We always hear about the successful Grand Prix cars that Alfa have built over the years but we don’t hear much about the less successful attempts by other chassis builders to use Alfa engines in Formula One. It’s really quite surprising how many have built cars with Alfa motive power. After the great success of winning the world championships in 1950 and 1951, Alfa Romeo pulled out of Formula One and concentrated on sports cars and production line saloons which were raced all around the world, mainly by private owners . In the sixties Grand Prix racing came to South Africa. Alfas were quite popular there at the time and a few locals had built hot Alfa engines to race in their local single seater series. When the big boys came from Europe in 1962 and 1963, the current formula was for one and a half litres. This happened to suit the locals with bored out 1300cc Alfa twin overhead cam engines. Locals Mike Harris, Doug Serrurier, Sam Tingle and Peter de Klerk took part but the best place any of them achieved was tenth (de Klerk in 1964).
In 1970 the Italian driver Andrea de Adamich, who had won European Touring Car championships for Alfa Romeo in 1966 and 1967, persuaded Alfa to supply a 3 litre V8 engine for his McLaren GP car. This engine was a development of the 2.5 litre V8 fitted to the Montreal Alfa. It had been developed for use in the Tipo 33 sports racer as made by Autodelta, a subsidiary of the parent company. This engine was quite powerful but, as it had been developed for endurance races rather than the sprint format of Grands Prix, it was overweight and rather thirsty. De Adamich didn’t have much success with his McLaren-Alfa but at least he finished eighth in the Italian GP of 1970. He was joined by Nanni Galli for 1971, both with March chassis but success still eluded them.
During these years, the most successful engine in various chassis , was the Cosworth which was a V8 with 4 valves per cylinder, as was the Alfa. The difference was that the Cosworth was designed specifically for Grand Prix racing which demanded high revs with a peaky power curve. On the other hand the Alfa V8 was designed to run at lower revs for 24 hours, friction in various bearings was not minimised as much as it could be and the sheer beefiness of the parts made for more weight and less happiness at high revs.
The experience with de Adamich meant that Autodelta and its chief designer, Carlo Chiti, dropped any ideas of GP racing with the V8 and continued to develop the Tipo 33, to great effect as they won the World Sports Racing Car Championship in 1975 and 1977. However by 1975, Autodelta had developed a sophisticated flat 12 for the T33 which led to thoughts about trying Formula One again. After an approach from the Brabham F1 team, owned at that time by Bernie Ecclestone, Autodelta prepared some engines which were fitted to Brabhams for the 1976 season. Carlos Pace, Carlos Reutemann and even Aussie Larry Perkins drove these Brabham- Alfas but the heavy weight and poor fuel consumption, which meant that they had to carry more fuel than their opposition, led to poor results.
1977 was better but 1978 saw Niki lauda join the team. With clever chassis design by Gordon Murray and better fuel consumption by Autodelta, the Brabham-Alfa really began to fly. Lauda and John Watson had 520 bhp to play with but engine reliability was a bit of a problem. Lauda blew up eleven engines that year! In the process he also won two Grands Prix, the Swedish and the Italian. Watson finished second at Monza, making it a fabulous one-two for Alfa on home soil. The Swedish GP was won with the notorious fan car which featured a huge fan at the rear to suck out air from under the car, thus creating ground effect, giving great grip on the road. The fan car was soon outlawed. This was the era of ground effect and soon every designer was into it. The flat 12 was wide and flat and clearly impeded air flow under the car. It had to go.
Gordon Murray asked Carlo Chiti to design a 60 degree V12 for the 1979 season. Unfortunately it had many teething troubles and was not a success in its first year. The engines were made in Italy and the chassis in England which led to confusion and poor communications. Often the engines would not fit the chassis they were designed for (or was it the other way around? )
Autodelta had entered Formula One in the 1979 season and they also had a singular lack of success with drivers Bruno Giacomelli, Vittorio Brambilla and Patrick Depailler. The firm persisted with their Alfa Romeo Grand prix cars for another six years but it must be said that they had little success. Even with ex World Champion Mario Andretti and a new turbo charged V8 engine, reliability was a constant problem. The last time an official Alfa Romeo raced in a Grand Prix was the first Formula One Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1985. After the withdrawal of the official team, the one and a half litre turbo charged V8 developing 860 bhp was used by the Osella team from 1986 to 1988 and by the Ligier team in 1986 & 1987.
Given the structure of the firm of Alfa Romeo that exists today it would seem unlikely that we will ever see again an Alfa engine in a modern Grand Prix car. When you look back there have been some great highlights to block out the lowlights in the minds of Alfisti. One thing is for sure and that is Alfa Romeo have always been prepared to have a go in just about every aspect of motor sport and with considerable success. In this centenary year for the great old firm there cannot be many surviving motor car manufacturers who can boast of such a fabulous record.
POSTSCRIPT: In the years before the Australian Grand Prix counted towards the F1 World Championship, a couple of Alfa-engined single seaters appeared in two of our local GPs. In 1968 Frank Gardner drove a Brabham fitted with a 2.5 litre V8 from the early Tipo 33 sports racer which gave him 280 bhp with good torque from 5000 to 9500 rpm. In this race at Sandown the car went well, holding third place for most of the race against quality opposition – Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Chris Amon, Pedro Rodriguez, Piers Courage and Richard Attwood as well as the best of the locals. A flat battery relegated him to fourth at the chequered flag.
In the 1969 AGP held at the Lakeside circuit no less than three Alfa-engined cars appeared. Two had the 2.5 V8, one a Brabham for Kevin Bartlett & the other a locally built Mildren, affectionately known as The Yellow Submarine, for Frank Gardner. The third car was another Mildren-Alfa for Max Stewart but this one was fitted with a 1600 Alfa four cylinder. Gardner held fourth place early in the race but blew up the engine at half distance. Kevin Bartlett blew a head gasket but Max Stewart went on to finish sixth.