When Alfa Romeo set the F1 pace - and more recently than you think
Alfa Romeo is back in F1. Its deep red will bedeck some of the Sauber this season.
Or rather Alfa’s sort of back. It’s not the long awaited fifth hybrid engine supplier; it’s a badging arrangement reflecting Alfa is in the same stable as Sauber’s actual supplier Ferrari (and that there’s closer ties generally than before). Nothing wrong with that. You wonder why similar isn’t done routinely – Renault could badge one of its offerings as a Nissan for example.
But we know about Alfa Romeo and Grand Prix racing. It was a famous presence pre-war then won the first two F1 world championships in 1950 and ’51. But then quit while it was ahead with a long in the tooth car and whipper-snapper Ferrari by now on its case.
But Alfa did return between times. First as an engine supplier in the 1970s, then as a full scale works team from 1979 to 1985. This was a lot less successful particularly in the latter case – a couple of poles, a handful of podiums, lots of retirements and a best placing of sixth in the constructors’ table.
But incongruously at the end of its first full season back, in 1980, Alfa in fact had a spell in the sun, being a consistent front-runner. Several strong results were lost to circumstance. And at the wheel was the about as unlikely figure of Bruno Giacomelli. Like his team his career stats don’t do much for him. Like his team he entered 1980 maligned. But like his team on closer inspection there was more to it.
Alfa’s return as a constructor in Alan Henry’s words “raised more than a titter of mirth” what with its wacky recent record in supplying engines. And at the start of 1980 Alfa indeed lived down to expectations, its bulbous 179 qualifying four seconds off the pace in the opening round.
But the car improved – it shed some of its weight and got new suspension, sidepods and skirts. Patrick Depailler – brought in as lead driver and considered damaged goods, in more than one sense, after ceding a place in the 1979 title battle by sustaining severe leg injuries while hang gliding – qualified third at Long Beach and ran with the leaders before retirement at Monaco.
Incongruously at the end of its first full season back, in 1980, Alfa in fact had a spell in the sun, being a consistent front-runner. And at the wheel was the about as unlikely figure of Bruno Giacomelli.
Yet the changes mentioned didn’t include the crucial shift. “The biggest single improvement came when Goodyear went from a 13-inch front tyre to 15-inch,” noted Giacomelli. “That allowed us to run a softer compound which suited the car very well. We just got stronger and stronger from that point.”
Sadly at around the same time Depailler died in testing accident at Hockenheim before the German round, when his suspension failed.
But his team mate Giacomelli stepped up to his new responsibility superbly, showing the sort of talent that let him sweep the board in F2, but that had withered a little in the popular consciousness via his first faltering steps in F1. From Depailler’s fatal accident mid-year Giacomelli was a factor everywhere.
In the Hockenheim race he climbed bravely through the field from a lowly grid position to finish fifth. In Austria he battled Carlos Reutemann’s Williams and Nelson Piquet’s Brabham, though developed a handling problem that he thought would be cured by a tyre change, but he was released from his stop with a wheel not attached.
At the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Giacomelli was all set to take second place from Jacques Laffite’s Ligier but was caught out by overheating brakes and spun, then ended his chances by destroying his skirts (vital for ground effect downforce) clambering over a kerb when rejoining.
At the Italian Grand Prix, in 1980 held uniquely at Imola, he started fourth only for a puncture, caused by running over debris from Gilles Villeneuve crashing his Ferrari in front of him, to put him out.
In Canada he made a pig’s ear of passing Didier Pironi’s Ligier for third place, again destroying his skirts on a kerb. And Pironi finished first on the road…
“It seemed only a matter of time before we scored a big result,” mused Giacomelli later, and it looked for all the world that at 1980’s final round, at Watkins Glen in upstate New York, it would arrive.
“The weather was cool which really suited us because our V12 engine gained considerably more in these conditions than the Cosworth V8s,” Giacomelli went on, “and the grip from a sliding skirt, ground effect car when it was working well like this was just unbelievable.
“Added to all that, the balance was neutral, I could do anything with the car, it was just fantastic. Right from the moment practice began on Friday we were quickest. I set pole by 0.8s on race tyres [in the age of good-for-one-lap qualifying rubber]! In the race everything was going perfectly.”
Indeed. He calmly rebuffed an attack from Piquet on lap one then stroked out a lead of over 10 seconds. Newly-crowned champion Alan Jones had worked his way back to second by mid-distance after running off at the opening corner. Could he have beaten Giacomelli?
“No way!,” Giacomelli insists. “I had 500rpm in hand. Quickest through the chicane, quick down the straights too.
I was controlling the race, everything was under control, I could have gone a lot faster if I’d needed to. Then suddenly it just stopped - Bruno Giacomelli
“I was already controlling the race, the water was perfect, everything was under control, I could have gone a lot faster if I’d needed to.
“Then suddenly it just stopped.” A coil had burnt out. Even Giacomelli’s mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi, who had seen more than most, displayed sheer desolation.
It got worse as for Alfa it never was so good again. And it heralded a wrong-side-of-the-sliding-doors moment for its driver as well.
“Because of the strong races I’d been having, there was some interest in me from British teams for ‘81,” Giacomelli said. “I was hot property.
“There was even talk of me going to Williams and if I’d pushed maybe it could have happened. But I didn’t want to. As well as the emotional pull of being an Italian racing for the great Alfa Romeo, it seemed like we were on the verge of great things.
“I’d already driven a development of the car which we never raced at Balocco [the Alfa test track]. It had the engine mounted further forward and aerodynamically was better. Within five laps I’d broken the lap record. It felt even better than the Watkins Glen car and I was sure we’d be chasing the world championship in 1981. So I stayed.”
But then everything changed. Amid safety concerns and not least F1’s ‘civil war’ between FISA and FOCA sliding skirts were banned overnight between seasons and a new 6cm ground clearance rule designed to eliminate ground effect downforce was brought in. Alfa, pretty much alone as it transpired, was unwilling to deploy ‘trick’ suspension systems to get around it.
And Goodyear, exasperated by the infighting, withdrew and thus deprived Alfa of its mentioned sweet spot.
I’d already driven a development of the car which we never raced at Balocco Within five laps I’d broken the lap record. I was sure we’d be chasing the world championship in 1981. So I stayed - Bruno Giacomelli
It presumably is meagre comfort to Giacomelli that a certain Mario Andretti made the same mistake, turning down McLaren to join Alfa for ’81.
But even that was ill-starred. Bringing in such a conspicuous team mate disconcerted the sensitive Giacomelli. “He was a World Champion, stronger than me politically,” he noted.
Designer Gerard Ducarouge arrived mid-1981 to help but while he improved the car the ambience in the team declined, as Alfa’s colourful long-serving designer and chief Carlo Chiti resented Ducarouge’s presence. “Chiti was a nice person if things went the right way, really tough if they didn’t,” Giacomelli observed.
Some of the tale was familiar though. “Alfa had been away from racing for a long time and it just couldn't adapt to sudden changes like this in the way the British teams could,” Giacomelli added.
“Considering my racing background,” which was driving for British squads in F3, F2 and early on in his F1 days, “it’s ironic that I over-estimated Alfa and under-estimated the British teams. It was the biggest mistake of my life.
“I always felt that, in racing terms, I was more British than Italian.”
Yet even after a difficult year history had an echo, as again in 1981 in the season-concluding round in America, this time around the Caesars Palace car park in Las Vegas, Giacomelli could and perhaps should have signed off for the winter with a victory.
“Gilles Villeneuve and I were the only drivers on Michelin’s harder 701 compound,” Giacomelli reminisced. “I tried too hard to keep up with the leaders and half-spun. But then I couldn’t get reverse. By the time I got going the leader was about to lap me.”
Leader Jones indeed was but a few car lengths behind the Alfa once it started to circulate again. But by the end Giacomelli had climbed to third and was but 20 seconds off victor Jones, the Italian having made back a minute. Another tale of what might have been.
Yet from then on driver and team entered a downward cycle. Alfa struggled on amid wrangling, upheaval and before long cutbacks too. Then come 1984 fuel restrictions really did for it and its ultra-thirsty power plant.
Bruno Giacomelli – not a politician, nor a hard or devious bastard behind the scenes, ‘just’ a very fast racing driver besotted by his craft. Is that so hard to understand? It shouldn’t be - Paul Fearnley
While Giacomelli had a final, again difficult, campaign at Alfa in 1982, wherein his new stable mate Andrea de Cesaris swiftly got the intra-squad upper hand by claiming pole at Long Beach. “Andrea was very fast, and the team got excited by that pole,” Giacomelli said. “But I was perhaps more precise in how a car should be developed. I was still underrated in that team.”
For 1983 he left for Toleman but it was more of the same, firmly playing second fiddle to Derek Warwick and falling out with boss Alex Hawkridge. “He treated me like a 19 year old,” Giacomelli rued.
After racing elsewhere he then had the slightly surreal final F1 act of repeatedly trying and failing to pre-qualify the Life in 1990, a car with good claim to be F1’s worst ever.
But for Giacomelli just to race was the thing – indeed he’d turned down a testing role with McLaren so he could take the Life seat. Plus he was intrigued by the Life’s W12 engine and by working with ex Ferrari designer Franco Rocchi.
As Paul Fearnley concluded, “Bruno Giacomelli – not a politician, nor a hard or devious bastard behind the scenes, ‘just’ a very fast racing driver besotted by his craft. Is that so hard to understand? It shouldn’t be.”