Reflections: February 2018

You can’t help but buy into the romance of Alfa Romeo, even if the first one you bought blew up on the M1 within 24 hours of purchase

Someone who lives in the next street to mine has just taken delivery of a new Alfa Romeo Giulia. It’s the Quadrifoglio model in the proper cerise paintwork with all the bells and whistles, from the twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 to the lovely little metal clover-leaf badges set into the flanks of bodywork. I’m extremely envious, even when I think back to certain incidents from my own experiences of Alfa ownership.

Back on a bright autumn morning in 1973 there was the trip up the M1 in an exquisitely pretty three-year-old 1750 GT Veloce, acquired the previous day from the Chequered Flag on the Chiswick High Road; the journey ended in a horrible noise, a sudden loss of power and a cloud of acrid smoke somewhere around Junction 15.

A hole in a piston was later traced to mismatched plugs. Twenty-five years later a brand-new 156 with the Arese-built 2.5-litre V6 suddenly and without warning expelled the contents of its air-conditioning system into the passenger footwell, ruining a friend’s rather nice shoes.

But what lovely cars they were in every other respect, built to be driven as well as looked at, with engines that spun up frictionlessly through the rev range. There was nothing, apart from the initial blow-up, to criticise about the driving experience offered by the older car, and you could almost forget that its successor delivered its power through the front wheels.

Both cars felt like they had proper heritage, belonging at the modern end of a company history that included so many beautiful vehicles and so much in the way of motor racing legend. And when I walk past the Giulia, that’s how it presents itself. So many things about it – the colour, the heart-shaped grille, the little honeycombed air intakes on the bonnet and behind the front wheels, the overall proportions, the knowledge that the power goes to the rear wheels – remind me in particular of a car that is among my half-dozen all-time personal favourites: the Touring-bodied 8C 2900 B Speciale coupé entered by the factory team at Le Mans in 1938.

Raymond Sommer and Clemente Biondetti saw off an early challenge from the Delahayes and Talbots so effectively that by 9pm they had established an unchallenged lead, and Sommer even survived a blown front tyre on the Mulsanne in the early afternoon before valve trouble forced the car into retirement in the final hour, after completing 219 laps and 2934 kilometres.

I wonder if my fortunate neighbour knows about that history, or even cares? Does he know about Alfa’s first racing success, when Nino Franchini won his class with a 40-60 HP in the 1913 Parma-Poggio di Berceto hill climb? Or Enzo Ferrari’s win in the Coppa Acerbo in 1924, at the wheel of a Tipo RL Targa Florio? Or Tazio Nuvolari’s epic win in the 1935 German Grand Prix against the might of German engineering in the Scuderia Ferrari’s Tipo B? Or the great season of 1950, the inaugural year of the official F1 drivers’ world championship, when the Alfa 159s won all six rounds (forgetting Indianapolis) and filled the podium in the final standings with the three Fs – Farina, Fangio and Fagioli?

Even if he doesn’t, something of the Alfa heritage will surely have filtered into his consciousness. That sort of thing takes a long time to build up and isn’t easy to wipe away, even when the company concerned has done nothing substantial in the racing world for decades. It’s like the patina on a classic car, which new owners disturb at their peril.

It was a bit of a shock when Sergio Marchionne decided to stick the Alfa badge on the rear bodywork of the Ferrari SF16-H a couple of years ago. Yes, we all nodded, the Scuderia Ferrari’s shield had graced the bonnets of Alfa’s grand prix cars in the 1930s. But this was different: a pure marketing wheeze, albeit perhaps intended to prepare the way for the Milanese marque’s return to F1 after an absence of three decades.

And so it has turned out. A week after the 2017 season ended in Abu Dhabi, Marchionne announced a three-year deal with Sauber, under which the Swiss team’s Ferrari-engined cars will carry Alfa’s name and colours. A show car had been painted in a ‘concept livery’: mostly white, but with a cerise engine cover.

You can only hope that this venture will be more successful than the last time Alfa Romeo entrusted their F1 project to an outside team: so poorly did the Euroracing-run, Benetton-sponsored 185T perform in 1985 that it not only embarrassed its two fine drivers, Eddie Cheever and Riccardo Patrese, but led to the company’s withdrawal from racing.

Before that, from 1979, a proper Alfa F1 team had been supervised first by Carlo Chiti and then Gérard Ducarouge. Chiti’s 177 and 179 were driven by Bruno Giacomelli, Vittorio Brambilla, Patrick Depailler and Mario Andretti, while Ducarouge’s 182/183 were piloted by Giacomelli, Andrea de Cesaris and Mauro Baldi. Giacomelli finished third at Las Vegas in 1981 and in ’82 de Cesaris took pole in Long Beach and lay second until he crashed. Such promise would not be fulfilled.

Any revival of Alfa’s fortunes, on road or track, is to be applauded. One hopes, however, that this new venture is not being undertaken simply in order to give Marchionne the leverage of an extra vote in the coming negotiations with Liberty Media over the specification of the next generation of F1 engines and the vexed question of budget caps.

It’s hard to imagine the reaction of Giuseppe Merosi, the designer of the 40-60 HP, or Vittorio Jano, the mastermind of every Alfa racing car in the golden age from 1924 to 1937, or Gioacchino Colombo, who worked closely with Jano throughout those years before creating the all-conquering 158/159, to this strange and seemingly opportunistic new alliance.

Richard Williams is a former editor of Melody Maker, was The Guardian’s chief sports writer and is the author of several books on Formula 1