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P2 Gran Premio (1925)

From 1925 To 2018: Alfa Romeo Returns To Formula 1

This is great news, this is terrible news. It will be a hallmark long remembered before the whole idea sinks beneath the waves of history without so much as a bubble. Alfa Romeo, the team, the team that for so long represented Italy, the team that utterly dominated European and Grand Prix racing, the team that behaved like rank amateurs without an ounce of engineering know-how, the team of true greatness and truly great failures is returning to Formula 1.

No Guarantees

David Letterman, noted funny man, native Hoosier, Porsche aficionado, and race team owner once said, after watching one of his cars drop out while leading by country a mile: “The great thing about racing is that anything can happen. And the terrible thing about racing is that anything can happen.” He was only half kidding and 100 percent right. I’ve come to call that quip of his “Letterman’s Constant.” Ask anyone who has been around racing, and I have been around the sport my entire life, and they will tell you not only how true Letterman’s Constant is, but also how many times they’ve seen it happen.

It is another way of saying that, in racing, there are no sure things.

Weight & Significance

The nuts and bolts of this, the hows and whys and wherefores are pretty standard stuff, as to any given car company entering into the most pressurized and highest end of Motorsports. Alfa Romeo, a division of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has signed on to be an “engine supplier” to and primary sponsor of the Swiss-based Sauber F1 Team. Pretty standard, in much the same way Honda did a few years back when they started making engines for McLaren.

What is not standard is the emotional Weight and historic Significance of this pairing (and yeah, I meant both of those to be capitalized). Although Ferrari justifiably holds the spotlight in the minds of modern Italian race fans, they are, despite all their successes (and let’s face the immutable fact that Ferrari is the best team in Grand Prix history) a bit of a newcomer. Ferrari is to Alfa Romeo the way Porsche is to Mercedes-Benz. You know that laurel wreath that rings Alfa’s badge? That was added when Alfa won the first World Manufacturers’ Championship. Not its first, the first in 1925. Alfa justifiably had the motto: Primo campione del automobili del mundo; first automotive champion of the world. Add to this a partial list of former Alfa Romeo employees: Campari, Varzi, Nuvolari, Fangio, Farina, Ascari (both father and son), and Vaccarella. Put those two factors together and what you get is this:

World Championships: 5; Mille Miglia victories: 11; Targa Florio victories: 10; outright 24 Hours of Le Mans victories: 4; European Touring Car Championships: 17. And those are just the major titles. Alfa Romeo has racked them up in Italian, French, German, and European F3 Championships; Trans-Am Championships, DTM championships, and British, Spanish, and French Touring Car Championships, with equal aplomb.

So what’s the downside here? What’s the other side of Letterman’s Constant? Two things: Alfa Romeo and Sauber.

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The Alfa Romeo P2 Gran Premio lead the team to the inaugural Automobile World Championship in 1925. Photo: FCA US LLC.

With Or Without You

Have you ever lived with an Alfa Romeo? It’s like living with Monica Bellucci if she had serious bi-polar issues. It is days and nights of unbridled desire and delight and then WHAM! Next thing you know, you’re dumped on the side of the road, staring deep into the smoking ruins of what was your heart or your engine or whatever, feeling like an Old Testament prophet who has seriously offended God. “What’s this? What’s wrong? What did I do? How is this my fault? Why? WHY?!” you howl into the lonely and pitiless night.

And this fine Italian tradition, like a vendetta your third uncle is still paying for, carries on to this day. Look, I seriously desire an Alfa Romeo Giulia, but have you seen their reliability reports? And what will Alfa bring to the F1 table for 2018 when it starts in Melbourne? Who knows? But what is known (and this is where things get tricky) those engines nestled in the snug confines of a Sauber engine bay, aren’t really Alfas. They are rebadged Ferrari power units. The good news is Alfa/Sauber will be getting the latest spec Ferrari power plants from the start of the season. The bad news is that in 2017, Ferrari’s engines had a tendency to fail if you squeezed them hard.

Sure, sure, you could look at that and say it’s all a ruse and a Bad Thing, but c’mon. Rebadging engines is a fine racing tradition, and besides, Alfa has been running reconfigured Ferrari mills in their road cars for a while now. Lop off two cylinders, and you got the sublime V6 of the modern Giulia. Mount that V8 from the 360/430 up front and you’ve got the inspirational V8 of the 8C Competizione. Besides, all this badging and rebadging will raise Alfa Romeo’s image in America, where they are seriously looking to expand.

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Photo: FCA US LLC.

From Hills To Mountains

And of course, there’s the Sauber end of this equation. The Swiss team (based out of a kind of nowhere town called Hinwil) has been in serious performance trouble for as long as anyone cares to remember. This is a very sad state of affairs. For a while there, Sauber was seriously knocking on the door to be one of the front runners. And before that, Sauber was a frighteningly fast team in big bore sports car racing. Their Sauber Mercedes C9s displayed top end power at Le Mans like I have never seen, and they still hold the outright terminal velocity record at the great French race: 251 miles per hour and change. They hit that speed in practice, qualifying, and throughout the race, lap in, lap out for an entire day.

How they went from there to being at the literal back of an F1 grid is frankly beyond me. They have a fantastically well run operation staffed by literal geniuses. They have a wind tunnel that NASA is envious of. They just got a new infusion of cash from Swedish investors (not sure how that dovetails, but hey, an operating budget is an operating budget). And now they’ve got even more money and backing from Alfa Romeo.

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Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team pilots Charles Leclerc (left) and Marcus Ericsson. Photo: FCA US LLC.

Pretty Faces & Exciting Races

How can this not work? What could possibly go wrong with this chemical admixture? Simple: This is racing. And the great thing about racing is that anything can happen. And the terrible thing about racing is that anything can happen. Officially called the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team, they will sport the distinctive Alfa Romeo colors and logo seen in the past, and will be on the grid in Australia for the first race of the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship. Will this work? I don’t know. But they’ll be pretty to look at, that’s easy to say.

Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He is the author of Bricks & Bones: The Endearing Legacy and Nitty-Gritty Phenomenon of The Indy 500, available in paperback or Kindle format

Photos & Source: FCA US LLC.