Camparari & Tonic

After several fruitless attempts to conquer the World Sports Car Championship, Alfa Romeo prospered with a cocktail of Italian flair and German methodology

It arrives secreted within what can only be described as a presidential motorcade. Buried amid sundry new Fiats and Lancias, all with blue lights flashing importantly, the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT12 makes its appearance. It is not obvious why 1975’s world championship-winning sports car needs to travel this way, nor does it ever become clear, but it seems entirely appropriate.

This car does not come out often and has never, so far as anyone present can remember, been driven by a journalist. You don’t need my words to tell you how it looks, the adjacent images revealing more than I ever could, but I will say that in the flesh it appears less beautiful than the Ferrari 312PB it was intended to beat, albeit far more menacing. It has the effect of appearing larger than it actually is, with acres of Campari-sponsored bodywork surrounding a tiny yet nevertheless regulation two-seat cockpit. It’s the proportions that keep me peering at the squat machine from different angles. It manages the neat trick of being a curvaceous wedge, fulfilling the apparently opposing imperatives of appearing Italian and satisfying the prevailing aerodynamic thinking of its era. When my time comes I’ll be sitting so far forward it’s almost a surprise not to see bubbles in the front bodywork to accommodate your toes. Being of spaceframe construction, it seems your phalanges make up the substantial part of the front impact structure.

Behind you and that brilliant (and, for me, quite useless) mirror on a pole, the bodywork rises like a distant mountain range capped by that outrageously evocative snorkel intake for the engine.

Ah yes, the engine. This is what kept me up last night. Alfa’s two-can-play-at-that-game riposte to Ferrari, a quad-cam, 3-litre flat-12 like theirs, yammering out an even 500bhp at, wait for it, 11,500rpm. What’s that going to sound like? How’s it going to feel in a car weighing just 670kg? Alfa’s test track is mine and if there are any rules, no one’s felt the need to mention them. But you can’t just get in and go. Or at least I can’t, not least because I don’t fit. The seat belongs to Arturo Merzario, known universally as ‘Little Art’, something no one’s ever going to call me (and not only because my name’s not Arthur). Derek Bell says Merzario was so short that at certain angles it seemed the car had no driver. I can get in, but need a six-inch section of calf removed before I can operate the clutch. Faced with not driving, the proposition seems almost tempting. Alfa Romeo brows furrow and while they think about what to do next, I sit in the shade and allow my mind to reflect briefly on what brought us to this place.

The history of the Alpha Romeo Tipo 33 is long, convoluted even by Italian standards, and there’s not the space to detail it here. But it started in 1964 when work began on a new kind of racing car that eventually made its debut in 1967, with Alfa’s Autodelta in-house race team run by Carlo Chiti. Confusingly called the 33/2 (the ‘2’ referred to the capacity in litres of its V8 engine), the car became noted for winning its class in the 1968 Daytona 24 Hours and coming second in that year’s Targa Florio. It was succeeded in 1969 by the 3-litre 33/3, but excess weight and a lack of reliability meant it was not until 1971 that the design started to show its potential. It’s impressive enough that the car won at Brands Hatch, Watkins Glen and at the Targa Florio, and scored podiums at Sebring, Buenos Aires, the Osterreichring, Monza and Spa.

But then consider the opposition included the ultimate development of the Porsche 917, complete with 5-litre engine. But then came 1972. There were no longer any factory Porsches to worry about, but there was the small matter of the Ferrari 312PB, a car so fast and reliable that the only reason it didn’t win all 11 rounds of the World Sports Car Championship is that it only entered 10. It ducked Le Mans, duly to be claimed by Matra. Everything else fell to the Maranello steamroller and the Autodelta 33s could hope only to be best of the rest. The good news was that rumours persisted all season of a new flat-12 motor that would finally provide the power to bring Alfa what it most wanted: outright championship victory.

In theory, at least. The 33 TT12 (`Telaio Tubolare’ referring to its tubular spaceframe construction) appeared briefly at Spa in 1973 and promptly broke, a pattern that would be followed for the rest of the season as Matra and Ferrari fought it out for overall honours. The title ended up going to France, but Ferrari’s loss would be cold comfort to Alfa, languishing back in seventh place with a mere 17 points — fewer than were awarded for a single win.

Ferrari withdrew in 1974 (and Chiti had a wider choice of top-flight drivers to hire), but there would be disappointment for anyone who thought this might transform Autodelta’s fortunes. The campaign started well, with a maiden win in round one on home soil at Monza, but for the rest of season the Alfas could do no more than follow the Matras home (and even then on just three occasions). Autodelta finished fourth in the table with fewer than half Matra’s points.

And so to 1975. The portents were not good. True, Matra had pulled the plug on its racing exploits, but Renault had leapt into the frame with a ferociously fast, state-of-the-art turbo car. By contrast, the 33 was old, into its third season of racing even in TT12 guise. Moreover, in the depth of the oil crisis the cash-strapped, stateowned Alfa Romeo was not at all sure that spending another stack of cash on Chiti’s sports car aspirations really was the best use of meagre resources. Which is where one Willibald Kauhsen enters the frame. A highly successful German racer, particularly in Interserie events, he brought sponsorship, expertise and drivers to the team, one being Derek Bell. There are conflicting reports about the exact relationship between Kauhsen and Autodelta: those of an Italian perspective will tell you the team was effectively the same as before, but with additional sponsorship money from Kauhsen making up the shortfall from Alfa Romeo (which is why it was called the Willi Kauhsen Racing Team). But Derek remembers the team being led by Kauhsen and allocates the lion’s share of the credit to him.

“When I first drove the car it felt like a tank,” he says, “but Willi got to work and very quickly sorted it out. I always thought good things would result when Italian design inspiration met German engineering excellence — and they duly did.”

You can say that again. Neither Renault nor Alfa entered the curtain-raising Daytona 24 Hours, so the season proper kicked off at Mugello. And while in ’74 the Alfas had won the first race and lost all the others, in ’75 precisely the reverse came to pass. The opener fell to Renault, but thereafter the Alfas never looked back, winning the remaining seven races. And as only your best seven results counted towards the final tally, they finished the season with the championship they so dearly sought and an unimprovable points total.

“Once it was sorted, the car was a joy to drive,” says Bell who, sharing with Henri Pescarolo, won three of those seven rounds. Three more were won by Merzario and Jacques Laffite, and one by Merzario and Jochen Mass. “It was really good fun,” Bell adds. “Not quite as quick as the Renault but a whole lot more reliable. We’d just wait for them to break, which they usually did.”

It had taken Alfa a long time to find consistent reliability for the 33, but it’s what won them the title. “That engine was extraordinary,” Bell says. “Pesca and I would rev it to 11,500rpm everywhere, but Art was using 13,000rpm and I’m not sure he always bothered with the clutch. It would start to smoke and break valve springs but you couldn’t stop it — it just kept going.”

Indeed Derek reckons one of the best races of his career came at its wheel, in changeable conditions at the scary old Spa. He beat the identical car of Jacky Ickx into second place. “To beat Jacky on his home ground, at that track in those conditions — I hope it doesn’t sound big-headed if I say that was one of my better days at the office…”

It doesn’t.

Alfa won the title again in 1977, using an all-new 33 with a monocoque chassis and turbocharged engine, but it was a devalued championship for Group 6 sports cars against derisory opposition.

And that was it. Happily for me, however, the factory kept one chassis, 006, for itself. And this is the car into which I do not currently fit. THE REASON YOU CAN SEE PICTURES OF me driving the 33, rather than sitting trackside in a world-class sulk, is thanks to what I can only describe as the most wonderfully Italian interlude. Clearly the only way I could drive the car was to have its seat removed. This I was told was quite impossible. Being 6ft 4in, I take this chance every time I try to drive a racing car, and having travelled all the way to Italy I was at least going to enjoy being with the 33, even if I couldn’t actually be in it.

So I just walked around it, drinking in the sight of those sleek flanks, enquiring after various aspects of its design and generally feeling fairly awed by its mere presence. This must have been evident because after just a few minutes enthusing about the car, the impossible was transformed into the really rather easy. With a flourish a mechanic whipped away the offending seat and invited me forward.

Soon I was actually quite snug, belted in and surrounded by various bits of padding to make sure I wasn’t going to start migrating around the cockpit. Even so your extremities feel hellishly vulnerable in there and I found myself wishing I’d listened more when Brian Redman once gave me some tips about how to ensure you never crashed front first. He was talking about a Porsche 908 at the time, but the principle is the same. I’m expecting some magnificently complicated start-up procedure and am almost disappointed when I’m told to flick two switches on the dash — one for the pumps, the other for the ignition — and hit the starter. The disappointment does not last long. The flat-12 catches, seemingly before the crankshaft has completed its first revolution, and instantly everything else in my life — work, wife, children — leaves my mind. There is space in here for that noise and that noise alone. I’ve forgotten my earplugs and will probably be deaf for days. And that’s with the motor idling at 2500rpm.

What is it about flat-12s? I know V12s make a richer and probably purer sound, but this is my third flat-12, after examples from both Porsche and Ferrari, and in their hard edged, hollow timbre lies another dimension, a fascination for me touched by no other configuration I know.

But I can’t sit here all day just listening. The Balocco test track, on which the 33s were developed, awaits. The right-hand gearchange has a traditional racing layout with first back and towards me on a dogleg, so with a gentle lift of the clutch and sharp intake of breath, the 33 TT12 and I ease out onto the circuit.

The first two laps are from behind a camera car, a pursuit clearly beneath the Alfa’s station. In first gear with my foot off the throttle it still wants to ram the ambling Fiat estate out of the way. I worry it might get hot or start to foul its plugs but it doesn’t: it just gets angry. Finally the Fiat clears off and the vexed question of revs arises. The tape on the tacho says 11,500rpm, as per Bell’s memory, but that seems ridiculous. This engine is nearly 40 years old and I have no idea when or indeed if it has been rebuilt. It’ll pull without complaint from 4000rpm, but its heart’s not really in it until 6000rpm. But between there and my selfimposed 9500rpm limit, time appears not to exist. The gearbox is a delight so throwing ratios at the problem is easy enough, but there’s no point, no time even, to return your hand to the wheel between shifts. It just hurls you relentlessly, inexorably, hilariously forward.

The steering is fingertip-light and, with very little downforce by modern standards, I would expect it to stay so. The car is surprisingly softly sprung, too, so instead of my chairless carriage beating me up at every bump, it’s actually quite comfortable.

Most bizarrely, I’m not even getting a hurricane in the helmet, despite sticking out what must be close to a foot farther from the car than little Art. The wind management around the cockpit is outstanding.

I go a little faster, feeling the grip come to the car as heat pours into its vast Avon slicks. And try as I might, I can’t stop thinking of karts. Writers like me often resort to all sorts of tortured analogies in their vain efforts to convey some sense of what such a car is like to drive, but with this one it’s really quite easy: the lightness, immediacy and accuracy of its steering, the sense of it having not one spare kilogramme to carry and the way it darts onto each new line are all traits anyone who’s driven a half-decent kart will recognise. The only real difference is this one has 500bhp and a sound I’d happily have played at my funeral.

Ah yes, that motor. Chiti has a reputation for regarding a car as merely the delivery mechanism for its engine, and in that regard he had much in common with Enzo Ferrari. With this 33, though, he may have had a point. On my last lap, and because I couldn’t help myself, I gave it the lot in third gear — all 11,500rpm of it — and realised at once what I’d been missing. In that last 2000rpm, this hitherto brilliantly fast and friendly sports car turns entirely feral, a mad, bellowing beast that I’d want a lot more time and space to learn properly.

But I don’t wish to outstay my welcome. I return to base and the 33 to its owners. Within five minutes, the presidential cavalcade has set off again, lights flashing. I think there were some wailing sirens too, but that might just have been the ringing in my much-abused ears. I’m so glad the 33 finally won that title after so many years of trying. It might not have been the most successful racing car of its era, but I know of few that are better to look at, listen to or drive. It is, in short, everything a racing Alfa should be. It’s now 50 years since the formation of Autodelta and 40 since the debut of the 33 TT12. Perhaps it’s time to do another.

Andrew Frankel