Fangio's First Love

The Maestro always admired Alfa Romeo’s 159, which brought him his first World Championship. Today just three survive – and we had the honour of driving one

They called it ‘Alfetta’ – the little Alfa, because that’s what it was. Unable to stay the relentless pace of the Silver Arrow steamroller, in 1937 Alfa Romeo charged Gioacchino Colombo with designing a monoposto racing car in which to go voiturette racing. With a little 1.5-litre straight-eight engine, something close to 200bhp was achieved, and in August 1938 the 158 – as then it was called – recorded its first win in the Coppa Ciano at Livorno with Emilio Villoresi at the wheel. And then it just kept on winning. Relentlessly, indomitably and with few exceptions (most notably the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1939 when Mercedes spoiled the party by rather inconsiderately unveiling the W165 for its one and only race) it annihilated the largely Maserati opposition right up to and even past the start of hostilities. And then, having weathered the conflict hidden in a farmhouse in Melzo near Milan, the 158s were wheeled out, dusted off and kept on going as if the world had not just spent the last six years at war.

Except now the big silver guns had been silenced, the 158 slipped into the role of world’s premier racing car as if it had been born to it. With the likes of Farina, Wimille and Varzi on the strength, it owned what little world-class single-seat racing took place in the remainder of the 1940s, save the last year of the decade when, with nothing more to prove, the team elected not to take part.

Then came 1950 and the inaugural year of what is known today as the Formula 1 World Championship. The 158 was a dozen years old but it was an opportunity Alfa could not resist. And still nothing could touch it. Now a portly Argentine called Juan Manuel Fangio was on the strength and, between him and Dr Giuseppe Farina, they swept the board (see Fangio feature, p90). Ron Dennis is rightly proud of McLaren winning all but one round of the 1988 season, but only one manufacturer has clean-swept the lot and, thanks to the 158, it was Alfa Romeo.

But others, notably Mr Ferrari to the south and east, were coming on strong, which must have been a little galling as it was his Scuderia that had developed the 158 in the first place. Even with ever more power being coaxed from the straight-eight, it was clear the 158 could not prevail without a fundamental rethink. Which is how the 158 begat the 159 you see here.

The cars are more different than they look. The differences in bodywork may only be subtle, but beneath it had been extensively modified to stop Maranello’s Prancing Horse trampling this aged racer into the dust.

Structurally the 159 (in ultimate form at least) incorporated extensive bracing tubes to the 158’s chassis, creating a substantially stiffer ladder/spaceframe hybrid. Perhaps most importantly a two-stage supercharger was fitted, increasing power to 425bhp at 9300rpm, which is V16 BRM territory, but with the handy added benefit of being able to run reliably for hours rather than minutes at a time. This had a predictably calamitous effect on its already fairly rude fuel consumption so the fuel tank by your right knee was increased in size from 7.7 to 16.5 gallons, bringing total fuel capacity with the unchanged tank in the tail to just a smidgeon short of 50 gallons. It has also been stated that the 159 engine could be made to deliver 450bhp, but at a dizzying 10,500rpm, at which speed it was never officially raced.

But an increased thirst was not the only problem brought by all this added power. The 158’s four-speed transmission needed beefing up to cope with it, while bigger, more powerful drums were fitted to try and ensure that its ability to lose speed bore some relation to its appetite for gaining it.

Even then, the team was left with the problem of how to deliver its monstrous output to the road effectively. The 158 had swing axles at the back originally designed to cope with less than half the power the 159 was now producing, so in their place came a De Dion tube to help keep the rear tyres vertical under load. Transverse leaf springing was retained at both ends.

And now we must disappear briefly into the fog of Alfa Corse past. This is an era long on opinion, suggestion and supposition, and remarkably light on incontrovertible fact. We cannot state for certain even when the 159 made its competition debut because it seems that some updated 158s were referred to informally or otherwise as 159s, nor does there appear to be a definitive record of which chassis did what. This is also one of those subjects that becomes more rather than less confused the more research you do, as consensus among the many authors who have written on this subject is often horribly hard to find. The clearest steer we have is that team manager Battista Guidotti told our own Doug Nye that ‘il vero 159’ didn’t actually make its race debut until the German Grand Prix in July 1951.

What has recently come to light about the car you see here, chassis 159/111, is that it was the test and development car – the 159 muletto – and it was raced by Felice Bonetto at the aforementioned German Grand Prix from which it retired, and by Fangio at the non-championship Bari Grand Prix, which it won.

Somewhere in a dusty corner of Milan more information must exist, just waiting to be uncovered.

But that must wait for another day, because now we’re on the way to Alfa’s once secret Balocco test track between Milan and Turin where, to mark Alfa’s centenary, the 159 has been wheeled out for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I’m not sure quite what I imagined would be the circumstances in which I would be afforded the privilege of driving the Alfetta, but it definitely involved rev limits, lap limits, extensive tuition, signed disclaimers and slowly-driven pace cars. What actually happened still seems beyond belief.

However, more of that in a moment, because you’ll not be surprised to know the 159 is not a car you just jump in and drive. The cockpit is cramped enough to suggest why the majority of the most successful racers of the era – Fangio, Ascari, Gonzalez and so on – inclined towards the short and stocky. The 159 came from a time when cars needed to be manhandled by men with colossal upper body strength.

At least it all looks pretty straightforward. The dash behind the faded wooden rim of the three-spoke wheel is dominated by a huge rev counter, next to which sits a fuel pressure gauge. Then, in a pod to the left, are grouped dials for oil temperature and pressure and water. They’re so faint I can hardly see them.

You sit bolt upright and, as your feet find the pedals, they discover a central accelerator and the brake on the right. To make matters more challenging still, the gear lever is next to the seat by your left thigh where it cannot be seen and feels completely unnatural. And, just in case that’s not enough unfamiliarity with which to wrestle, its gate is reversed, with third and fourth in a plane to the left of first and second. You are, of course, surrounded by tanks. There’s fuel behind you and by your right leg, and oil to the left. The mirrors are unadjustable and set so low I doubt even Fangio could have seen much through them. Then again, if you were driving a 159, you probably didn’t need to look behind you.

The engine is massive, seemingly at least three times larger than needed to displace its diminutive 1479cc. A man plugs the same external starter into the nose as the team used in period. It doesn’t start. After several more attempts the air is split by a bang that has me ducking for cover. The team nod approvingly. After judicious squirts of a neat fuel cocktail (methanol, castor oil and, apparently, water as you’re asking) it fires, and this time holds. When there’s some temperature on the dials, the engine is cut and all the plugs come out. Only once a second set has been installed am I ushered into the cockpit to be told something I don’t want to hear. I have to drive very slowly. I must not use full throttle or even sharp stabs at the throttle. At all times I must follow a man driving a van. This, then, was the rub. I would get to drive the 159, but not in any way that had meaning.

So I climbed in, grabbed a gear and set off trying to divine what I could from this emasculated experience. The smell of the fuel was wonderful, matched by an engine noise I thought only Bugattis made. The gearbox was better than I’d hoped, the brakes considerably worse. But there was no chance to fling it at a corner or squirt it down the straight. After two laps my chaperon in his Fiat van signalled me to follow him off the circuit. I’d probably done 50mph. Game over.

Or maybe not. I didn’t refuse to get out of the Alfa out of protest, more I stayed aboard to savour what few moments remained. And it puzzled me why they felt the need to change the plugs again - we were up to 24 and the car had run for less than 10 minutes. So I asked. And the reply was that they were putting in cold plugs so I could drive the 159 fast. Fast? Heart racing now. What’s fast? I gestured towards the rev counter. “Sorry, but no more than this. Please,” came the sheepish response. I followed the finger expecting it to point to around 4000rpm. But it wasn’t. It was very definitely pointing to 8500rpm. Fear and euphoria rising in unison, I asked the last question. “How long?” “As long as you need.”

Need is a difficult thing to quantify in such circumstances but I thought that, somehow, the car would tell me when the time was right.

There are moments that even in the very instant of their occurrence you know will be with you for life. And the moment I first opened the throttle of Fangio’s 159 as wide as it would go, felt the rear tyres chirp and then that forward thrust, was as vivid as any. Statistically at least I always try to relate old racers to modern road cars, and the truth is the power-to-weight ratio of a brand-new Bugatti Veyron looks rather sick compared to that of this Alfa, now in its 60th year. When it hits, you don’t know whether to swear or laugh, so I did both.

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 the Nürburgring, and clung onto them at over 190mph 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.

But even if this is a car that cannot be mastered (and there were world-class professional drivers who never did), if you have long enough the 159 can at least be understood and controllably deployed. You have to trust that all its actions, however extreme, are also both reliable and linear. However powerful the engine, it is the spread of torque I’ll remember more: any speed, any gear, it goes. And that gives you thinking time, time to be smooth with your upshifts and double-declutched downshifts. It also means that on this thankfully dry track, you’re not going to accidentally overdose the rear tyres, so that when it starts to slide (as it will almost anywhere) you can wind off the lock and ease off the pedal long before any drama develops.

All I never trusted were the brakes, which may not have been quite as bad as they seemed, but I felt disinclined to investigate further.

It is possible no one will ever believe this, but it really was my intention to come in on the lap the engine died. Thankfully the gut-tearing panic was removed by the sight of zero fuel pressure. At 1.6mpg it doesn’t take long to get through it. So I got to coast into the pits in silence, rather regretting I didn’t have any goggles to push up onto my oil-stained forehead. Later I calculated I’d driven it for more than half an hour before the car had indeed told me when enough was enough.

There are reputedly just three complete 159s in the world, all owned by Alfa Romeo, and now, some days after I drove one, I am glad it didn’t turn out to be one of those surprisingly easy and accommodating race cars. Even so, I felt a fraud behind its wheel, for this is a car only legends like the death-defying Dr Giuseppe Farina or Fangio himself should drive.

It marked the end of many eras: the 159 was the last successful Grand Prix car to have been designed in substantial part before the war. It remains Alfa Romeo’s most recent Grand Prix winner. Most of all, though, it slammed shut the book of the truly unhinged Grand Prix car; the F2 machine that took its place the following year with less than half its power must have seemed mild indeed. By the time F1 engines put out this kind of power again, they were located behind the driver and the cars to which they were mounted fitted with vast slicks, huge wings and monocoque tubs. It was the 1970s and the age of the 159 was long since gone. But as the greatest racing machine of its era, and one of the finest of all time, it will never be forgotten.