Currently reading: From the archive: An epic racing battle between deadly rivals
Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi, the greatest drivers of their era, faced off over 100 laps of Monaco in 1933

One of the greatest rivalries in motor racing history played out through the 1930s. In fact, Motor Sport magazine recently named it the most explosive ever. 

The two men involved were Tazio Nuvolari – a legend considered by many as the most talented driver of all time – and Achille Varzi, a fellow Italian 12 years his junior and himself supremely capable, but more refined, less gung-ho in his style.

Their competition seemed outwardly bitter, even if Varzi would say later that it had been underpinned by mutual respect.

It started not on four wheels but two. Varzi had begun successfully racing motorcycles as a youngster – even contesting the Isle of Man TT seven times in the 1920s – where he first encountered Nuvolari. 

Proof that their rivalry began amicably is found in the fact that they formed a grand prix racing team together with Cesare Pastore in 1928, purchasing four Bugatti Type 35s. Nuvolari won its first race, the Tripoli Grand Prix.

However, for some unclear reason, the two soon fell out, and Varzi struck out on his own by buying himself an Alfa Romeo P2.

This led to the most famous incident between the two the next year, as Nuvolari was called up by Alfa Romeo to contest the Mille Miglia – an epic 1000-mile road rally around Italy. Varzi was also on the works team, having impressed the Milanese car maker during his impressive 1929 grand prix season in one of its cars.

A close battle between the leading pair of three factory-entered 6Cs produced a legendary, if possibly mythical, piece of motor racing folklore as Nuvolari switched off his headlights so as to creep up behind Varzi, to then surprise and unnerve him with full beam before overtaking.


The more likely story is that the designer of the fabled 6C, Vittorio Jano, told Varzi that he was leading on elapsed time when he was actually running second for fear of the two rivals ruining the cars through racing too fiercely.

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Either way, the younger driver was left fuming, so much so that he switched his factory allegiance to an up-and-coming new marque by the name of Maserati.

Three years later, in the summer of 1933, came the ultimate showdown – Varzi out for revenge, Nuvolari equally determined to prove his supremacy.

It was only the fifth running of the Monaco Grand Prix, and the circuit was very different from the one we're used to now as the crown jewel of the modern Formula 1 calendar.

Although the layout would be instantly recognisable, the first corner had a much wider radius, the tunnel was much shorter and there was no chicane before Tabac, no Swimming Pool section and a simple hairpin in place of La Rascasse and Anthony Noghes at the end of the lap.

Oh, and of course, there weren't any safety measures to be seen, apart from the odd sandbag – only brick walls, lamp-posts, trees and paved sections. Try not to drop it into the harbour, eh?

It would have been an incredible spectacle, no doubt, and indeed Autocar reported that "if there is any part of the towns of Monaco and Monte Carlo in which grand prix enthusiasts cannot be found, it is because of the impossibility of human beings obtaining access to them".

The grid was determined by lap times in practice, and so Varzi started on pole in his Bugatti T51, painted the blue of France. To his left was home hero Louis Chiron in his own dark blue Alfa Romeo 8C, to his right Baconin Borzacchini in the same, painted Italian red for Scuderia Ferrari. Nuvolari, also of Ferrari, was fourth.

Eighteen cars started the race, because legendary German driver Rudolf Carraciola had shattered his thigh by crashing his 8C in practice.


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"Varzi flashes ahead and Borzacchini shoots across Chiron's track to get on the tail of the Bugatti," Autocar reported, "only to find that place occupied by Nuvolari.

"Hardly more than a minute has elapsed since the disappearance of the pack over the top of the hill before a blue patch reveals itself in the mouth of the illuminated tunnel. But close behind is Nuvolari's red Alfa, which, despite a violent skid at the bottom of the station hill, causing it to jump on to the footpath, has lost nothing to its rival.

"From the outset, all attention is focused on Varzi and Nuvolari, undoubtedly the world's two finest racing drivers of the present day, men who have always been deadly personal rivals, who refused to work together in the same team, and who were determined now that they had different makes of cars to beat each other.

"Varzi holds the lead for the first three laps – nearly six miles. Then, as a mighty roar goes up from the crowd, Nuvolari, in his rather stained yellow jersey, is seen to flash past Varzi on the hill leading to the Casino.

"This is the beginning of a fight to last for three and a half hours, during which these two cars are never more than 20 yards apart – sometimes, indeed, not six inches apart; a run of 100 laps during which Nuvolari is destined to have the lead 66 times and Varzi 34 times. But this is anticipating.

"For three laps Varzi has the lead; for three more Nuvolari is a length ahead; then Varzi is leading for three; then Nuvolari for three; then Varzi for four - and so it continues; such keen competition that one unjustly forgets the others.

"Placing cars on the starting line in their order of speed ability has helped to accelerate the race, to set a fast pace, and to make it more difficult for the weaker members [in the early days, grids were often decided by ballot]. Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini are out in the front from the beginning, and the others are suffering in their efforts to keep pace with them.

"The exception is Philippe Étancelin, a merchant from Rouen, who races purely for the love of the game and who is displaying extraordinary vim.

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"Étancelin, by really fine driving, gets in ahead of the chubby but speedy Borzacchini and begins to pursue the two leaders. He feels confident, he is certain that he is going to catch one of them and secure second place. But approaching the kink which forms the introduction to the pier, he makes a slight mistake, hits the sandbags, advances for a distance of 50 yards in a series of spins of a most spectacular and thirlling nature, then comes to a standstill."


Realising no damage had been done, Étancelin got back in the car and did it all over again. "He performs wonderfully," we said, "and gets within 50 yards of Nuvolari and Varzi, in doing so reducing the lap record.

"Sixty laps have been covered and still this fight is going on. Étancelin is really dangerous, for he is right on the heels of the leading pair and well ahead of Borzacchini.

"Varzi, Nuvolari and Étancelin approach the gasworks hairpin in a compact group. They are so close that Nuvolari's dumb-iron overlaps Varzi's tail. Étancelin is three lengths behind. He swings his Alfa round the bend, grits his teeth in a manner which indicates 'Now I am going to get these two', accelerates, slips into third [gear] – and slows down. A differential shaft has broken!

"Now it is finished, we say to ourselves. For 17 consecutive laps Nuvolari has held the lead, with Varzi right on his tail, and yet he has been unable to get by. 

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"There are two more laps to run, and as Nuvolari and Varzi come into the hairpin, just as they had for those 17 preceding laps, Varzi, six inches astern, slips into second, presses on the accelerator and shoots his Bugatti past the Alfa. But Nuvolari has slightly higher speed, and on the hill to the Casino his car flashes past the Bugatti. Now they are just as they were again, with Nuvolari in the lead and only four miles to go.

"Only one lap to be covered. The two cars approach the hill to the Casino; Varzi realises that this is the time to risk for all. He keeps in third, lets the engine race up to 7000rpm. It stands it, and he flashes past. A roar from 7000 throats marks the exploit. Varzi is leading and winning.

"The last lap begins. Nuvolari also tried third gear, and gets 7000rpm on the Casino hill, but the effort fails. We look towards the mouth of the tunnel and see a blue Bugatti appear, but there is no red Alfa behind it. Varzi has won, and the crowd is delirious.

"When Nuvolari, hard pressed by his rival, held the revs at more than 7000, an oil pipe broke and the hot oil was directed on the exhaust pipe. As he passes in front of the Hotel de Paris the car is signalled to be on fire; but Nuvolari refuses to stop. He races down the station hill, reaches the seashore. Men with fire extinguishers try to stop him, but he cannot be stopped.


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"Just after the turn on to the Quai the car can run no longer by impetus. Nuvolari stands up in his seat, jumps out of his car and pushes. Then, arriving exhausted at his pits, despite his protests, somebody opens the bonnet and uses a fire extinguisher. In the excitement, Nuvolari forgets to push his car just those few yards to the actual finish."

This left Borzacchini to take silver, despite "the engine of his Alfa rattling like a thousand old cans, steam and smoke squirting from the bonnet", followed by René Dreyfus for Bugatti.

"The race is over. Nuvolari, after a magnificent drive, has lost during the last lap. Lost so completely that he is not even placed. It is one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen in the history of motor car racing."

Tazio would more than make up for this disappointment, however, a few months later, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Alfa Romeo. And then, in 1935, he would take once of the greatest underdog victories ever, defeating the five Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz cars at the Nürburgring in an old Alfa Romeo with some 100hp less.

He would continue to compete successfully in Italy and Germany until the outbreak of the war in 1939. After a respectable comeback come peacetime, he died from a stroke in 1953, outliving his younger nemesis by five years. 

Varzi's life began to fall apart around 1935, through a very public affair with another driver's wife and then a crippling addiction to morphine. Having secured a dream move to the leading Auto Union team, he would often not show up to races or drive poorly and began to behave erratically, and then in 1938 he simply vanished. 

After the war, with his life sorted out and aged 42, Varzi returned to racing, only to be killed by flipping his car in practice for the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix.

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rhwilton 5 May 2020

Achille Varsi

I was given a book of top 100 Grand Prix drivers. You know the sort of thing. My knowledge of pre-WW2 drivers was pretty limited before getting this present.  Varzi was in it. My teenage children were entertained to hear about Varzi’s drug addiction and adultery. I don’t suppose he did those interviews where he thanked the team and the sponsors and said nothing.