Absolute Odyssey - Alfa Romeo's Formula 1 Tale
Despite the fact that the name Alfa Romeo hasn’t been in Formula 1 since 1987, (exactly 30 years ago) the Italian manufacturer is one of the most important names in the overall history of F1. It was recently announced that the legendary constructor will be returning to the series in 2018 as part of a new partnership with Sauber. I am a big fan of both Sauber and Alfa, and since I already made an article for Sauber (which you can read right here) I found it fitting to do another one for the returning brand. So, let’s begin.
King of the Series (1950 and 1951)
Alfa Romeo’s history in Formula 1 is pretty much the story of the series itself. The Italian manufacturer’s involvement in F1 can be traced all the way to the days before WW2, a time where there was no such thing as a “World Championship” to start with. It wasn’t until 1950 that the world saw such a thing as a championship where people in jet fuel-propelled machines raced each other around a circuit, with an amount of risk that would make someone with the least amount of common sense say “that seems a bit too dangerous” It was because of it’s humble starts that I just described that Formula 1 would also become known as “The Grand Circus”.
The first race of this new series, was disputed in an aerodrome belonging to the Royal Air Force, located just a couple miles away from a small village named Silverstone, in the south of England. It was a dramatic race. More than 20 cars took part, but only one of them managed to take the win, and that car, was the Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158 driven by Guiseppe ‘Nino’ Farina. It was there that Alfa Romeo became the first F1 race winners in the championship’s history. Farina would go on to become F1’s first World Champion, after he and Alfa won all but one (Indy 500) of the 1950 championship’s events. In 1951, a new driver, the great Juan Manuel Fangio ‘El Maestro‘ won with Alfa Romeo the first of his 5 World Championships.
The F1 Constructors’ Championship was not a thing until 1958, but had it existed in 1950, Alfa would have been remembered as the first F1 Constructor Champion after winning both the 50’ and 51’ championships. Instead however, that record is held by British constructor Vanwall.
In 1952, with the increased competition from their former employee’s team: Ferrari. Alfa Romeo (a state-owned company) withdrew after a refusal from the Italian government to fund the design of a new car to race with.
Humble Engine Supplier (1960 to 1971)
For the rest of the 50s, Alfa Romeo dissapeared from the sport it helped create. The 1960s saw the name return as an engine supplier, providing to small teams like DeTomaso in 1961 and LDS in 1962 to 1965. It was later that constructor’s champion team Cooper laid it’s attention in the Italian power units to test them in a prototype 1968 car, the T86C. The manufacturer provided the same V8 engines they equiped on their rather un-successful Tipo 33 race car. Lucien Bianchi entered the car at Brands Hatch and Monza but did not take part in either event. Alfa Romeo withdrew their support when it became clear in testing that the V8 was badly underpowered. Alfa did eventually use the engine in 1970 with a McLaren chasis, to make the story short, it was as bad as it could have been. They attempted again in 1971, now with a March chasis. It was slightly better than its predecessor, but still very bad. It was later modified and raced in Formula 5000. It wasn’t very succesfull there either, only disputing 11 events before it was stolen along with a spare engine that Alfa wanted to ditch anyway. The car was later found and restored to it’s original form. It is currently a common visitor to historic racing events.
Success with Brabham (1976 to 1979)
The Alfa Romeo name went silent during the early 1970s. But then, in 1976, Bernie Ecclestone (at the time chief of Brabham) made a deal to get the Italian manufacturer to supply them with their engines. The Alfa-powered Brabham BT45 managed a couple races in the points, finishing 9th in the championship. The Italian Flat-12 engines were more powerfull than the Cosworth DFV V8, which was very popular among the teams. However, due to the extra 4 cylinders, the Alfa engine was heavier, and extremely thirsty for fuel. There were attempts to modify the engine, but all resulted in a loss of power, so for 1977 Brabham was forced to basically take the engine and build a new car around it. This creation was named the BT45B, and it was rather succesful. With an improved aerodynamic profile and a lighter chasis it managed to take 2nd place at the opening race in Argentina, driven by Brazilian Carlos Pace. However his teammate John Watson had to retire with mechanical problems. The cars were proving to be fast but likely to fail. Things got worse for the team when their main driver, Pace, died in a plane crash. With a good amount of luck, Watson managed to immitate his late teammate’s 2nd place in the French GP, while Hans-Joachim Stuck, replacement of Pace, managed two 3rd place podiums in Germany and Austria. The combined efforts were enough to salvage a 5th place for the team in the championship that year.
The Brabham-Alfa team had taken a hard hit, and they knew they wouldn’t be able to resist another one. They got their act together and on the first event of the 1978 season they presented the new BT45C. With the updated car, driver Niki Lauda finished 2nd and 3rd in the first two races. Then arrived the South African GP, where the world saw for the first time what is technically until this day the most succesful F1 car ever. The Brabham BT46B, a.k.a ‘The Fan Car‘. The latest creation of Gordon Murray consisted on a complex series of clutches running from the engine to a large single fan at the back of the car. Therefore, the faster the engine ran, the stronger the suction effect. Modifications to implement the fan concept were quite extensive. They involved completely sealing the engine bay and adding the clutch system and fan. Brabham’s lead driver, Niki Lauda, realized he had to adjust his driving style, mostly for cornering. He found that if he accelerated around corners, the car would “stick” to the road as if it were on rails. The car arrived to the track and inmediately made protests arise. The team defended by declaring that the fan had the purpose of cooling the radiator and as a side effect sucked the air beneath it incresing grip. Lauda qualified 2nd and went on to win the race as the increadible grip of the car amazed all drivers and team bosses. However, it was Colin Chapman, head and founder of Lotus, who said that unless Ecclestone retired the car, Chapman would withraw his support for him as President of the Formula 1 Constructors Association. With Ecclestone (as always) thinking with his wallet, he didn’t hesitate to withdraw the car for the next race at the US. Therefore sending months of work by the team straight to the bin. However, since the car was still technically legal, Brabham kept the win of the race, making it the first win for an Alfa Romeo-powered car since 1951. The team finished the season with standard BT46s and still managed some very good results finishing 3rd in the constructors championship. They got podiums in Monaco, Sweden, Britain, and the Netherlands before they won the Italian GP after drivers Mario Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve were disqualified. The long time Italian F1 fans rejoiced as Alfa powered cars finished 1st and 2nd in their home race.
Return as a Constructor (1979 to 1985)
Brabham cut ties with Alfa Romeo before the end of 1978 and announced that they would return to Cosworth engines for the following season. However, Alfa Romeo had seen that a succesful return to the series was possible, and therefore in 1979 presented the new car that would see the Italian brand return to the sport as a works team. Designed by Alfa Romeo’s racing department, Autodelta, the Alfa 177 F1 was presented halfway through the season. The 177, designation was derived from the fact that the design was started in 1977, the car was wide and low, and was finished in the handsome dark red colour adopted by Alfa in their early racing days. The 177 featured a light aluminium chassis, with a new innovative front suspension system and aerodynamic design. Driven by Bruno Giacomelli, (F2 champion at the time) it retired on its first race at Belgium and finished 17th on the next race in France. The dissapointed team decided to skip the following 4 races. An updated car had a best result of 12th in the Italian GP while driven by Vittorio Brambillia, they weren’t the results Alfa had expected, but it was some improvement from the start of the season. They would fail to score a single point that year and finished 16th out of 19 teams.
For 1980, with new sponsorship from Marlboro, they presented the succesor to the dissapointing 177. Deemed the 179 it was the victim of dissaster. The car managed to finish in the points in the opening race at Argentina. They went on to finish all but one of the races they completed in the points. I should say though, that the car only managed to finish a race 3 times. The car proved fast in qualifying with Giacomelli taking pole position at Watkins Glenn, a race which he lead for numerous laps before retiring with electrical issues. Multiple mechanical failures meant the best result was a pair of 5th places that gave the team 4 points, placing them 11th in the championship. However, tragedy struck when their new driver Patrick Depailler was killed in an accident while testing before the German GP. The team kept their 179 car racing until 1982 with only a few tweaks in the form of C and D specs.
1981 was a significant improvement over the previous season. The cars were now even faster (when they worked) and in the hands of new driver Mario Andretti, managed a new best race result of 4th at the opening event. The cars continued to have trouble regarding reliability, however the retirements were less each time as the cars could deliver consistent results. Eventually, in the last race of the season, Giacomelli gave the team its first podium at the dramatic venue that was the Ceasar’s Palace GP. The team finished 9th in the championship.
1982 was a decent season for Alfa Romeo. It was also to be the last year of the Alfa 179, as the team had been working on a new replacement for the old machinery, halfway through the season, the team presented a new car, the Alfa 182. On the race at Long Beach, Alfa’s driver Andrea De Cesaris became the youngest poleman ever, at the same time that he established a new record for F1’s fastest lap at an average of 141 kph. Many retirements came, and made the team fail to get at least one car to finish any of the following 4 races. Eventually, their luck turned, and in the Monaco GP, De Cesaris delivered another podium for the team. They scored points in Canada and once again in Germany, achieving a total of 7 points that got them in 10th place for that year.
1983 saw the team present a new car, The Alfa 183T. For the new car, Alfa had given up their classic Flat 12 engine for a more modern V8 Turbo. The season had a dramatic start as the team’s lead driver De Cesaris was disqualified from the opening race at Brazil. And a retirement from their newest driver Mauro Baldi meant the team failed to score any points. More double retirements followed in the US and San Marino. The new car seemed to be fast, as in the Belgian GP it qualified 2nd and went on to lead the race for several laps even setting the fastest lap of the race before De Cesaris had to retire with mechanical problems yet again. However, a sudden strike of luck arrived by the German GP and De Cesaris finished an incredible 2nd place. A 4th place followed in Brands Hatch before De Cesaris fiished the last race of the season in South Africa with another 2nd place. It was by default Alfa Romeo’s most succesful season since its return as a constructor, however the dissapointing amount of retirements restrained the team from finishing higher than 6th in the championship, a result that still was very positive.
1984 was more of the same. Cars were still fast and the drivers were still good, but aparently the retirements just couldn’t be removed from the mix no matter how hard the team tried. The team had also changed their name due to a new main sponsor: Benetton. The new green 184T cars had a strong start that was perfectly balanced with dissapointment. They finished the first race with one car in 4th place and the other parked beside the guardrails. They repeated the exact same trick on the second race before going home early from the 3rd race with a double retirement. The whole season was a total insult to the once glorious name of Alfa Romeo, the underpowered cars just weren’t able to keep up with the rest of the pack and new drivers Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheveer were forced to simply wait until the engines either just gave up trying, or ran out of fuel, whatever happened first. And the thing was, Alfa Romeo never quite figured out how to make a reliable engine, but they were THE ABSOLUTE BEST in making engines with serious drinking problems. This hadn’t bothered Alfa that much since re-fueling was permited, however, 1984 saw an end to that, and now Alfa was forced to think of something to make their car stop drinking like a broken-hearted maniac. Minor modifications were made and results improved by the last races of the season. Then, arrived the team’s home GP in Italy, and with it, a miracle. Powered by sheer hope and force of will, the engine kept running until the end of the race, allowing local Patrese to resist as 16 of the 26 cars retired. Alfa’s mechanics and team as a whole watched in fear as Cheveer retired with an empty tank, while his teammate was holding up to 3rd place. They were just waiting for things to go wrong, however, they somehow didn’t and Patrese crossed the finish line 3rd. Two Italian drivers, from two different Italian manufacturers stood in the podium that day as the crowd cheered for Ferrari (that had taken 2nd place from Lotus in the championship) and for the small but just as loved Alfa Romeo.
In 1985, Alfa presented a new car, the 185T. Now, if the 1984 184T was an absolute pig of a car, the 185T was its fatter and clumsier brother. It was slow and unreliable, and it is mostly remembered for staring in what was considered the most dramatic crash of the 1985 season. On lap 16 of the Monaco Grand Prix, Nelson Piquet in his Brabham-BMW was attempting to pass Patrese along the notoriously hard to pass pit straight. Patrese moved across on his former Brabham teammate and put the Brazilian into the guardrail. In a shower of sparks, flames and debris famously captured by the television cameras, both the Brabham and the Alfa were destroyed, though both drivers were able to walk away injury free.
After 8 races with absolutely no success at all, Alfa ditched the 185T, brought the 184T out of retirement, updated it to 1985 specs and deemed it the 184T-B. In traditional Alfa fashion, when trying to mend something, they created a something worse. The 184TB was so bad it convinced Alfa Romeo of stop wasting money in a lost cause and withdraw from the sport for the second and last time.
Or so we thought.
Last Pittyfull Goodbye (1985 to 1988)
Alfa Romeo wanted to leave Formula 1 before anything else happened. Sadly for them, they had a contract to provide engines to the fellow Italian team Osella. Alfa was forced to stay and watch for 3 more years cars that were literally named FAIL (Real name was the Osella FA1L, Mr Smit did a nice article about it a while ago which I’ll link right here) No team at the time had seen such an increadible amount of retirements in one season. After 2 years of embarrasment, Alfa Romeo ordered its name to be removed from the engine covers. The best result for the car was a 9th place in Monaco 1988. After that, Osella finally ended Alfa’s torture and switched to Cosworth engines.
Triumphant Return? (2017 to ——-)
In 2017, it was announced that the name Alfa Romeo would be returning to Formula 1 in 2018 as the new lead sponsor for Sauber. As of now the Italian brand is playing it safe, positioning itself only as a sponsor, therefore if the cars break down at least it won’t be their fault. But could we see Alfa Romeo return to the sport as a fully fledged Constructor or perhaps at least a new engine supplier? Only time will tell.
So guys that was the story of Alfa Romeo’s long and complicated relationship with Formula 1. If you have read until this point I would like to thank you very very much, it really means something to me. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. Tell me, what do you think of Alfa returning to F1? Do you think a constructor team is possible? Leave your answers in the comments.
At the time I wrote this, it is December the 20th. I’m not sure if I will be able to get another article up before Christmas, but you can expect another one before new year :)
Until then, Happy Holidays and until next time!
THANK YOU FOR READING