Alfa Romeo 158 – Drunk on the Thought of Impending Return

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We would go down to the fish market early

to cleanse our vision: the fish were silver,

and scarlet, and green, and the color of sea.

The fish were lovelier than even the sea

with its silvery scales. We thought of return.

We thought of return the way a man thinks

of morning after an utterly sleepless night.

We took pleasure in the color of fish and the glisten

of fruit, all so alive in the musk of the sea.

We were drunk on the thought of impending return.

 

~Words from Confinement – Cesare Pavese~

 

“The Alfa Romeos are beaten!” Waves of noise washed over and engulfed José Froilán González and his scarlet Ferrari as he eased his car through the clamouring throng. A mechanic wiped the grime from his face. Friends hugged him. His wife kissed him. Supporters pressed in on every side, keen to congratulate him. Just being a Ferrari driver was a dream come true. Now he was a Ferrari winner. But he was not only a winner. He was the first driver in five years to beat Alfa Romeo. Tears of joy streamed down his face as the Argentinian national anthem blared around the circuit.

González had made his Ferrari debut two weeks before. Despite having only twelve laps…not races…laps…of grand prix racing under his belt, Enzo Ferrari offered the 28-year-old a chance to drive their fourth entry for the 1951 French Grand Prix. González was in second place when Alberto Ascari appropriated his car after the disintegration of the latter’s gearbox.

The gap to race leader Juan Manuel Fangio was a distance too great to close, and Ascari would deliver the car to the finish line in the same position. With three Ferraris making up the top four finishers, the Scuderia was starting to home in on their relentless pursuit of Alfa Romeo. González was shattered, thinking he had failed. But he was wrong. Before the next race, he would have a Ferrari contract in his hand.

Despite having never raced at Silverstone, González put his car on pole, a second ahead of Fangio and the pre-eminent Alfa. Again, González pitted, and again he found Ascari standing there…yet another gearbox failure. It was déjà vu. Knowing the score, he got out of the car. Ascari shook his head. This race was González’ to win and win he did…finishing half a lap ahead of friend and compatriot Juan Manuel Fangio.

pitstop silverstone gonzalez

Gonzalez supervising the refuelling of his Ferrari 375 during the 1951 British Grand Prix (unattributed)

It had been a long time in comingtwenty-seven consecutive victories for Alfa Romeo over a five year period. Despite the momentous occasion, Enzo Ferrari’s feelings were mixed. He allegedly said that it had felt like he’d just murdered his own mother…though in reality, the Alfetta was more akin to his child. A product of his own vision and drive before World War Two, after the war it had continued its racing life without him, winning race after race…no-one else able to match it.

Alfa Romeo then abandoned grand prix racing in 1949.

Perhaps it was a lack of available drivers…two dying in accidents and one of cancer. Perhaps they thought they needed a new car to remain competitive against the rapidly improving Ferrari, but the lacked the requisite funds to build one. Perhaps with Italy still in the turmoil of post-WW2 economic reconstruction, it was essential to concentrate on completing their first mass-produced car…the Alfa Romeo 1900…fittingly marketed to the masses as “The family car that wins races.”

Maserati, Ferrari and Talbot shared the spoils of the 1949 season between them.

Scuderia Ferrari’s first win came late in 1948 when Nino Farina won the Circuito del Garda…held on a picturesque 16.37 km road circuit encircling the environs of the northern Italian town of Salo. As the drivers wound up and around and down the surrounding hillsides, the pleasing prospect of Lake Garda spread out below them. Hans Stuck commented that “You have to be careful not to get distracted admiring the view.” The absence of both the Maserati and the Alfa Romeo factory teams meant this victory carried little import due to the dearth of competition.

nino farina

Nino Farina with the Ferrari 125GP descends the hairpins leading back down to the town from the hills above at the Circuito del Garda, Salo, 24th October 1948. (Photo by Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images)

More indicative of the Ferrari’s continued improvement was when Alberto Ascari finished almost a minute ahead of his teammate Luigi Villoresi at the 1949 Swiss Grand Prix for their first 1-2 finish…and more importantly, their first victory over Maserati. Ascari would then get Ferrari’s first pole position with their new two-stage supercharged long-wheelbase Tipo 125S at the 1949 Italian Grand Prix…following up with a dominant win almost a lap ahead of the Talbot in second place.

Early in 1950, Alfa Romeo announced their return.

During 1949, Juan Manuel Fangio won five grand prix – four for Maserati and one for Simca Gordini. Alberto Ascari also won five races – four for Ferrari and one for Maserati. Both drivers would feature in 1950. The first would choose to drive the now ancient Alfa Romeo 158. The other would pilot the up and coming Ferrari.

Looking back from our elevated position more than half a century later, the significance of a new world championship seems self-evident. Back at the time…less so. There was a little more prize money…a little more prestige. At the end of the season, a driver would be crowned with the appellation of World Champion.

In reality, there was little difference to the haphazard way the racing calendar was typically run. There would be seven races where points could be gained for the world championship along with a plethora of non-championship rounds. Only the top four results of the seven official rounds would count towards the final score for each driver.

Everyone was surprised when Alfa Romeo didn’t return with a new car. They returned with the now elderly, though further revamped, Alfetta. There had been rumours of a 12-cylinder engine. But that is all they were…rumours. It was not only the car that was antiquated. Their three drivers could only be described as weathered and worn though they were certainly not weak.

Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio was the youngster and relative newcomer at just 38 years of age. He was joined by the veteran Italian duo of Nino Farina (43) and Luigi Fagioli (51). As they fought fiercely between themselves for the spoils of the 1950 season, they proved the adage that age is only a number.

Alfa Romeo started in the same way it had finished…by winning. Fangio shook the car down at the San Remo Grand Prix in April, unusually driving the only Alfetta in the field which then had to hold its own against a horde of six Ferraris. Farina had been going to drive but was forced to sit out the race after fracturing his clavicle during a practice crash at the Marseilles Formula Two race a month before.

Fangio had yet to drive the Alfetta. It’s possible he had yet to even sign a contract. Despite bogging down at the start in the wet and treacherous conditions, no discernible cobwebs affected either car or diver and Fangio finished one minute ahead of Villoresi’s Ferrari. The Maserati in third was a distant two laps down. If Fangio didn’t have a contract at the start of the race, he certainly had one now.

fangio san remo 1950

1950 San Remo Grand Prix – Juan Manuel Fangio’s First Race for Alfa Romeo (Car #18) leading Alberto Ascari in the Ferrari (Car #12)  (unattributed)

One month later, the first round of the fledgling championship was held at a sunny Silverstone. Alfa Romeo won…Farina edging out Fagioli for the win while Fangio was forced out of contention eight laps before the end when he ran wide at Stowe while attacking Farina for the lead. Hitting a straw bale, which aren’t as soft as they look, resulting in a cracked oil pipe.

Alfa rubbed salt into their competitor’s wounds as British driver Reg Parnell in the fourth car seized the last podium place…giving their rivals a melancholy foretaste of what they would have to endure for the remainder of the season.  Ferrari was not in attendance. With the Monaco Grand Prix only one week later it seemed too far to travel for too little gain…the 500 pounds in prize money arguably not enough lucre to tempt Ferrari to traverse the British Channel.

Instead of the expected clash of Alfa Romeo versus Ferrari, it was instead Farina versus Fangio…though Fagioli was always there or thereabouts. Alfa Romeo won every championship race except the Indy 500…the Europeans content to leave the anachronism of oval racing to the diehard locals. Ferrari may have had a reasonably successful year in 1949, but it was becoming clear they would need more than what they had to beat the returning conquers. Unlike Alfa Romeo, Scuderia Ferrari would need a new car.

alfa romeo history picture

Ferrari had initially adhered to the longstanding dogma extolling the superiority of supercharging over natural aspiration. Before the war, the engines had been large and supercharged. After the war, they had been small and supercharged. Enzo Ferrari examined the alternatives available. Maybe what was needed was brains rather than brawn…or maybe capacity rather than boost.

Delahaye had built a 4.5-litre, naturally aspirated V12, its finest moment conquering Mercedes-Benz at the 1938 Pau Grand Prix when it was able to run a non-stop race against the 3-litre supercharged might of the Germans. Talbot had continued to carry the naturally aspirated torch, their 4.5-litre straight 6 continuing to be the lone tortoise surrounded by a multitude of speedy but very hungry hares…occasionally winning races when everything went their way…or when bad luck accosted all of their competitors.

More boost…more power…more revs…all resulted in more fuel. The Alfetta was now guzzling 180 litres of fuel every 100 kilometres, not aided by the fact that they were using fuel just to keep their engine cool. Even with nearly 300 litres of combustible liquid poured into every available nook and cranny around the driver, two pit stops were required for a 500-kilometre race.

While the hares gulped down the fuel in long draughts, the tortoise daintily sipped it. Less time spent in the pits replenishing the insatiable appetite of the supercharger meant more time that could be gained on the track while your competitors sat stationary.

It was not a step without risk. Even Talbot had considered replacing their 4.5-litre engine with the 1.5-litre supercharged variety. But Ferrari was not winning with their current engine, and none of their efforts was improving matters. The Alfa Romeo engine had been developed extensively, each step of the way resulting in ever more power, but two-stage supercharging was proving difficult for the Ferrari engineers to perfect…their engine suffering from overheating and timing difficulties. It just wasn’t working.

As the creator of the Alfa Romeo 158, Gioacchino Colombo knew first-hand what could be obtained by supercharging.  Aurelio Lampredi had no such pre-conceived ideas. True, he had minimal experience…but sometimes in engineering, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. He persuaded Enzo to see things from his point of view. Ferrari’s focus would now be centred on the creation of a normally aspirated engine.

The Scuderia worked their way up…race by race. They started with 3.3 litres at the Belgium Grand Prix – definitely not enough power. They even got beaten by Talbot. They then stepped up to 4.1 litres, but rather than risk getting beaten by everyone once again they withdrew from the French Grand Prix. Lastly, in front of the partisan crowd at the 1950 Italian Grand Prix, they debuted their 4.5-litre V12…throwing down the gauntlet to Alfa Romeo for the following year.

1950 monza fangio

Juan Fangio leads out the 1950 Italian Grand Prix at Monza (Photo by Allsport Hulton/Archive)

Monza: high speed, high passion, high pressure…especially for an Italian driving for an Italian team. It was the perfect place for the final showdown of the season.  There were multiple permutations of wins, podiums, and points for fastest laps that could result in any of the three Fs of Alfa Romeo claiming the championship.

Fangio seemed to hold a slight advantage. The Argentinian may have been under less local pressure, but his foreign nationality was also a potential liability. Ascari took two cars to eventually claim second for the Ferrari 375 and its unblown 4.5-litre engine. Fangio took two cars but failed to get either of them to the end. Nino Farina won and became the first World Champion, two months shy of 44.

It might just have been a slip of the pen, but it was enough to set an Alfa Romeo director’s heart racing when he read it. Embedded deep in an interview with Enzo Ferrari, a reporter had written: “In the footsteps of Colombo, Ing Lampredi will continue the development of the new Ferraris.”

Alfa Romeo could see the writing on the wall. Ferrari was improving by leaps and bounds, and it was only a matter of time before they would be winning which could only mean that Alfa Romeo would be losing. Losing wasn’t something that Alfa was used to. If anyone could extract a bit more horsepower from their venerable powertrain, that person would be its original creator, Gioachino Colombo. Maybe he was disposed towards a change of scene.

At the beginning of 1950, Enzo had demoted Colombo from grand prix cars to sports cars. The former was Colombo’s first love, and it had required a pep talk from Enzo to enthuse him enough to return to work. The proposition from Alfa Romeo was attractive to Colombo in more ways than one. To return to his hometown of Milan, where his wife and family still lived. To return to work on the Alfetta, his first creation. To return to help Alfa Romeo continue to lead the way in grand prix racing.

When Enzo Ferrari heard the rumours that Alfa Romeo was headhunting his engineer, he called Colombo into his office and categorically stated that he was forbidden to leave…it was against the terms of his contract. But like all contracts, none are wholly watertight, and after an animated discussion, Enzo conceded that there was no reason for Colombo to stay on at Modena. In January 1951 Gioachino Colombo returned to Alfa Romeo… apparently no such thing as “gardening” or “fishing” or any other kind of leave for “rival” engineers was enforced in the early 1950s.

alfa romeo and ferrari 1951

Alfa Romeo Tipo 159 Alfetta & Ferrari 375 F1 1951 (unattributed)

Alfa Romeo pulled out all the stops. They built four new chassis. They fine-tuned their engine’s two stage-supercharging… now pulling 400 hp at 9,000 revs…more than double what it had started out within 1938. The Alfetta continued its winning ways into the 1951 season, victorious at the first three races. Then it all started to fall apart.  González’s victory at Silverstone was followed by Alberto Ascari winning the next two races at the Nurburgring and Monza.

Ferrari was now on a roll. Fangio was still leading the championship with 27 points, but Ascari was nipping at his heels with 25 and González was not much further behind on 21. Nine points for a win meant any of them had the potential to be World Champion. The 1951 Spanish Grand Prix would be the final battle in the war between the two marques.

Alfa Romeo and Ferrari were neck and neck, as were Fangio and Ascari, but in the end the battle came down to…tyres. Unlike Alfa Romeo, Ferrari had raced at Pedralbes only the year before. They had raced using their new 375. They had required no stops for either fuel or tyres. Both races had been held on hot, sunny days at the end of October. So what went wrong?

Pedralbes was rugged and rutted…the bumpy asphalt of the 1 ¾ mile Avenida del Generalisimo Franco providing maximum challenge to both drivers and suspension. Good tyres were essential…along with good suspension…as well as smooth driving…and minimal braking. Thus far Ferrari had continued to utilise light fuel loads and two pit stops. For the last race of the season, they intended to demoralise Alfa Romeo completely by fuelling their cars to get through to the end.

Ferrari also chose to race on 16-inch rims instead of their usual 17-inch. The hypothesis has been made that Ferrari chose smaller diameter wheel rims to give them a higher top speed on the long straights, as well as the ability to increase the depth of tread.  It is more likely that they had misgivings as to how their car would stand up to the rough roads with such a heavy fuel load.  Alfa Romeo would start on their usual 18-inch rims…tyres inflated to maximum pressure, and suspension softened to lessen the percussion effect of the corrugated roads on the half-shaft.

Ascari was on pole and led off the line but by lap four chunks of rubber were already starting to detach themselves from his tyres. It was only the beginning of the nightmare for Ferrari. Their first driver to pit was Taruffi…a shredded rear tyre forcing him into an unplanned pit stop on lap six. The following lap his teammate Villoresi pitted for fresh rubber after a similar event. Ascari lasted until lap nine and because the front runners were running nose to nail, dropped to sixth overall.

On lap fourteen González’ tyres continued the Ferrari trend but, with a bit more time to analyse the issues, was given replacement rubber on 17-inch rims on which he was able to complete the race…taking second place after Farina did his second pit stop. The Ferrari tyres may have been best suited to the long bumpy straights, but they were unable to cope with the corners that joined them. Eventually, all four cars would be belatedly reshod with 17-inch rims.

fangio 1951 spanish grand prix

Andre Simon spins his Simca-Gordini T15 (No. 16) in front of the Alfa-Romeo 159 of Juan-Manuel Fangio (No. 22) during the 1951 Spanish Grand Prix (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Fangio took the lead on lap four, taking advantage of Ascari’s difficulties. Concentrating on driving as smoothly as possible, he resisted any urge to slide his steed sideways while traversing the corners. He stopped twice as planned for fuel…but Ferrari looked on with green eyes as he had no need to replace his tyres. He would never relinquish the lead position and bettered Gonzales in second by almost a minute. Nino Farina rounded out the podium places, his Alfa Romeo a further minute behind González. Fangio took his first world championship title and Alfa Romeo their second.

After the race, Alfa announced they would not be competing in 1952 due to a lack of finances.

In the beginning, there was the war. There were the ideals of freedom and forgiveness battling the dark forces of fascism and revenge. Then there were the drivers…dying before the war…dying during the war…dying after the war. Last, but not least, there was the car. The car fashioned under challenging times before the war that reigned supreme after the war. No other grand prix car has been so dominant for so long, winning its first race, and fourteen years later also winning its last.

Andrew Frankel wrote, “Even by old racing car standards, this is not an easy car to drive. Even if you can cope with the reversed pedals and gears, the surfeit of power is utterly intimidating. You feel wretchedly ill-equipped, the lack of grip, braking and talent at your disposal informing you better than ever how skilled and heroic were those who wrestled these around Nurburgring, and clung onto them at over 190 mph at Monza and Spa. For some reason an image of climbing an icy rock face without ropes while wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts flicked into my head.”

As I read Andrew Frankel’s description of driving the Alfetta, it hit me. In the same way that racers need to compete to feel alive, a car needs to be driven to become alive. Sublime beauty tempered by an ominous undercurrent of danger. Artistry and animation combined spectacularly in one peerless machine.

With the departure of Alfa Romeo, it was announced that in 1952 all Grand Prix events counting towards the World Championship of Drivers would be run to Formula Two regulations. The Ferrari 375 was obsolete just as it was set to consummate its position as the car to beat.

Karl Ludvigsen wrote that “The first era of the high-pressure Grand Prix car died at dusk on 28 October 1951 in Barcelona with the last victorious bellow from the twin tailpipes of Fangio’s Alfa Romeo. It was a thrilling sound that made it hard to remember there had ever been a war at all.”

We were drunk on the thought of impending return. 

~Words from Confinement – Cesare Pavese~

gonzalez fangio

Painting: Michael Turner

References:

Words from Confinement by Cesare Pavese  – Translated by Geoffrey Brock     http://kamiel.creativechoice.org/2017/11/28/reading-words-from-confinement-by-cesare-pavese/

Alfetta – The Alfa Romeo 158/159 Grand Prix Car: Ed McDonough

Alfa Romeo: Peter Hull and Roy Slater

Origins of the Ferrari Legend: Gioachino Colombo

Classic Grand Prix Cars: Karl Ludvigsen

Grand Prix Ferrari – The years of Enzo Ferrari’s power, 1948-1980: Anthony Pritchard

1951 British Grand Prix – My Greatest Race: José Froilán González http://www.grandprixhistory.org/bgp1.htm

Fangio’s First Love: Motorsport Magazine – Andrew Frankel   https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/november-2010/82/fangios

Grand Premio de Espana: Motorsport Magazine November 1951 https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/november-1951/14/report-recent-events

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