In Formula One’s formative seasons, the Alfa Romeo name provoked fear into their competitors. By 1985 the Italian team were little more than a laughing stock in the F1 paddock. What went wrong?
The first powerhouse of Formula One, the works Alfa squad swept the first two seasons of the championship with their mighty supercharged Alfetta. Despite this success, the die was already cast for Milan by the middle of 1951. The Alfetta was largely based on a prewar design, and their great rivals Scuderia Ferrari were now producing state-of-the-art cars which could easily hang with the works Alfas. With the Italian government refusing to fund a new chassis, Milan announced their withdrawal from F1 at the end of 1951.
More than a quarter of a century would pass until Alfa Romeo reappeared in F1, but the works squad that competed between 1979 and 1985 was a mere shadow of the legendary prewar and early 1950s dream team.
In between these efforts, there would be the odd privateer entry crowbarring an Alfa lump into the back of their steed during the 60’s and 70’s. This included Italian almost-reject Andrea de Adamich, who persuaded March and McLaren to let him use Alfa engines during the early 70s.
None of these entries were successful enough to tempt Milan back into F1 as a manufacturer. In 1976 though, that changed when Bernie Ecclestone and his Brabham squad agreed a deal with Carlo Chiti to run Alfa Romeo’s flat-12 engine, which was being used successfully by their Autodelta sportscar program.
Despite the power output of the flat-12, which was significantly higher than the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV at the time, the Alfa was heavier, more unreliable and thirstier than the DFV. During a truly disastrous 1979 season, Brabham announced they would return to Cosworth power for 1980. Alfa Romeo’s tenure with Brabham yielded 14 podiums, including two victories for Niki Lauda in 1978, and a best place of third in the constructors, also in 1978.
After Brabham’s announcement, Carlo Chiti engaged his masterplan. He persuaded the management at Milan to allow Autodelta to develop a chassis for the team, and at the 1979 Belgian Grand Prix Alfa Romeo as a defacto manufacturer entry returned to the F1 paddock.
Staying true to Alfa’s road car reputation, the new car was not the most reliable package on the grid and the image of Alfas stopped by the side of the track quickly became a common sight during this time period. An improved chassis, the 179, was introduced in late 1979. This was developed by Patrick Depailler, and during the 1980 and 1981 seasons was not an uncompetitive car by any means. The Frenchman was regarded as a gifted development driver, and his death during test at Hockenheim in 1980 dealt the team a massive blow.
A reworked engine had been introduced for 1980 which was better than the previous design since it didn’t consume as much fuel, but it still suffered the same chronic unreliability as its predecessor. Bruno Giacomelli saw the checkered flag only three times in 1980, despite collecting the team’s first points since its return as a factory squad at the German Grand Prix. Alfa signed former champion Mario Andretti for 1981, and the season that followed no doubt hastened the American’s departure to Indycars, as he scored only three points all year. Giacomelli netted the team’s first podium that year, but the squad hadn’t really made any major ground relative to the competition. All talk and no trousers was how many viewed the Alfa works effort.
1983 ended up being the best season for this incarnation of Alfa Romeo, when they ditched the V12 lump for a V8 turbocharged unit. The team eventually got what would be their best results in this return, with Andrea de Cesaris scoring second place finishes in both Germany and South Africa. The Italian even flirted briefly with outright victory, having lead eighteen laps in Belgium before a characteristic Alfa engine failure robbed him of his aspirations.
The next season marked the beginning of the end for Alfa’s works squad. Despite the introduction of a sleeker chassis for 1984, the turbocharged V8 engine had now become a major problem. Having proven to be somewhat competitive the previous year, the V8 was lagging behind in terms of raw power output compared to the TAG and BMW units of rival teams. With refuelling banned and a maximum fuel limit of 220 litres per race introduced, fuel saving became another problem since the engine was still particularly thirsty. Despite scoring eleven points, just seven less than the year before, Alfa Romeo’s competitiveness had dropped, both pace wise and reliability wise. The team suffered many engine related failures throughout the year, with Riccardo Patrese and Eddie Cheever often running out of fuel before the chequered flag.
For 1985, Alfa Romeo introduced a new chassis – the 185T. Designed by Mario Tolletino and John Gentry, the 185T was supposed to switch things around for Alfa Romeo, with its sleek body aiming to reduce aerodynamic drag in order to improve fuel consumption. There was no shortage of driving talent behind the wheel – Patrese and Cheever signed new contracts, although rumours that the pair didn’t really like each other floated around the paddock.
However, the engine still posed a major issue. While rival power units were already reaching 900hp output in race trim, the Alfa V8 could only achieve a measly 640hp which meant that Patrese and Cheever would be sitting ducks on tracks with long straights and high-speed sections. This showed during the first three races of the season as the team were stuck in the midfield in qualifying, before suffering three straight double retirements.
The Monaco GP featured an update package for the 185T. With the Principality being a track where power output wasn’t really important Eddie Cheever managed to place his Alfa fourth on the grid, just a mere three tenths off Ayrton Senna’s pole time in his vastly superior Lotus. Come race day Cheever kept himself in the points before an alternator problem hit the Alfa on lap 7, and three laps later Eddie was a spectator for the rest of the day. In the meantime, Patrese decided to produce perhaps the only lasting memory of Alfa Romeo in 1985 when he moved across Nelson Piquet’s much faster Brabham, who was trying to overtake on the pit straight. All this achieved was two destroyed cars and a guaranteed spot on crash montages for years to come.
The 185T finally saw a chequered flag at the following race at Montreal, where Patrese and Cheever came home in tenth and seventeenth place respectively. On the twisty streets of Detroit the 185T once again showed competitiveness, with Cheever qualifying in seventh place. Despite a good start where he ran as high as fifth, Cheever was forced to pit at the end of the first lap and all his hopes and dreams were crushed right there. He still made a comeback drive to ninth while Patrese suffered a electrical failure on lap 19 while running in last place.
France saw another double finish, as Cheever led home a 10-11 for the team, before the team decided they had enough of the 185T. Modifying the previous year’s 184T into current spec, the 184TB as it was dubbed became their car for the year from Germany onward. This was after the British GP where Patrese took his 185T to ninth place overall, while Cheever’s 184TB suffered a turbo failure.
The season continued to deteriorate. Despite an incredible qualifying effort for Patrese in Germany – a ninth place on the brand new Nurburgring must have seemed like pole considering the power deficit of the engine – the updated 184TB proved to be even more unreliable than the 185T. Only at the European Grand Prix did the cars see the checkered flag again, with Patrese in ninth place and Cheever in eleventh.
The team ended the season pointless, beaten in the constructors by fellow Italians Osella and Minardi – outfits which were operating on a fraction of the budget that Milan were providing to their works squad. To the surprise of no-one, Alfa Romeo announced they were pulling out of Formula One for the second time shortly afterwards.
Overall, Alfa Romeo’s second tenure in F1 as a factory entry brought the team five podiums, two pole positions and a laundry list of missed opportunities. It was a far cry from the glory days some 30 to 50 years earlier. Alfa’s V8 continued to be used in F1 by Osella until 1987. Milan had been supplying their countrymen with engines since 1983. Piercarlo Ghinzani’s fifth place in the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix was the only highlight in that relationship, with the V8 engine illustrating its appalling reliability for another couple of seasons.
One could say that the logical thing would be carrying with the 185T for the remainder of the season. This is despite Riccardo Patrese later dubbing it as “the worst car he had ever driven”. The 185T certainly showed promise on occasion as proven by Eddie Cheever’s performances on tight circuits, but the engine was its downfall. Had Alfa Romeo ditched the V8 in favour of a more suitable design like a V6 engine – which became the way to go during the turbo era of F1 – it might have developed into a good platform to fight for points, or at the very least be more reliable than it really was.
The Alfa Romeo name returns to Formula One in 2018 as the main sponsor of the Sauber team. The question remains: will Alfa one day return to their glory days, or will they replicate the waste of money, talent and resources that summed up their previous stint in Formula One.