Launched in 1964, The “Tipo 33” project finally delivered 11 years later by allowing Alfa Romeo to win the World Championship for Makes.
The saga of the Alfa Romeo 33 began back in the mid-sixties. The Alfa Romeo design department, then headed by Orazio Satta Puliga, launched a project to create a sports prototype to challenge for the World Championship for Makes: its codename was 105.33 or simply “Tipo 33”. That initial project for a mid-engined car was subsequently passed to Autodelta engineer Carlo Chiti, whose company had recently been acquired by Alfa Romeo to become its official racing department.
Autodelta duly created a car that proved to be a winner right from its first race in 1967: at the Fléron Hillclimb in Belgium, loyal test driver Teodoro Zeccoli took top spot on the podium in the first version of the 33, which was named “Periscopica” for the prominent air intake that protruded behind the driver.
Chiti had designed a sophisticated 2-litre V8 engine for the car, which after Fléron faced the gruelling endurance races that comprised the World Championship for Makes. The Alfa Romeo 33/2 Daytona dominated the illustrious Daytona 24 Hours in 1968, claiming all three podium positions in the 2-litre class, a hat-trick that was repeated at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. In the following years the displacement was increased to 3 litres and the chassis remodelled based on aeronautical technology. The result was the Alfa Romeo 33/3 Le Mans, a signal of Alfa’s intent to compete for the overall constructors’ title.
A new 33 variant was designed in 1973. Its innovative and extremely powerful engine displaced 3 litres like its predecessor, but featured 12 cylinders arranged in a 180° V-angle. It was cradled in a tubular steel frame and capable of developing 500 bhp. The name of this promising car was the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12, with the initials TT referring to the new tubular chassis (“Telaio Tubolare“) and 12 to the number of engine cylinders. It would turn out to be the weapon Alfa Romeo needed to conquer the World Championship for Makes.
From a 1-2-3 finish in the 1000 km of Monza in 1974, to the 1975 world sportscar crown and victory in the Targa Florio: for a time the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 enjoyed outright supremacy and appeared invincible.
The new car flaunted its full potential in the 1000 km of Monza in April 1974, the first round of the World Championship for Makes. The Autodelta team got off to a good start in qualifying, with Arturo Merzario and Mario Andretti clocking the best time. The punishing contest ended after 4 hours and 45 minutes, by which time the pair’s red Alfa Romeo TT 12, sporting race number 3 and incorporating a green rear wing and front splitter, had completed 174 laps at an average speed of 211.022 km/h to finish first. Right behind them were Ickx-Stommelen and Facetti-De Adamich, closing out an exhilarating podium hat-trick in Alfa Romeo’s hometown race.
But the year of ultimate glory was 1975, when Alfa finally conquered the long-coveted constructors’ title after the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 had swept the board, winning seven of the eight races contested. Arturo Merzario and Jacques Laffite dominated in Dijon, Monza and Nürburgring; while Henri Pescarolo and Derek Bell won at Spa, Zeltweg and Watkins Glen. The seventh victory was at Pergusa, where Merzario and Jochen Mass topped the podium.
In addition to the seven victories counting towards the World Championship, the 33 TT 12 also triumphed in the Targa Florio, which for the first year in its history was valid only for the Italian Championship and no longer for the world title. The two drivers who steered the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 to victory on the Short Madonie circuit on 20 July 1975 were both Italian: local idol Nino Vaccarella, winning his third Targa Florio, and the ultra-fast Arturo Merzario, one of the star performers in this triumphant title campaign.
For the 1976 season, the championship’s governing body the FIA changed the regulations and the Milanese company was required to adapt its cars once again, creating the Alfa Romeo 33 SC 12 with a new boxed chassis (“telaio SCatolato” in Italian, hence the initials SC) and the 12-cylinder engine boosted to 520 bhp. Alfa Romeo claimed its second constructors’ crown in the 1977 World Championship for Makes, winning 8 out of 8 races with Arturo Merzario, Vittorio Brambilla and Jean-Pierre Jarier. By this time, the World Championship for Makes was no longer the same driving force it once was, having been eclipsed by the popularity of the new Group 5 Silhouette category, which was open to extensively modified standard sportscars. This was the era of the “Special Production Car”, which led to the creation of the World Endurance Championship in the 1980s.
A unique emblem of Italian races and victories, the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 from the FCA Heritage collection is on display at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Arese. Many other race-spec Tipo 33 cars are perfectly preserved there, alongside various prototypes made by leading Italian coachbuilders based on the sensational road-going version.
Watch the video of Arturo Merzario driving the Alfa Romeo 33 TT 12 through the streets in the Targa Florio.
*Special thanks to FCA/Stellantis Heritage