GRR

John Simister: Alfa 33/3 – The hottest seat at FOS

09th July 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Fortune frequently favours the journalist, especially at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard. We sometimes get to drive highly interesting cars, some of them irreplaceable. And then the unique-to-Goodwood experience, simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, kicks in.

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It's wonderful to be let loose in a 1970 Alfa Romeo Tipo 33/3 in long-tail Le Mans guise, to sit where one or more of Andrea De Adamich, Piers Courage, Nanni Galli, Rolf Stommelen, Toine Hezemans, Masten Gregory, Carlo Facetti or Teodoro Zeccoli sat 47 years ago. Exactly who, and when, Alfa Romeo's Centro Storico can't be sure because the records are too fuzzy, but what is clear is that the small, brown-rimmed and highly patinated Momo Prototipo steering wheel has been grasped by hands a lot more deft than mine.

The snag – but what a great snag to encounter – is that the journalist has most likely not driven the car before, so into the short run down the Hill from the paddock to the startline holding area is compressed a crash course in how to make the machine work. Then, after the turning loop ( the Alfa can just do it in one go, unlike some later endurance racers) there might or might not be a chance to practise a full-bore start on the brief clear stretch before the startline itself. 

So you're being trusted with a delicious piece of history which is likely to be extremely rapid when roused and could behave in unpredictable ways. You want to give the thousands of onlookers, each one of them potentially scrutinising your every move and your every error, a good show, and you want to savour the thrill that doing this will bring. But you also want to return the car undamaged and in full working order, because to do otherwise would suggest an unforgivable disregard for history and automotive art.

No pressure, then. So I flip up the 33/3's flimsy door, climb over the bare aluminium sill of the monocoque (earlier and later Tipo 33s had a tubular chassis), slither into the minimal seat and truss myself into a harness seemingly resembling that of a wartime parachutist. Ahead is the rev-counter, which doesn't work – worrying when behind me is a 3.0-litre, 400bhp V8 capable of thrusting the 33 to 193mph, although probably not in Sussex.

The six dials to my left include a temperature gauge for each of the two rear radiators. There's a low lip of plastic windscreen ahead, intended to be looked over rather than through. Now out of sight are the Avon slicks, encouragingly sticky, and thankfully the threatened rain shower hasn't materialised.

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Two fuel pump switches are flicked up, the start button is pressed and the V8 blatters into fierce life with a flat-crank shriek and an impatient background chunter as I switch the start pump back off. Despite the obvious latent potency it idles happily at unknown rpm. The clutch is surprisingly benign, too, but the accelerator is extremely stiff. The Alfa has only just been awoken after 20 years of static slumber, and there are still some things to hone.

So, no rev-counter and a highly insensitive throttle. This should be interesting. The run down to the start proves that the brakes work, the steering is very responsive and the dog-clutch, dog-leg gearbox has at least four forward ratios; fifth is as yet out of reach at these low speeds.

Almost my turn to go. Just one car in front (a Porsche 935 emitting deafening exhaust pops and psychedelia-inducing fumes). As it cannons off the line I'm able to try an experimental practice start. Rev the engine until it sounds ready to rip, drop the clutch and heave on the accelerator, slither-smoke-shoot up the track. That seemed to work. Now for the real thing.

With no idea of what revs I used, nor exactly how far I had forced the accelerator through its long travel, the chances of an exact reprise are slim. So it proves; the engine bogs down, perhaps because the rubber already laid on the track gives more grip, perhaps because it has fouled its plugs while idling. The mechanics had kept telling me to blip the engine to stop that happening, but clearly, I hadn't been blipping enough. So I try again; good thing this isn't a timed run.

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This time the Alfa launches rather well if a bit raggedly because that oiled-plugs splutter comes back as soon as I click into second gear. So the first corner and the run past the house don't show the 33/3 at its ferocious best, compounded by my caution at Molecomb. 

After that, though, it clears its eight throats and we roar gleefully up the rest of the Hill, using as many revs as I dare but attempting to judge aurally where a wise 8000rpm ceiling might be. The engine would doubtless go far beyond that, but I'm not going to be the one to blow it up.

Phew. Job done. Compared with the later, and yet fiercer, 33 TT12 descendant I drove last year, the 33/3 is actually trickier to drive even allowing for the throttle and tacho trouble. I needed to be more accurate in my aim of the gear lever (I wanted to try fifth, just out of interest, but it eluded me), and the nose is a lot more darty as it nibbles over every bump and camber change. It's a torrent of information all vying for attention. Given some circuit laps, it would no doubt all fall into place, but a learning curve significantly steeper than Goodwood's Hill was never going to level off in such a short time.

What a buzz, though, to have driven one of the best-looking sports racers of its era. The 33/3 didn't score much success in 1970 beyond the third place at Sebring scored by Hezemans/Gregory, but in the following year, with body revisions, the 33/3 took second spot in the world championship. So thank you, Centro Storico, for trusting me with your fabulous racing car. You can find out more about Alfa Romeo's historic racers on www.fcaheritage.com.

  • John simister

  • FOS

  • FOS 2017

  • Alfa Romeo

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