The bond between Alfa Romeo and Formula 1 is inscribed in the history of GP racing: Alfa Romeo won the inaugural Grand Prix Championship in 1950, with Nino Farina on board an Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 “Alfetta”, a success repeated in 1951 by Juan Manuel Fangio in the Alfetta 159
Race number One Thousand
May 13 marks the anniversary of the very first Formula 1 Grand Prix race ever, launching one of the great sporting legends of our time. That race in 1950, the British Grand Prix held at Silverstone, was celebrated by the FIA in Shangai on 14 July 2019 (the one thousandth race) and now on 13 May 2020, Formula 1’s seventieth birthday.
Seventy years apart, two very different eras of Formula One racing display a stark contrast. In 1950, crash helmets were still optional, there was no television, and the spectators lined the track on foot. Today, the Formula 1 “circus” is an ultra-technological global industry, transmitted to 400 million TV and web viewers every season.
Only two things are common to both eras: the passion of the public, and Alfa Romeo, which returned to Formula 1 in 2018 together with the Sauber team, and as from 2020 will compete under the name Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN.
Alfa Romeo just wasn’t the same without Formula 1. And maybe Formula 1 wasn’t quite the same without Alfa Romeo.
The Alfetta 158
The 1938 Alfetta was a technological jewel. The in-line eight-cylinder engine featured twin overhead cams and a single-stage supercharger fed by a triple-choke carburettor and was developed by Gioacchino Colombo, head of the design department. Colombo’s objectives were simple: make it powerful, responsive, and reliable. The motor used engineering principles far ahead of its time.
The use of light alloys (elektron for the block and nickel-chromium steel for the crankshaft) enabled engine weight to be reduced to as low as 165kg. The gearbox was mounted in the rear, in a single unit with the differential. The “transaxle” took up less space, while providing optimal weight distribution across two axles: a solution that the brand would later use in its production road car bearing the Alfetta name.
The Second World War brought the fast-paced development of Alfa Romeo cars to a shuddering halt. But the technical solutions envisaged by the project were sophisticated enough to be valid after the war – and, in some cases, even to the present day.
The flight to Abbiategrasso
The links between pre- and post-war Alfa 158 models were not coincidental: they were literally the same cars, which had been hidden waiting for the end of the war.
In 1943, Milan is occupied by the Germans and confiscations and arrests increased daily. A small number of Alfetta 158s remain in storage inside the Portello factory, but risk being carried away as spoils of war. A small group of Alfa Romeo technicians and labourers decide they must must be moved to safety and begin clandestine planning to remove them in trucks. Various passionate Alfa supporters volunteer to hide one, including the speedboat champion Achille Castoldi, who had set a world speed record in 1940 using an Alfa Romeo 158 engine.
Just as the convoy of trucks and their precious cargo was about to depart, a Wehrmacht patrol appeared with their weapons at the ready. Fortunately, Alfa test driver Pietro Bonini was Swiss and had lived in Berlin for some years. Speaking confidently in perfect German and waving the necessary permits he appeased the troops and saved the day. The trucks departed and the 158s were taken to garages and farm sheds, to be hidden behind false walls or heaps of logs to wait for better times.
The launch of F1
Not long after the end of the war, those same Alfetta 158s were brought back to Portello and carefully restored and prepared to return to racing. And racing meant winning, even though circuits were being repaired and championships were fragmented. Between 1947 and 1948, Nino Farina came first in the Gran Prix of the Nations in Geneva, Varzi was first in the Valentino Grand Prix in Turin, and Tossi tore the competition to shreds to triumph in the Gran Premio of Milan. The message was loud and clear: Alfa Romeo was still the car to beat.
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 was the first of eight races that constituted the first FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Countries that had been at war with one another only a few years earlier were united in a single sporting event: it was a historic moment. And it turned out to be a historic triumph for Alfa Romeo.
The first four places on the starting grid were occupied by four Alfetta 158 models. Giuseppe “Nino” Farina achieved pole position, the fastest lap, and the final victory. Second came Luigi Fagioli, and third Reg Parnell. The first F1 podium was dominated by Alfa Romeo.
The 3 Fs Team
The 158’s combination of outright speed, handling and reliability made it the ultimate achievement of automotive technology at the time. In 1938, its 1.5-litre supercharged engine developed 185bhp. After the war, Alfa Romeo developed dual-stage supercharging, boosting power to 275bhp and by 1950 it had reached 350bhp at 8,600 rpm. Thanks to its extreme lightness, its weight/power ratio was only 2kg / HP – a value in line with today’s supercars.
Technical superiority brings victories. For the press, Farina, Fangio and Fagioli became “the 3Fs team”, an unbeatable trio that demolished all rivals. The three Alfa Romeo aces won all the Grand Prix races they took part in, ending on the podium twelve times and achieving five fastest laps. As Giuseppe Busso, Alfa Romeo designer and collaborator of Colombo, put it later “our main problem was deciding which of the three drivers should win any given race”.
On 3 September 1950, for the Monza Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo tested the Alfetta 159, actually developed for use in the following year’s Championship. The new Alfetta made its debut with a victory. At the wheel was Nino Farina who consequently became the first-ever Formula 1 World Champion.
The Alfetta 159
The following year, the championship was only decided in the last race at the end of a long duel between Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. After 17 years, the phenomenal Alfetta engine was reaching the end of its potential for further development, but during the 1951 season the technicians managed yet again to wring out the last drops of extra power to reach 450bhp. Thanks to this final effort, and to its extraordinarily talented drivers, the 159 triumphed in the GPs of Switzerland, Belgium, France and Spain, with eleven podium finishes and the fastest lap in all seven of the races.
The “3 Fs” and their victories became mythical, taking Alfa Romeo to the silver screen. The two most powerful Italian producers of the time (Dino De Laurentis and Carlo Ponti) chose the biggest stars of the moment (Amedeo Nazzari and the stunning Alida Valli) for the leading roles in “Last Meeting”, a film set on Formula 1 racetracks and in the offices of the Alfa Romeo Racing Team. The writer, Alberto Moravia, collaborated on the script.
The film was released on 24 October 1951, and four days later Juan Manuel Fangio – driving the legendary Alfetta 159 – won the Spanish Grand Prix and Alfa Romeo’s second consecutive world championship. With this historic achievement, Alfa Romeo withdrew from Formula 1 to devote itself to producing equally magnificent and successful road and sports cars.