There’s only one word to describe it: Alfabulous! Yes, Alfa Romeo is back in Formula 1 after an absence of more than 30 years. And that, if you’re a race fan on any level, is exciting news.
The iconic Italian marque has entered into what’s being described by parent company Fiat Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne as a "strategic, commercial and technological cooperation" and "the exchange of engineering and technical know-how” with the Sauber Formula 1 team, helping to further strengthen the bond between the Swiss team and Ferrari, over which Marchionne also presides.
In anticipation of the ‘Quadrifoglio’ returning to motorsport’s top tier, we’ve cast our minds back through Alfa’s F1 past to select five moments that resonate among fans of this most passionate and historic of automotive and racing brands – and not always for their success.
1950s world-title double
Alfa Romeo’s factory 158s, with their 1.5-litre supercharged eight-cylinder engines, dominated the first year of the Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. They took a podium lock-out in the very first GP, at Silverstone, and had at least two cars on the podium in five of the six races. Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio won three events each, with Luigi Fagioli securing four second places to ensure a 1-2-3 for Alfa in the drivers’ standings. Alfa made it two in a row in ’51 when Fangio took the uprated 159 to three wins and the first of his five world titles.
Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team, which had won five races with Ford Cosworth DFV power in 1974 and ’75, switched to Alfa Romeo motivation for 1976. The company’s 3-litre flat-12s were shoehorned into the Martini-striped BT45s of Carlos Pace and Carlos Reutemann and the soundtrack quickly matched the look. The on-track results were not as satisfying, though, with a handful of fourth places the best results. Things improved for ’77, Briton John Watson leading several races only to be let down, usually by the thirsty Alfa engine. Success did come Brabham-Alfa’s way, via the controversial BT46B ‘fan car’ and Niki Lauda in Sweden in ’78. The Austrian then inherited victory at Monza later that year in the more conventional BT46. The partnership ended after the Italian GP at Monza thanks to a return to Ford power next time out in Canada.
Remaking its marque
Three years after the first tie-up with Brabham, the factory Alfa Romeo concern was back in Grand Prix Racing as a constructor. A sole, 3-litre flat-12 177 was entered for Bruno Giacomelli by Autodelta, Alfa’s competition arm, in the 1979 Belgian GP at Zolder. Two uprated 179s, now with V12 power, would appear for Giacomelli and fellow Italian Vittorio Brambilla in the Italian GP, also scene of Alfa’s last appearance as an engine supplier with Brabham. The full-blown Alfa team was back, and hopes were high.
Oh so close at The Glen
The 179 continued into 1980, with French ace and proven winner Patrick Depailler joining Giacomelli. The season was beset with reliability issues, but that paled when Depailler was killed in a testing accident at Hockenheim in August. The team continued, with Brambilla briefly recalled and young Italian Andrea de Cesaris joining for the final two races. Spirits were lifted in the very last race of the year, the US GP at Watkins Glen, when Giacomelli took pole position and comfortably led the first half of the race at Watkins Glen. Sadly, electrical woes put paid to what looked like being Alfa’s first win as a constructor since 1951.
Alfa Romeo’s final full-blown F1 effort as a constructor came in 1985. Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheever were retained for a second year in the Benetton-sponsored team, starting the year in Brazil with an all-new 185T. The car looked cool but was uncompetitive during the first half of the season, so Alfa reverted to the previous year’s 184T after Silverstone’s British GP in July. It made little difference and the programme was disbanded at the end of the year. Alfa continued until the end of the 1987 season, supplying engines to the tiny Osella team, but a little bit of the magic, that could trace its roots back to 1950, died 30 years ago.