.
Some of his major victories include: