Alfa Romeo V10

Power without glory

It had enough grunt to push a 164 saloon beyong 200MPH — And scare the life out of Riccardo Patrese — but what could have been the first V10 Formula One engine never got to perform at the highest level. Keith Howard explains what stopped it

For Bernie Ecdestone’s Brabham team, 1987 was crunch year: designer Gordon Murray had quit the season before; BMW was to stop supplying engines at the conclusion of the season and Ecclestone himself was increasingly caught up in FOCA and its related business interests. To add to all that, Brabham had been in slow decline since Nelson Piquet and the arrow-headed BT52/52B had snatched the drivers’ title from Alain Prost’s expectant Renault grasp in 1983. For hard-nosed Ecclestone, it must have been an obvious call: sell up.

Brabham wouldn’t return to grand prix racing until 1989, now owned by Swiss financier Joachim Luhti. But in its gap year, MRD — Motor Racing Developments, the company founded by Jack Brabham to build his racing cars — was briefly owned by Fiat. This wasn’t a matter of disloyalty to Ferrari: what Fiat needed was a company with F1 experience to build a chassis to carry Alfa’s new 3.5-litre V10, not in Fl but in the recently proposed Formula S.

As things would turn out, it was to be a wasted effort and the Alfa V10, instead of lining up alongside the Honda and Renault V10’s as a pioneer of the new configuration, never raced.

The FIA’s stillborn Formula S was an example of Ecclestone’s keen business brain and his determination to provide major road-car manufacturers with a shop window in the highest echelons of motor racing. Trouble was, he was years ahead of his time. What appears a familiar and obvious strategy today was greeted in the mid-80s with a profound lack of enthusiasm by everyone — except Alfa.

The intention was to create a kind of European NASCAR, but of impeccable breeding. S stood for ‘silhouette’, indicating that the cars should look like showroom models, but underneath they were to be F1 cars in all but name, weight and aerodynamics. Alfa chose to make its `ProCar’ contender look like the new 164, forging exactly the kind of promotional link that Ecdestone was hoping for.

The car was taken to the Paris and Birmingham motor shows, and Alfa’s UK press office, then based in Dover, even issued a single-page spec sheet for it, claiming a top speed of 215+mph and a 0-60mph time of 2.1sec. Ominously, though, the press release admitted, ‘Although the new ProCar formula has yet to be given a firm starting date, Alfa Romeo are the first manufacturers to exploit the potential of the new regulations and produce a proper, running feasibility study to establish the formula’s performance benchmark.’

First and only, as things were to materialise. Even a demonstration run at Monza during the 1988 grand prix weekend, with Riccardo Patrese — given special dispensation by Williams to drive the car for, in effect, his previous employer — behind the wheel, failed to whip up enthusiasm. Perhaps everyone learnt that Patrese had been told to do just two laps and take it very easy apart from a gung-ho sprint from the exit of Parabolica down the straight. Alfa said this was because the car had been stationary for so long and the special Michelin slicks were by then so old that a more spectacular demonstration was out of the question. But even it admits that very few development kilometres were put on the car at the Balocco test track.

It was impossible in the circumstances, recalls Patrese today, to judge whether car or formula had anything going for them. But a 750kg slick-shod missile with more than 600bhp and no downforce to speak of sounds an entertaining prospect, for spectators if not necessarily for the drivers.

Design of the V10, called Project 1035, took place in 1984-85 and the first engine was built in ’86. So it may deserve to be remembered as the very first F1 V10, predating the Honda and Renault units.

Unquestionably, it was originally intended for F1. In 1986-87, Alfa began a development programme with Ligier which resulted in it supplying the French team its 415T four-cylinder turbo engine. It is reasonable to suppose that the V10 would have followed. But in November 1986, Alfa was bought by Fiat and it deemed Ligier an unsuitable partner. In fact, it decreed that Alfa would no longer participate in F1, thereby leaving the field to Ferrari. As a result, only seven V 10’s were built in total, at least one of which (Alfa says it may be two!) now resides in its museum in Arese.

Alfa chose the V10 configuration as the best compromise between engine size, weight and power.

Twelve-cylinder power plants had always attracted F1 engine-makers, including Alfa, because of the larger port area, and hence power output, they promise compared to a V8. Proponents of the ‘bent eight’, on the other hand, valued its lower frictional losses and greater compactness. A V10 would split the difference.

Key specifications were a 72-degree bank angle and a total swept volume of 3495cc, provided by extremely oversquare cylinder dimensions of 88mm bore and 57.5mm stroke. Peak power was a little over 600bhp at 12,500rpm, and its maximum torque figure was 373Nm. The V10’s quad-cam valve gear used conventional valve springs so engine speed, and hence power, was limited by valve train dynamics — a problem Renault would soon tackle with its pioneering use of pneumatic valve springing.

Bosch engine management controlled ignition and fuelling, the latter via a single injector per cylinder, but Alfa talks enigmatically of ‘other solutions for the injection’, so these features were not set in stone. The cam covers were cast from magnesium, the heads, crankcase and sump pan from aluminium, the conrods were titanium and the crank and camshafts were steel.

How good would it have been?

The pity is that Alfa never got the chance to show us, or to take its rightful place alongside Honda and Renault. As for Formula S, perhaps the world really wasn’t ready for it 15 years ago. But commercially aware F1 insiders admit its failure left a gap that still needs filling in order that TV audiences worldwide can watch top circuit action every weekend during the season rather than every fortnight.