F1 fea­ture: Alfa Romeo’s re­turn – the real rea­son

The come­back sees a revered brand back on the grid this year. Is it a quest to re­cap­ture glory? Or is it shrewdly po­lit­i­cal?

Car (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY: Mau­rice Hamil­ton Mau­rice­hamil­ton

ALFA Romeo is back in Formula One. Who could not be ex­cited by the prospect? Look­ing past the hype of the an­nounce­ment made by Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles’ CEO, Ser­gio Mar­chionne, at the end of last year, you do need to con­sider the full im­pli­ca­tions of the fa­mous Ital­ian mar­que’s re­turn.

Sure, the re­union with this Ital­ian au­to­mo­tive icon is a wel­come touch at a time when F1 is in dan­ger of marginal­is­ing its dis­tin­guished past in new own­ers Lib­erty Me­dia’s un­seemly haste to em­brace the fu­ture. But, de­spite Mar­chionne’s as­sur­ances that it’s a “strate­gic, com­mer­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal co-op­er­a­tion” be­tween Sauber and Fer­rari, there are other is­sues at play.

Set­ting aside Mar­chionne’s ap­par­ent mo­tives for the mo­ment, link­ing the fa­mous mar­que with Sauber brings with it a cer­tain sense of tra­di­tion that does no harm.

THE EARLY DAYS

Alfa Romeo’s com­pe­ti­tion his­tory runs deep, even if the last in­car­na­tion be­tween 1979 and ‘85 was mildly em­bar­rass­ing for this proud name.

Alfa Romeo was win­ning races when Enzo Fer­rari was a lad; in­deed, Fer­rari would cut his man­age­rial teeth run­ning a team for the car man­u­fac­turer in the days be­fore the world cham­pi­onship. When the com­menda­tore went off to do his own thing, Fer­rari and Alfa would en­gage in ti­tanic bat­tles with Juan Manuel Fan­gio, later re­fer­ring to the Alfa Romeo 159 as a sen­ti­men­tal favourite af­ter it helped him claim his first cham­pi­onship in 1951. This would be the sec­ond in suc­ces­sion for Alfa, af­ter Giuseppe “Nino” Fa­rina won the in­au­gu­ral ti­tle.

With money in short sup­ply and Fer­rari’s chal­lenge strength­en­ing, Alfa Romeo with­drew at the end of 1951, re­turn­ing to the F1 pad­dock two decades later as an en­gine sup­plier, pri­mar­ily with Brab­ham. De­spite a glo­ri­ous noise from its lusty flat-12, Alfa en­joyed just two wins, and one of them – Swe­den in 1978 – was un­der con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances ow­ing to the in­ge­nious de­sign of South African Gor­don Mur­ray’s in­fa­mous Brab­ham “fan car”.

THE LATE-‘70S COME­BACK

The re­birth of Alfa Romeo as a com­plete team in 1979 was good to see, even if the high­lights were patchy and fre­quently cu­ri­ous. Out of the blue, Bruno Gi­a­comelli put his 179 on pole for the US Grand Prix and com­fort­ably led the fi­nal race of the 1980 sea­son un­til the black box, sup­plied by Mag­neti Marelli, packed up and the V12 died. The team was dis­traught.

This was in the days when the podium was open to any­one with a brass neck. Hardly a race would go by with­out the Mag­neti Marelli rep­re­sen­ta­tive – a chubby, cheer­ful lit­tle man in yel­low over­alls – wav­ing to all and sundry from the ros­trum. Strangely, he was nowhere to be seen when the race ended that day at Watkins Glen.

Electrics would also harm Alfa Romeo at a chaotic Monaco Grand Prix in 1982 when a dis­be­liev­ing An­drea de Ce­saris found him­self in the lead on the last lap be­fore coast­ing to a halt. Worse was to come at Spa where De Ce­saris – again, against all odds – led con­vinc­ingly for 18 laps un­til the en­gine blew up.

That fail­ure was im­pos­si­ble for Alfa to deny and made life dif­fi­cult for a team that did not like ad­mit­ting to faults in its prized power units. Af­ter one par­tic­u­lar race, a re­tire­ment was at­trib­uted to an oil leak. When ques­tioned fur­ther by the leg­endary F1 jour­nal­ist De­nis Jenk­in­son, chief me­chanic Er­manno Cuoghi (a former Fer­rari man and friend of Jenk­in­son) said: “Si, si, oil leak … through big ‘ole in the en­gine.” There was another in­stance when re­tire­ment was at­trib­uted to an elec­tri­cal fail­ure. What they didn’t say was a cable had been sev­ered by a con-rod emerg­ing in a hurry from the cylin­der block.

In the fi­nal two years, the cars did not seem like Alfa Romeos at all since the firm’s deep red had made way for bright green in def­er­ence to Benet­ton, the team’s prin­ci­pal spon­sor. Sixth and eighth in the cham­pi­onship summed up a lack of progress that did lit­tle for the mood, par­tic­u­larly be­tween two driv­ers who dis­liked each other in­tensely.

If you think the at­mos­phere be­tween Lewis Hamil­ton and Nico Ros­berg was toxic at times, it was but a lovers’ tiff when com­pared to Ed­die Cheever and Ric­cardo Pa­trese. On­track col­li­sions were fre­quent, the Amer­i­can and the Ital­ian fa­mously tak­ing each other out on the first lap of the 1985 South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. On one oc­ca­sion, I made the mis­take of ask­ing Cheever about his team­mate. “Team­mate!” he snapped. “What team­mate? D’you mean that @$$#*∕ Σ in the other green car?”

THE REAL REA­SON BE­HIND THE RE­TURN

To re­turn, then, to the ques­tion in the open­ing para­graph. It is true to say that, de­spite Alfa Romeo’s proud his­tory in mo­tor­ing tech­nol­ogy, the only piece of engi­neer­ing as­so­ci­ated with this devel­op­ment is the shrewd move by Mr Mar­chionne? Alfa, like Fer­rari, comes un­der the Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles (FCA) um­brella and, of course, Fer­rari al­ready sup­plies Sauber with en­gines. How­ever, by badg­ing them as Alfa Romeo, Mar­chionne has strength­ened his bar­gain­ing hand around the F1 ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

This is par­tic­u­larly important at a time when the fu­ture of F1 en­gines is up for dis­cus­sion. A formula re­vi­sion for 2021 could see F1 re­duce the com­plex­ity of the cur­rent hy­brid power units – per­haps change them al­to­gether – or con­tinue down the present ex­pen­sive route that links F1 more closely to road cars.

Fer­rari (along with cur­rent world cham­pion, Mercedes), favours the lat­ter, so much so that Mar­chionne has threat­ened to with­draw Fer­rari (and now, by as­so­ci­a­tion, Alfa Romeo) if he does not get his way. In sim­ple terms, it is a pow­er­ful in­di­ca­tion of a man­u­fac­turer at­tempt­ing to have its say over out-and-out rac­ing teams like Wil­liams and Force In­dia, who would pre­fer a cheaper and less so­phis­ti­cated en­gine.

This ar­range­ment – hope­fully for Sauber – ends a long pe­riod of un­cer­tainty that has seen the Swiss-based team prop up the back of the grid and fin­ish bot­tom of the cham­pi­onship three times in four years. Af­ter strug­gling with year-old power units from Fer­rari, there had been dis­cus­sion with Honda when news broke of the Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer’s im­pend­ing split with Mclaren. How­ever, the strength­en­ing of the Fer­rari part­ner­ship through Alfa Romeo is seen as the long-awaited in­gre­di­ent to move Sauber up the grid.

The new li­ai­son is yet more evidence that the real power lies in the board­rooms of large multi­na­tion­als rather than the smaller teams, and that power is in­creas­ing all the time. With Fer­rari also hav­ing a close tech­ni­cal en­gage­ment with the Haas team, Mar­chionne now has in­flu­ence over al­most one-third of the grid.

And that is the key fac­tor in this lat­est ar­range­ment, de­spite the pomp and cer­e­mony of the an­nounce­ment and the re­veal of a strik­ing red-and-white colour scheme boldly car­ry­ing the dis­tinc­tive Alfa logo. Fer­rari ef­fec­tively now has a “B Team” at a crit­i­cal phase in Formula One’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

from top Nino “Giuseppe” Fa­rina in the Alfetta Tipo 158 dur­ing the first F1 world cham­pi­onship race of the mod­ern era (Sil­ver­stone); Niki Lauda on his way to a con­tro­ver­sial win at the Swedish GP in the Alfa-pow­ered BT46B “fan car”; Vit­to­rio Bram­billa in the 177 at Monza; Bruno Gi­a­comelli in the 179C at the Dutch GP in Zand­foort; Ed­die Cheever’s 184T lets go at the Dutch GP, also at Zand­foort.

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