Anatomy of a Grand Prix original

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The four gentlemen below have left their imprint on automotive design, particularly in motor sport but also on the road. We invited them to pore over an illustration of Vittorio Jano’s Alfa Romeo Tipo B and share their thoughts with the broader world.

Patrick Head Former technical director, Williams

Neil Oatley Design & development director, McLaren

Peter Stevens Respected automotive & industrial designer

Tony Southgate Creator of the Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9

Engine

NO “Engine is supercharged with air fed directly by two Roots superchargers. No attempt to cool air with intercoolers, for instance.”

TS “The leading cars of the period were very impressive in terms of engine design, with a big variation in concepts and layout. They were all competitive in terms of output, but the 16-cylinder Auto Union was the most ambitious.”

Cockpit/body

NO “The P3 was the first car GP car to move the driver into a central position and do away with the small space for a passenger/riding mechanic – effectively starting the single-seater format.”

TS “The Alfa P3 appeared to have less effort put into its design when compared with its future opposition. It did have a lower seating position and thus lower frontal area than the later Mercedes, due to the very brave design of splitting the transmission in two and sitting the driver between the propshafts.”

PS “For 1934 there was the kind of rule change that so often blights the look of contemporary competition cars. The P3 Tipo B resulted from a requirement for larger/wider bodywork and, while the appearance was certainly not ruined, the body flared out ahead of the cockpit in a way that made this later version look a little ‘fat’. So often the law of unforeseen consequences impacts poorly on the visual qualities that we admire in so many objects – 2017’s F1 cars will be no exception!”

PH The P3 Alfa Romeo is a very purposeful vehicle, with no pretension. It is obviously well balanced in weight distribution, probably about 50-50 front to rear, very simple and rugged. Its simplicity leads to low mass.”

PS “The Alfa Romeo Tipo A Monoposto was not only a packaging breakthrough, but a spectacular visual advance. But when viewed alongside the Monoposto P3 that superseded it, the Tipo A lacks the perfection of line and proportion that make the early P3 such a beautiful machine. Although the capacity of the rear-mounted fuel tank dictated the length of the tail and hence the rear overhang, the body surface appears to have been shrink-wrapped over the componentry; there is a minimalist quality to all of the skin panels that tells one how important the reduction of frontal area must have been to Jano and his team.”

Refuelling

NO “Flip-top tank filler – cars were refuelled by churns tipped into the aperture – this took a long time and any splashback would often drop onto the exhaust pipe. Fires were not uncommon…”

Weight

NO “Car would have only been 30kg or so heavier than a 2017 GP car – not sure if that says a lot about the early Thirties or today’s cars…”

Fuel tank

NO “Single fuel tank mounted in the tail, behind the driver – not good for weight distribution and variance during the race as the fuel load burned off. Car balance significantly affected by change – not unusual for the period, but the German cars that followed positioned the fuel in a more sympathetic manner.”

Suspension

NO “Solid (live) axles front and rear both supported by leaf (cart) springs. Again, very little technical advancement from the earliest GP cars.” [Note – later IFS car shown]

TS “The Alfa P3’s beam axles and semi-elliptic springs were very old in conception and far less sophisticated than what lay around the corner, but worked up to a point. They will have been OK on smooth roads. The Mercedes W25 had independent suspension front and rear, very good for 1934. The Auto Union Type A also had independent suspension front and rear, but it was inferior to that of the Mercedes – especially the swing axle rear.”

Chassis frame

NO “Typical of the period with relatively unstiff C-section channels joined by similar cross-beams and no triangulation – very little changed from the earliest racing. The German GP cars would move this science forward a little.”

Drivetrain

NO “Just behind the gearbox, the drivetrain split into a Y-layout with two propshafts running at an angle to a more outboard position on the rear axle, enabling the driver to be seated lower.”

Aerodynamics

NO “Very little attention was paid to straight aero performance – Tipo B would have had a slight teardrop shape in plan view, but not in side view. All mechanical parts, exhaust, steering, suspension and brake lines are left fully exposed to the airstream and the radiator surround is flat.”

PS “There is so much that rewards close study in the detail of the P3: the ever-changing depth of the chassis side rails that tell us all we need to know about the varying loads that the frame has to carry, the delicate little slots cut into the radiator shell surround, more for weight saving than airflow reasons, are so thoughtfully proportioned that they imply how much consideration has gone into the whole design.”

PH “It is a real race car that drivers must have hugely enjoyed. The weight is quite high, common for the day, and results in high load transfer, but with period tyres and no downforce the lateral and longitudinal loadings would not have been high.”

PS “The shoulder radius of the front of the radiator shell is carried back all the way to the flared scuttle with a gently increasing radius and a slight upward line to the ‘highlight’ that runs along the bonnet. This radius reappears on the tail in a way that gives the body form so much visual consistency, something that so many designers still fail to achieve. And the exhaust pipe runs absolutely parallel with the highlight – wonderful!”

Brakes

PH: “Its drum brakes are large and exposed to the airstream for cooling.”

The art of maintenance

Paul Grist has raced a Tipo B and nowadays prepares one for his son Matt

An Alfa Tipo B might trigger a seven-figure bidding war at auction, but when it comes to balancing value against risk, restoration specialist Paul Grist takes a pragmatic view. “It was designed as a racing car,” he says, “and if we don’t use it properly what’s the point in having it? You might just as well hang a photograph on the wall.”

British amateur Charlie Martin acquired chassis 50003 from Scuderia Ferrari at the end of 1935 and raced it extensively in period. The Grists have campaigned it since 2008 and it continues to be used regularly at a range of events, including the Goodwood Members’ Meeting & Revival, Monaco Historique and the Château Impney hillclimb.

“Like the ERAs against which it competes, it has a lot more power than it did originally,” Grist Sr says, “but generally it is very reliable. It’s the transmission we have to watch, because that takes a real hammering. We use some parts made from high-grade S156 steel nowadays, but still check it carefully after each meeting. Other elements – the brakes, for instance – generally require very little attention.

“It’s a lovely thing to drive and handles beautifully. Unlike modern Grand Prix cars, which are designed by large teams of specialists, each with a responsibility for their own very specific area, the P3 was all the work of one man – and Vittorio Jano did a wonderful job.”

In competition trim the P3 runs on methanol, albeit with an additive to make flames visible in the event of a fire, but the Grists also use it on the road. Ironically, given its significance as the first Grand Prix car with a single, central seat, they convert it for the purpose by adding wings and a small, two-seat body. “That’s when we use petrol,” Grist says, “and it loses about 90 of its customary 360bhp. On methanol it runs very cool and produces fantastic power.”

Star turns: six of the best who raced Alfa P3s in period

Tazio Nuvolari

Inter-era comparisons serve little purpose, but there are valid – and compelling – arguments to be made that former motorbike star Nuvolari was the greatest racer of all time. His conquest of the Silver Arrows at the Nürburgring in 1935 will ever be one of our sport’s finest exploits. Raced P3s with great distinction from 1932-35.

Rudolf Caracciola

He’ll forever be associated with Mercedes-Benz, thanks to his exploits during the 1920s (when he became the first driver to win a car race on the Nürburgring Nordschleife) and 1930s, but when Merc withdrew briefly from the sport Caracciola moved across to Alfa. In 1932 he took a P3 to victory in the German and Monza GPs.

Guy Moll

His performances in Bugattis and a privately run Alfa 8C 2300 caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who put him in one of his P3s for ’34. He notched up some strong results – including victory at Monaco – but then crashed fatally during the Coppa Acerbo. Despite the brevity of his career, Ferrari rated him a true star in the making.

Achille Varzi

After a brief flirtation with Bugatti, this former bike racer switched to Alfa and won six GPs at the helm of a P3 in 1934, a season during which he had the added distinction of winning the Mille Miglia – again in a P3 – and the Targa Florio (8C 2300). Joined Auto Union in 1935, but was rarely a match for Bernd Rosemeyer. Understandable, that.

Giuseppe Campari

Opera singer Campari was a major star of the 1920s, winning the Coppa Acerbo and Mille Miglia twice apiece as well as the 1924 French GP. Driving a P3, the 1933 Monza GP was supposed to be his swansong but he became the first driver to die in one of Enzo Ferrari’s cars in an accident that also claimed former P3 star Baconin Borzacchini.

Luigi Fagioli

Fagioli spent just a single season in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa P3 – but made good use of it, winning the Coppa Acerbo, Grand Prix de Comminges and the Italian GP in 1933. One of five Alfa P3 racers – with Louis Chiron, Gianfranco Comotti, Raymond Sommer and Clemente Biondetti – who would much later start a world championship GP.

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