Four-wheeled clover

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Arranging this track test was harder than seeking a personal audience with the Pope. Postponement followed postponement. Cancellation loomed as ominous phrases like “track must be resurfaced” faxed their way twixt England and Italy. Finally, it turned out the Italian way: memorable and enjoyable.

Instead of one track test, we were offered six racing Alfa Romeos, and we were introduced to the 1.08-mile lap of the Centro Prove Sportive Alfa Romeo by Andrea de Adamich, the former Ferrari GP and Alfa Romeo world sportscar conductor. He handed us over to Nicola Larini, a Ferrari test driver since 1989 and a Formula 1 regular who had driven Coloni, Osella, Ligier and Modena machinery before being recruited by Ferrari to replace Ivan Capelli for the last two Grands Prix of 1992.

It was his job to acquaint us with the niceties of Varano, from both driving and passenger seats. For this, he used a selection of training saloons, all to Group N specification, right down to their Pirelli slicks and OZ wheels.

Larini then established the 50.65s benchmark for the main object of our test desires — the 002 chassis, one of seven turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Alfa 155 GTAs that have dominated this year’s Italian touring car championship, Larini himself emerging as overall champion. As this was Italy, Larini set the 77.2 mph lap speed mark with an Alfa Corse engineer as navigator.

Our day was spent working up to the 400 bhp, beginning with a 155 bhp version of the flat-four. 4WD GpN Alfa 33. The little red saloon proved a neat and positive guide to the eight corners that make up one of Italy’s shortest tracks, where safe instruction can be meted out in extremely rapid cars.

The Varano F3 record is just over 44s, which equates to an average of more than 88 mph on a track that has only one fourth gear curve (and that’s in the F3 — third was better in the rest of our track fare). It comes complete with a 180-deg horseshoe and a quicker precursor known as ‘Ickx’, in honour of a testing accident that befell Belgium’s former Ferrari ace. The twisty nature of Varano is perhaps best appreciated from the fact that Ferrari has utilised its compact charms for pre-Monaco Grand Prix testing.

Inside the 33, Larini drove us with the kind of quick confidence and deft late braking you would expect of an F1 superlicence holder. Our turn brings some minor line alterations in the first corner “to allow space when you have the GTA under full power,” and a chance to sample the 33’s excellent traction. This is a stark contrast to the three-litre Alfa 75, which is apparently incapable of containing 200 bhp and 159 lb/ft of torque without cocking a rear wheel in dissipated distress.

After the mandatory lunch, we faced a trio of Alfa-powered single seaters: a brace of tubular spaceframes (Formula Boxer and Formula Europa Boxer) and ‘the real thing’, a 1991 F3 Dallara composite (carbon fibre and Kevlar) chassis mated to a short-stroke Novamotor Twin Spark engine. The Dallara’s exterior panels are all in carbon fibre, whereas the Boxer-engined devices had simple glassfibre cladding.

The single seaters were presented in pristine Alfa colours, without any trace of the old British “racing school” dogginess about their preparation. The range of machines was carefully graduated to prepare us for the precision of the Formula 3 experience.

The plain Boxer used a 12.7 : 1 compression version of the 8-valve 1750cc Alfa unit to generate 150 bhp at 7000 rpm, backed by a very meaty 176.5 lb ft of torque at 4750 rpm. Its Europa counterpart also deployed 1750cc, but this time with 16 valves in support of the near 13:1 Cr. Rated horsepower was 160 at 6800 rpm.

No torque figure was given for the Europa spec, possibly because there is no discernible pulling power until you are operating in the last 1500 rpm and awaiting the flashing electronic display’s reproval that you should have changed gear an hour ago. The Europa was first class preparation for the Formula 3 car, as the air box restrictor formula allows only 4700 to 6200 rpm, a 1500 rpm power band. Do not use full throttle below 5000 rpm, or it will detonate,” said our pre-F3 briefing solemnly. Alfa entrusted this precision racer to journalists across Europe just after the Guardian/Jaguar XJ220 episode. People of simple faith, the Italians.

The plain Formula Boxer proved very friendly, nudging into light but determined understeer that slid into equally amiable oversteer under the full second gear weight of that accessible torque curve. Sampled after the 75 V6, the prompt brakes were a shock, as was the equally effective (but stiff) gearbox, operated from the traditional single-seater position, to the right of the driver. First was isolated closest to the driver and the complete car came across as rather better training for a single-seater racing career than an FFI600, because the slicks provided appreciable grip and the engine had a very strict 6500 rpm limit.

The Europa Boxer was not a personal success. The electronic dashboard and intrusive and elevated body panelling left me grappling with fibreglass when I should have been clicking across the Newland DG200 gate from third to fourth.

I did not adapt in four laps, but the pushrod-operated Koni dampers (the junior car had Bilsteins) and 240mm/9.5 inch discs on such a lightweight at least made sure that my blunders were confined to straight-line gear fumbling. The chassis felt more rigid, and capable, than the Vauxhall Lotus I tried in 1989.

Finally in the single-seater Alfa store there was the absolute pleasure of the Dallara Formula 3. Back into the routine of a removable steering wheel, I stared at the simple analogue instrumentation apprehensively whilst they trussed me into the 6-point harness that would leave its mark for a week. Slam down the visor of the loaned Marlboro-emblazoned helmet and try and at least look as though you could drive a real racing car instead of the usual tin-top diet.

First, a pleasant surprise. The Dallara-Newland gearbox and twin plate clutch will allow a standing start without stalling. At 5000 rpm the 455 kg/1001 lb regulation minimum weight package raps smartly out of the pit lane. And so it should do with 171.5 bhp at 5250 rpm (240 bhp per ton) and 183 lb ft of torque yielded by the 1997cc (87 x 84mm) twin-plug unit, which carries “only” 2 valves per cylinder and runs at 12.9:1 compression.

The gearchange was a delight, not requiring the clutch even in a brief four-lap acquaintance with a stranger. I was only brave enough to zip it through without a dab when the change pattern was straight back (second to third, fourth to fifth).

Revelling in the warmth of environment and slicks, I could actually enjoy the direct communication between tyres and tarmac. As 1991 British saloon car Champion Will Hoy advised, the F3 seems to understeer heavily. This is simply because you get into each corner so much faster than with the other machinery, partly because the modest ground effects sharply increase cornering — and therefore straightline — speeds. Having gained such speed — the F3 was the only car I drove that day to exhibit an appetite for fourth gear cornering — the 280 mm/11 inch discs proved that they could kill excess velocity with equal speed.

The professionals told me that the lap record pace was set with the front runners braking at 50 metres for the first corner. We settled around 100 metres in the quartet of laps allotted and were rewarded with our best lap time of the day (53.66 sec/72.85 mph). You can judge the effectiveness of a light singleseater when a 170 bhp rear-drive device will outrun a 400 bhp 4×4 technological touring car force. Yet that was a true picture at this small circuit, for times some four seconds slower than the F3 were expected from the 155 GTA.

Having thoroughly — and unexpectedly — enjoyed the F3, I was saddened to miss the Osella P16/002 Sport Prototipo. This device took Will Hoy below the 50-second barrier, its Group N 3-litre V6 sounding gorgeous in pursuit of a modest 225 bhp at 6400 rpm. Unfortunately the sleek sports car broke its twin-plate clutch mechanism just before my turn, so it was straight into the GTA with its turbocharged steam-train sound effects: wastegate whistle to punctuate each gear change and screams of pain from brakes that had completed a day in the hands of strangers.

Based on the all-wheel-drive [Q4] version of the 155 4-door saloon that is now available in LHD trim only for the UK at some £21,000, just seven racing 155 GTAs were constructed to annex the 1992 Italian Touring Car Championship. The front runners were the factory gunships of Larini and former El Benetton racer Alessandro Nannini, pitched against the nominally private Jolly Club entries of Giorgio Francia and Antonio Tarnburini.

Alfa have already shown what an effective chassis they can built around what amounts to a full blooded Alfa Corse conversion of Lancia Delta Integrale hardware. However, their next touring car challenge, invading the German Championship with a naturally-aspirated version of the 155 in 1993, will be much tougher.

The 1995cc (84 x 90mm) unit retains its long-stroke character, despite developing more than double the standard 190 bhp. We were advised by Larini, “don’t bother going over 5800 rpm. That’s where the best power is, and you will find there is plenty of pulling power wherever you want it.”

For photographs we took the racing GTA around at modest 3000 rpm. The GTA would still accelerate, if the large throttle pedal was thoughtfully depressed to allow the oversize turbocharger and huge intercooler time to breath. Appreciable turbo lag is evident, but by 4500 rpm 1.6 bar was digitally displayed.

Thus it was no surprise to find that this 2-litre develops a massive 369 lb ft of torque at 4500 rpm, the lowest peak torque rpm we drove all day. Maximum power? Subsequent questioning of the Alfa engineers elicited “for qualification, 2.8 bar (39.8 psi – J W) and we get 420 bhp. In race trim, exactly 2.56 bar (36 psi) and circa 400 horsepower.”

I would say it was down on the 400 bhp for the test day, having covered over 1500 kms since a rebuild. Then it was set up with long Monza gears for the Alfa Corse six-speed box and tall final-drive ratios for the limited-slip differentials.

The central viscous coupling is set up tighter (thicker fluids, replacement plates and slots), and the conventional Q4 propshaft was axed in favour of a titanium item, which contributes to the kerb weight of 1050 kg/2310 lbs. That is 340 kg less than a showroom Q4, a reduction of more than 25 per cent, which produces a qualification power-to-weight ratio of 408 bhp a ton.

Search for further dietary clues and, aside from the inevitably stark interior of a racing saloon, you find that carbonfibre panels clad most of the exterior. The skin is considerably distorted over the standard saloon: the huge wheelarches contribute to a body stretch of 100mm/3.93 inches, but the official height, length and wheelbase figures are unaltered.

Larger gains in track are revealed by the front and rear dimensions gained with racing 9 x 18 inch Tecnom wheels. For the test, Pirelli D4 slicks of 235/645-18 inch were still in place front and rear after a tough day at the track. The rubber paid mute testimony to the kindness of 4WD traction in allocating horsepower under duress.

The suspension shares its MacPherson strut front end principles with the Q4 155 and a similarly strut suspended rear with that of the 164. Both front trailing arms and struts are welded in heavier gauge sheet steel, but there was no mention of any exotic materials in the transverse rods and reaction struts deployed at the back.

Naturally there are adjustable antiroll bars and special hubs and uprights to accommodate giant Brembo discs, which are clasped by similarly beefy four-piston callipers. The replacement springs and gas damping are by Eibach and Bilstein.

Within, the cabin features a roll cage that is triangulated and braced to meet both chassis and safety demands. You are seated by Recaro, harnessed by TRW Sabelt and are given a LHD Momo to twirl. Less traditional is the Marelli digital dash, which features a scale for rpm and dual multi purpose readouts that cover everything from oil pressure to oversize Garrett boost. All warning lights are confined to one outlet to the right; engine management and injection are by IAW Weber.

Despite a dozen forays that day, the hot engine fired readily and the long-throw Alfa Romeo six-speed slotted into first equably. There was some shudder from the drive line as the stranger released the clutch. Yet the GTA departed through a Monza-length first gear that seemed to last until 60 mph. Both brakes and power steering are hydraulically power assisted. Like the gearchange they require only the efforts of a sporting road car. After single-seater day fare, it would be easy to arrive deep into corners without really feeling how much speed the Alfa gathered.

A gear change rhythm eluded me. The straight 1-2, 3-4 shifts were fine, and I can appreciate the speed and obedience of the racing gearbox. Across the gate, especially 2-3, third can be lost in favour of fifth. I cut the gear change revs to 5000 rpm and was amazed how swiftly the car cantered along the main straight in fifth. Thus you dive deeper than expected into the first corner. Oddly enough, the down changes are no problem.

The long-stroke descendant of the Fiat twin. cams is not immediately impressive in the snappy BMW M3 manner. When it has huffed up its ration of boost (beyond 4000 rpm) it smooths out and delivers such creamy dollops of power that you ache to drive it at Silverstone, or anywhere with a straight.

Even when I think I may have overdone the approach to a corner — it’s frustrating shedding speed, when it has just been so exhilaratingly amassed — the abused brakes and rapid-fire change save the day with no discernable chassis trauma at all. However, the car is jumping over one of the bumpier track sections, a legacy of Monza and components operating well beyond their design life rather than a basic fault.

Stability is just what you would hope from this technical recipe. It feels so safe that I spend more time trying to dial up second-gear boost in the slower sections than worrying about the consequences if I make a mistake at speed.

I even have time to wish the steering was more informative when lock is being applied, but the regulars set its characteristics to suit them. No professional would need more than the seven laps I had to appreciate the balance between effort and information.

Inside and out, this “AR 155 GTA” is one of the most technically interesting saloons I have encountered, perhaps closest in intent and horsepower to the German Championship Audi V8 saloons that we assessed in 1990, though the workmanship is not to the same glossy finishes. Yet, from its transverse four cylinders (cowering beneath turbocharger and intercooler ducting), to its outrageous flyweight caricature of a 4-door 155 body, there is no doubting its track speed.

The GTA’s efficiency was more recently proved at the Nurburgring, where Alfa tested at competitive German Championship times. At least they have a winning chassis to wrap around the 1993 normally-aspirated engine.

We wish Alfa more success in 1993: its cheerful approach to touring car racing will certainly be tested if they succeed in beating Mercedes et al ‘at home.’

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