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?
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.