Le Grand Prix des Nations



Here is the famous prewar Italian driver Achille Varzi at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 158 during the 1946 Grand Prix des Nations at the Geneva street circuit. This was one of the initial Grand Prix races after World War II.

Varzi’s 158 was the more powerful variant with twin-stage supercharging and over 400 hp. So as not to overstress the cars, many of which had been laid up during War, and also to give maximum entertainment to the huge crowd which lined the streets behind only wooden fences, the race was run in two 32-lap heats and a 44-lap final. This street circuit was about 1.8 miles in length with a lap speed of only about 60 mph. Varzi was now 42 years old and finished second in the first heat. However, in the final he had engine problems which resulted in several pit stops giving him only 7th place, two laps down on the winning Alfa of Giuseppe (“Nino”) Farina who would become the first World Champion with an Alfa in 1950.

As with most prewar drivers, Varzi had started his career on motorcycles. He then stepped up to cars with Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Auto Union and was perhaps the closest rival prewar to the great Tazio Nuvolari. Varzi had a somewhat melodramatic life before the War. First, he was involved in a claimed betting scandal to fix the results of the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix. Then, he became involved with Ilse Pietsch, wife of the German driver/journalist Paul Pietsch. Ilse introduced Varzi to morphine to which they both became addicted, thereby affecting his racing. He returned to racing after the War, having supposedly overcome his addiction.

Varzi was entered with another Alfa 158 for the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix at the difficult Bremgarten circuit at Bern, but lost control on a wet road during practice and was fatally crushed by his overturned car.

Photo by Louis Klemantaski ©The Klemantaski Collection

One comment

  1. jim sitz · · Reply

    I had always regarded Varzi as the competiton for Nuvolari, who was certainly better known to the general public, Born 8.8.1908, he almost reached 44 when he crashed fatally. Had been 500cc motorcycle champion of Italy in 1928. April 1939 he had recovered and ready to rejoin Alfa Romeo and deemed to old for military action. Ran the family textile business and married his youthful sweetheart Norma Columbo in 1940.

    One noted journalist of the time regarded final crash has only his 2nd,!
    The previous serious one was May of 1936 at Tunis Grand Prix at 180 mph in the V-16 Auto Union but he was back the wheel month later at Budapest to finish 3rd . Think he deserves a better place in motorsport history.

    Paul Pietsch went on to establish reknown motoring Publishing business, inc DAS AUTO
    and MOTOR REVUE. he was invited to drive the mighty Alfa 158 at home track in 1951 at the Nurburgring but had big crash at Nordcurve and walked back to pits with big applause..lucky fellow.

    jim sitz


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