The link between Alfa Romeo and Formula 1 has written the history of sports car racing: it was the Biscione brand that won the first Grand Prix and the inaugural edition of the maximum motor competition in 1950 with Nino Farina on board a Alfa Romeo Type 158 “Alfetta” Grand Prix, and success was repeated in 1951 by Juan Manuel Fangio on the Alfetta 159
The thousandth race
May 13 is the anniversary of the first Formula 1 Grand Prix, one of the great sporting myths of our time. The birth of the competition (Silverstone, 1950) is celebrated by the International Federation in Shanghai on July 14, 2019 (on the occasion of the thousandth race), and on May 13, 2020 (when Formula 1 turns seventy).
Two eras in comparison: in 1950 the helmet for the pilots is not yet mandatory, there is no television and the spectators are all on the track. Today the circus is an ultra-technological global industry, capable of reaching millions of people per season through TV and the web.
Only two things in common: the passion of the public, and Alfa Romeo – returned to racing in 2018 together with Sauber, and which since 2020 has given its name to the Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN team.
Alfa Romeo was not the same without Formula 1. And, perhaps, even Formula 1 was not the same without Alfa Romeo.
The Alfetta 158
The Alfetta from 1938 is a technological jewel. The 8-cylinder in-line engine with single-stage compressor and triple-body carburettor is developed by Gioacchino Colombo, head of the design, who wants it powerful, ready for acceleration and very reliable. The distribution is driven by a double overhead camshaft. The use of light alloys (elektron for the monobloc, nickel-chromium steel for the crankshaft) allows to reduce the weight of the engine to just 165 kilograms. The gearbox is located at the rear, in block with the differential. It is the famous “transaxle” scheme, which guarantees less space and an optimal distribution of the weights on the two axles: a solution that the brand will later also bring to production cars.
The world conflict breaks the research thread, and interrupts the evolution of the machines: but the project envisaged technical solutions so sophisticated as to reach the post-war period – and, in some cases, up to the present day.
The escape to Abbiategrasso
There is a physical continuity, not only in terms of design, between the first and the following 158: because the cars with which Alfa Romeo starts racing again are literally the same – hidden waiting for the end of hostilities.
We are in 1943. Milan is busy, raids and kidnappings are on the agenda. At the Portello there are some Alfetta 158, which risk becoming war booty. Alfa Romeo technicians and workers decide to make them disappear, and they secretly organize pick-up and movement. Some Alfisti fans offer to host the cars: among them, the powerboat pilot Achille Castoldi, who in 1940 had set the world speed record with an Alfa Romeo 158 engine.
But something is not working. A Wehrmacht patrol intervenes and asks for clarification with the weapons leveled. Fortunately, test driver Pietro Bonini is Swiss, and has lived in Berlin for a long time. Speaking in perfect German and waving a pass manages to save the situation. Trucks leave. The 158 will be taken to workshops and farms, hidden by walls and covered with piles of wood – waiting for better times.
The birth certificate of F1
Already in the very first post-war period, those 158 were brought back to Portello, restored and restored to running conditions. And they immediately return to winning, even if there is no real championship yet. Between 1947 and 1948, Nino Farina triumphed in Geneva at the Grand Prix of Nations, Varzi was the first to cross the finish line of the Valentino Grand Prix in Turin and Trossi won the Milan Grand Prix. The message is strong and clear: Alfa Romeo is always the team to beat.
The British Silverstone Grand Prix of 1950 is the first of the seven races of the newborn FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Countries that were at war only a few years before are united by a sporting competition: it is a historic moment. The Alfa Romeo affirmation is historic.
In the first four places of the starting grid there are four Alfetta 158. Giuseppe “Nino” Farina conquers the pole position, the fastest lap and the final victory. Second is Luigi Fagioli, third Reg Parnell. The first podium in F1 is all Alfa Romeo.
The 3 F team
For the combination of speed, handling and reliability it offers, the 158 represents the highest point of the automotive technology of the time. At the time of its birth in 1938, it has a 1.5 liter engine with a 185 horsepower compressor. In the first post-war period, the compressor became double-stage and the engine reached 275 – then reached 350 (at 8,600 rpm) in 1950. Thanks to the extreme lightness of the car, the weight / power ratio was only 2 kg / hp. – a value in line with today’s road super sports cars.
Technical superiority translates into victories. Farina, Fangio and Fagioli become for the newspapers “the team of the 3 Fs”, which defeats the opponents. The three Alfa Romeo drivers win all the Grand Prix races they participate in, go to the podium twelve times and get five quick laps. As Giuseppe Busso, Alfa Romeo historic designer and at the time collaborator of Colombo, will say, “the main problem was deciding which of our three drivers should have won the race”.
At the Monza Grand Prix, on September 3, 1950, Alfa Romeo anticipated the technical solutions of the 159 developed to participate in the Championship the following year. The new Alfetta begins with a victory: behind the wheel Nino Farina – who becomes the first Formula 1 World Champion.
The Alfetta 159
The following year the championship remains open until the last race: to compete for the success of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. After 17 years, the Alfetta’s extraordinary engine has reached the end of its development potential – but during 1951 the technicians still manage to extract power, throwing up to 450 horsepower into the fray. Thanks to this effort (and the skill of the drivers), the 159 wins in Switzerland, Belgium, France and Spain, collects 11 podiums and establishes the fastest lap in all seven races.
The myth of the “3 F” and their victories brings Alfa Romeo into the world of cinema. The two producers of the moment (Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti) choose the actors of the moment (Amedeo Nazzari and a beautiful Alida Valli) to make “Ultimo incontro”, a film entirely set on F1 circuits and in the Alfa Romeo Racing Team workshops. . Alberto Moravia also collaborates in the screenplay.
The film was released in theaters on October 24, 1951, and four days later Juan Manuel Fangio won the Spanish Grand Prix, becoming World Champion with the Alfetta 159. It is the second consecutive victory. Alfa Romeo has won the first two Formula 1 titles, and can retire unbeaten to devote itself entirely to series production.