Alfa Romeo: Diminishing Return
After announcing their withdrawal from Formula 1 after the Dutch Grand Prix, the Renault team undertook their last race at the 1985 Australian Grand Prix. After the race, another of the Grandees followed suit, but by comparison Alfa Romeo's departure was noticed by few.
It had all started out so differently. Alfa Romeo had been one of the biggest names in post-war and immediate pre-war Grand Prix racing. Their crack factory team won 11 of the first 14 World Championship Grand Prix (including a clean sweep of the first season, aside from the Indianapolis 500) with their crack team of drivers, with Nino Farina (1950) and Juan Manuel Fangio (1951) delivering the first two titles. After that, Alfa Romeo retired, the state-owned company unable to secure permission to replace the ageing Alfetta 159 with a new car to challenge the emerging Ferrari team.
For the next 25 years, little was heard of the company in Formula 1 circles. Their V8 sportscar engine was campaigned in the back of a McLaren and then a March - as a courtesy to factory driver Andrea de Adamich, who had little success. Then, in 1976, Bernie Ecclestone - owner of the Brabham team - came to an agreement to use Carlo Chitti's flat-12 sportscar engine in his cars. Despite being placed in stunning Gordon Murray designs driven by the likes of Carlos Pace, Carlos Reutemann, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet, the cars were rarely consistent challengers. While the flat-12 could match the other engines for speed, and Murray's genius was able to work around the motor's installation problems, the engine's fuel consumption and reliability was poor, and by the end of 1979 Brabham had reverted to Cosworth power.
However, by then a works Alfa Romeo team were back on the map. Chitti had persuaded Autodelta to fund a full team, with a racing return slated for 1979 and a dedicated V12 Formula 1 engine to be built. For now, there was the boxer, placed in the 177 chassis. This car was little more than a test hack to allow Alfa to get into the rhythm of Grand Prix racing, but the press slavered over pictures of Vittorio Brambilla testing the machine at the Balocco airstrip near the factory. One of the grandest names in the sport was set to return.
The main challenger was to be the Tipo 179, a wing-car with the new V12 in the back. Brambilla had been injured in a startline accident at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix while driving for Surtees, and his role in the team was largely that of test driver. The primary driver was Bruno Giacomelli, the 1977 Formula 2 champion who had since served a Formula 1 apprenticeship with the McLaren team. The 177 test hack made tentative appearance at the 1979 Belgian and French Grand Prix, before the new ground effects 179 debuted at Monza (with the old boxer given to Brambilla as a gesture of thanks).
No significant results were gained in the scant 1979 entries, largely as expected. For 1980, things were taken rather more seriously. Alfa Romeo's state-backed nature saw them receive substantial funding from the similarly government-owned cigarette industry in the shape of Marlboro Italia. As well as signing Giacomelli, seen as one of the most promising prospects in motor racing, to a lucrative long-term contract, the team signed Patrick Depailler. The popular Frenchman had been a contender for the World Championship with Ligier in 1979 when he had broken both his legs hang gliding, his employers terminating his contract after this extracurricular activity. While Depailler was still in some pain at the start of 1980, requesting special brakes for his car which would strengthen his leg muscles, there was no reason not to expect a full recovery. Alfa had a star driver to lead their effort.
The year started off badly, with reliability problems in practice limiting Giacomelli to 20th and Depallier to 23rd on the grid at the season-opening Argentinean Grand Prix. In the race, high attrition saw both rise through the field to sit 5th and 6th in the closing stages. Depailler, who wryly observed he had almost been enjoying things at that point, dropped out six laps from the end with engine failure, but Giacomelli kept going to score the marque's first points as a constructor since 1951. However, it was a false dawn. The car was around 60kg heavier than its' rivals in race trim, the V12 was prone to breakdowns and was just as thirsty as the old boxer.
Autodelta began a year-long programme of weight-reduction, while the torque of the V12 made the car very competitive on street tracks. Depailler qualified a fine 3rd at Long Beach (with Giacomelli 6th), holding second for the first quarter of the race before submitting to Alan Jones' Williams, before a suspension failure ended his drive when 3rd just after half-distance. Giacomelli span early on and had to pit for a new nosecone. Depailler also started 7th at Monaco, one place ahead of his team-mate. The young Italian was out on the first lap after Derek Daly's famous attempt to use the Alfa as a launching ramp, while another dogged performance by Depailler was ended by engine failure.
By mid-season some progress was being made, despite the team becoming involved in the FISA/FOCA wars. As a manufacturer, they sided with Renault and Ferrari against the primarily British 'specialist builders' of FOCA, and skipped the Spanish Grand Prix. The 179s took the fifth row at Paul Ricard, and while neither car finished it was a sign progress was being made. After the British Grand Prix, there was a four-week break before the German Grand Prix, and Alfa Romeo decamped to Hockenheim to continue their progress with the car. On the 1st August 1980, Depailler's car suffered an unknown failure at the Ostkurve, and was thrown on top of a barrier, upside-down. The Alfa skimmed along the guard rail, inflicting fatal head injuries on the popular Frenchman. The exact cause of the accident is still unknown, with a suspension failure the most likely cause - though there is some speculation that skirt failure, a broken steering column or Depailler passing out to the high g-forces in the fast corner may have been responsible. Whatever the reason, Alfa Romeo had lost their charismatic team leader.
The team gave some thought to withdrawing for the rest of the season, but left the choice in the hands of Giacomelli. He felt the team should continue, and went out and secured a brave 5th place at the German Grand Prix. This was followed by a run of strong drives, often running in the points before mechanical failure. Giacomelli's day of days came at Watkins Glen in the final race of the season, where he took pole position and led comfortably until electrical failure. Vittorio Brambilla had briefly been recalled to partner him, before Formula 2 starlet Andrea de Cesaris was called up for the North American races.
The season had been, in a word, uneven. The car was on the pace by the end of the season, and Giacomelli received much credit for the way he led the team after Depailler's death. However, reliability had been shocking (from 28 starts, the team logged three classified finishes) and for the massive investment, four points was a poor return. For a manufacturer team, reliability is a key word - potential customers would take note of the way an Alfa Romeo kept breaking down, even if the 179 had little in common with a road-going GTV6.
Thus for 1981, Autodelta took a very conservative route. The much-evolved 179C would be retained, with the company hoping to work on reliability. Joining Giacomelli on the team would be Mario Andretti, the 1978 World Champion. Since then, however, the American's standing had dropped - 1979 had seen him a victim of the too-radical Lotus 80, while his last year at Lotus had seen him receive something of a beating from the inexperienced Elio de Angelis. Andretti was fast becoming disillusioned with Grand Prix racing, and it was probably only the romanticism of returning to his Italian roots that saw him take the drive.
The 179C and 179D (which debuted at the Austrian Grand Prix and would interchange with the C-spec car) were certainly more reliable, but simply weren't fast enough anymore. On tight circuits, the V12 could make them a competitive proposition - there was promise at the season opener in Long Beach, where both cars started in the top 10 and Andretti finished 4th - but too often they were lost in midfield. The drivers were under some suspicion too - Andretti seemed to have lost his fire, while the lack of competition in the team and a substantial retainer seemed to have blunted Giacomelli's progress. The team wouldn't score again until Giacomelli survived the rain in Canada to finish 4th, but were then bafflingly competitive at the Las Vegas car-park that effectively replaced Watkins Glen on the calendar. After both qualified well, Giacomelli rose to 3rd before spinning and losing seven places. He got going again and regained the place, half a length behind 2nd-placed Prost and 20 seconds from winner Alan Jones. Without the spin... Andretti had lost 4th when his suspension failed, and quit Grand Prix racing in order to concentrate on his career in America at the end of the season.
His replacement was Andrea de Cesaris, returning after a horrid year at McLaren. After an embarrassing performance at the 1982 season-opener in the now antiquated 179D, the new 182 was ready for the second race of the season in Brazil. The 182 featured some input from Gerard Ducarouge - signed at great expense after being fired by Ligier - but the Frenchman would struggle to get his influence across. The problem was, like fellow grandees Ferrari and Renault, Alfa Romeo's size worked against them. While the outfit had massive resources, even Autodelta was dominated by internal politics and bureaucracy. Whereas at a small, dedicated outfit like Williams, Patrick Head could design a new front wing for the car, take the idea straight to Frank Williams who would in turn hand it straight down to the mechanics and have the thing built and fitted to a car in very short order, Ducarouge would have to take any input he had through several departments, often staffed by people with minimum Grand Prix experience.
The 182 was largely an interim car. By then Autodelta had seen which way the wind was blowing, and began work on a V8 turbocharged engine. In the meantime, de Cesaris and Giacomelli had to make do with the thirsty, unreliable V12 - once again housed in an unreliable car. High points were again the street circuits - at Long Beach de Cesaris took pole position, led the early stages and was holding a secure 2nd when he hit a wall (Giacomelli had hared up to 4th in the opening laps, only to plough into the back of Arnoux). At Monaco, de Cesaris might have won but for the engine's fuel consumption, running dry a lap from the end and winding up classified 3rd. He also dropped out of 3rd in Canada, again due to the engine's fuel consumption.
Low points were a series of accidents for both drivers - Giacomelli collided with Watson in Detroit and Mansell in Canada, while they hit each other at the start in Austria. The biggest humiliation came at Imola, though - boycotted by the majority of FOCA teams, Alfa should have been assured of points. However, Giacomelli was unable to get on terms with Alboreto's humble Tyrrell and neither finished. Indeed, the 182 only managed nine finishes from 30 starts.
It had been enough for Alfa Romeo, who decided to privatise the operation, unable to justify the cost in the face of falling sales of its' road cars. The group they selected to take over was Paulo Pavanelli's Euroracing, an ambitious Formula 2 outfit. They would handle the running of the team (still under the Alfa Romeo name), while Autodelta would continue to design and manufacture the car and engine. The budget would be raised by Euroracing, taking the funding away from the state without leaving the expensive Formula 1-related facilities going to waste. At the end of the 1982 season, both Giacomelli and de Cesaris had their contracts terminated.
Pavenelli managed to negotiate another year of sponsorship from Marlboro Italia (the company had also been sponsor of the Euroracing F2 effort), who in turn requested de Cesaris was retained. He was promptly re-signed, albeit on reduced terms compared to his 1982 contract. His partner was Mauro Baldi, who had driven for Euroracing in lower categories - and was not only paid a modest salary compared to Giacomelli, but also brought sponsorship from Nordica. While the budget was no longer gargantuan, it was still healthy for a Formula 1 team. Due to the new flat-bottom regulations the new 183T - with the new V8 turbocharged - would start from the first race of the season.
1983 was certainly Alfa Romeo's best year since their return. While Baldi was often lost in midfield, de Cesaris regularly ran near the front, and not just on street circuits. He confidently led at Spa before a slow fuel stop and then transmission failure, scored 2nd places at Hockenheim and Kyalami and generally impressing. However, the season could have been better, had Gerard Ducarouge not been made the scapegoat for a farcical episode at the French Grand Prix when de Cesaris' fire extinguisher was found to be empty in practice and the Italian was penalised. Reliability was still a problem too, while the V8 turbo was even more thirsty than its' V12 predecessor. Generally, though, the first season under Euroracing's regime went well, the streamlining of the operation seeming to cut a lot of red tape.
More than any other team, Alfa Romeo would suffer when a fuel limit of 220 litres was introduced for the 1984 season. When taking 2nd at the German Grand Prix, de Cesaris had used 270 litres. He wouldn't be around to try for 1984, however - to the surprise of many, the Italian was fired. Marlboro had opted not to renew their sponsorship of the outfit, with Pavanelli instead poaching Tyrrell's United Colours of Benetton money. This allowed the team to offer lucrative deals to Riccardo Patrese (released by Brabham after refusing to take reduced terms) and Eddie Cheever (fired by Renault along with Alain Prost). Both had signed on the promise that an expensive electronic fuel injection system designed to combat the V8's excessive consumption would be installed before the season started, but the device never worked well.
Indeed, little worked well. The 184T car looked beautiful, but was even less reliable than its' predecessors, and both drivers were forced to compromise badly by the fuel consumption. Cheever, after finishing 4th in the season opener (in a curious echo of the team's previous Italian-American, Andretti), would not have a trouble-free race for the rest of the year, and the sight of his Alfa dropping out of a hard-won place in the top six with either mechanical problems or a dry tank was a common one as the year wore on.
Patrese, chippy and embittered after his difficult second season with Brabham, simply didn't try very hard on several occasions, and later in the year was only too happy to run with minimal boost, keep out of trouble and see if he could pick up points when others going racing hit trouble. The approach reaped a 3rd place in the high attrition at Monza, the team's only rostrum of the season. Alfa Romeo had entered a relationship with the small Osella team in 1983, and in 1984 provided them with a V8 engine for their car (itself heavily based on the 183T) - and too often the machine showed up the works cars in the careful hands of Piercarlo Ghinzani. To make matters worse, Patrese and Cheever fell out at the Monaco Grand Prix, which led to considerable friction within the team and made development difficult.
1985 saw another slip down the slope. Patrese, Cheever, Benetton and Pavanelli were all still in place, as was the now-trademark unreliability, but the V8 was now beginning to fall behind the development curve of the other engines, and everyone had turbocharged engines by now. The Alfas were at best midfielders for much of the season, only grabbing any attention on a couple of occasions. The best of these were a couple of Herculean efforts by Cheever on street circuits where bravery outweighed the underpowered engine; the worst were the accidents. The most eye-catching was Patrese's fiery collision with Piquet in Monaco; the most pithy was both Alfa cars colliding at the second corner in South Africa, and verbally remonstrating track-side afterwards.
The team didn't score a single point in 1985, and it all made for poor publicity for Alfa Romeo. The company, fed up of the negative press, announced its' withdrawal at the end of the season; Pavanelli for his part was fed up with the poor equipment, and after Benetton had brought into the Toleman team had wanted out anyway. Alfa would continue to maintain its' engine pool for Osella, but the company's attempt to return to the glory days of the 1950s was over, an embarrassing and expensive failure.
The marque would make a couple more attempts to get back into top-level motorsport - a partnership with Ligier was started in 1986 as an engine partner. However, the interim straight-4 turbo engine was criticised by the team's driver Rene Arnoux, and - wary of the bad publicity of the early 1980s - Alfa Romeo promptly withdrew. Then, in 1988 they brought Motor Racing Developments - the Brabham team - from Bernie Ecclestone, but had no intention to run it in Formula 1. Instead, MRD were tasked with marrying the V10 normally aspirated engine intended for the 1988 Ligier with an Alfa Romeo 164 chassis as a mooted one-make support race for Grand Prix. However, the series was never made, and at the end of the year MRD were sold on to Swiss businessman (and, as it would turn out, criminal) Joachim Luhti. By then, Alfa Romeo were part of the Fiat Group, who kept their umbrella marques apart in motorsport, and with Ferrari handling the company's Formula 1 operation, Alfa Romeo's motorsport activities have been restricted to touring cars.