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The Alfetta's last call



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Giuseppe Farina


Alfa Romeo 159




XI Spanish GP (28 October 1951)


The Alfetta's last call… Having won the race and the championship with a thirteen-year old car stretched to its utter limits, Alfa Romeo rightfully decided to call it quits. The move effectively eliminated the continuation of Formula 1 as the Grand Prix formula, as the organizers of most Grande Épreuve events scrambled to announce that for 1952 their races would be run to Formula 2. This happened after the world motorsport authority had declared that the running top formula would continue for another two years before being replaced by the 2.5-litre unsupercharged and 0.75-litre supercharged concept of 1954-1960. With Alfa withdrawing after its all-out attempt to defend its 1950 title - which included building four brand-new chassis - there was no-one that could take on the thriving Ferrari team, the only team to have built a car specifically to the F1 regulations instead running the ancient voiturettes such as the Talbots or the Maseratis. That is, a competitive car. Of course there was the BRM. But when that proved uncompetitive - or even unable to show up at times - the escape route to F2 was swiftly taken. There was no manufacturer that would be interested to build a new car for just two more years.

In the meantime, 'the greatest Grand Prix car of all time' had delivered a miracle performance over the past 1951 season. Sure enough it could be said that they were outclassed at times by the new Ferrari, but this was a 1950 design while the 158/159 stemmed from 1938. Some fair fight. And fight they certainly did, which made a change to the Sunday strolls the Alfettas were used to until the 4.5-litre Ferrari entered the scene at the end of 1950. With all its inherent superiority over the Talbots, the Maseratis and the ERAs, the 158 was a fragile machine that should not be driven too hard. It didn't need to in the immediate post-war years. LJK Setright vividly recollects "seeing three Alfa Romeos, in line ahead, braking early and cautiously for an impending corner while a 4.5-litre Talbot (driven, so far as memory allows, by Giraud-Cabantous) passed the whole lot and skimmed through the corner ahead of them, after which the whole lot repassed the Talbot and went on their way serene and uncatchable." Yet serenity wasn't useful when dealing with the new Ferrari 375. Their advent meant that some serious redesigns were in order to keep the car competitive in its swansong year.

Under the guidance of Orazio Satta yet more power was squeezed out of the Alfa engine, a design that was basically thirteen years old. Four new 159 cars were built with extra tanks to cope with the higher fuel consumption caused by the increase in power to well over 400bhp. With Ferrari now reaching 380bhp Alfa was still ahead power-wise, but the Ferraris were promising to run non-stop. So another important design change - and part of some long-overdue improvements to the chassis - was the fitting of De Dion back axles to three of the chassis. The new rear suspension lay-out was needed to control the sheer power of the Alfa engine and to give the cars more cornering stability, as they now not only needed to fight on the straights but in the corners as well. These cars were also fitted with twin exhaust systems, the top pipe exhausting cylinders 1, 2, 7 and 8, and the lower cylinders 3, 4, 5 and 6. On top of that, the superchargers were fed with air from the vent on top of the scuttle, which had previously cooled the driver. Larger front brakes were fitted and the tail of the body was reshaped again.

In the early British non-championship events everything looked fine, the new cars showing their superiority at Silverstone, Dundrod and Goodwood. But then the World Championship got underway at the end of May. At Bremgarten Alfa were lucky that Ferrari's lead driver Ascari was not in his true form due to a burned arm. Piero Taruffi was hastily called up by Ferrari and duly finished second to Fangio's Alfa. At Spa the Alfas were still faster, and Farina won from Fangio despite stopping for fuel twice while Ferrari needed just one. Then came Reims and the first sign that Ferrari had Alfa's measure. With its new bodywork the 375 could go as fast as the 158 but car trouble meant that both the team leaders, Fangio and Ascari, had to swap cars, with Fangio coming out on top.

So defeat was inevitable. And it came at Silverstone, ironically at the hands of Froilan Gonzalez on board a 1950 Ferrari model, with twelve plug heads instead of 24. In practice the Pampas Bull drove the first 100mph lap of the circuit before scrapping with Fangio all through the race before stretching out a lead of 51 seconds to win comfortably. The Alfettas were beaten for the first time since St Cloud in 1946. This was followed up by another Ferrari win, this time Ascari winning from Fangio.

Then came the two makes' home GP and Alfa Romeo pulled out all the stops to claw back the deficit. The result was the 159M, with 'M' standing for 'Maggiorata', meaning 'increased' or 'improved'. They were so in every aspect, up to the point that three of the four cars retired, with only Farina in vain pursuit of Ascari and Gonzalez. Toulo de Graffenried, Sanesi's replacement after the team's former test driver had burned himself badly during a practice refuelling disaster, retired the older 159 after a single lap while Farina was gone through oil trouble on lap 6. On lap 14 a tyre burst on Fangio's car, causing him to give up on his chase of Ascari and returning in a lowly 5th place. He quickly overhauled Bonetto and Villoresi but had his engine cut out on him repeatedly. By then, the race was a lost case for Alfa. At half-distance Fangio retired with a broken piston. So Bonetto's car was the only Alfa remaining. This was taken over by Farina during refuelling. The doctor embarked on a furious mission to eat away at the Ferraris' lead. He first caught Villoresi to take third and closed on Gonzalez before having to pit for more fuel - his rear tank had split and fuel was leaking away onto the track. On lap 70, having clawed back numerous seconds, he coasted into the pits again, his fuel tank dry. More fuel was poured in and sure enough Farina made it to the finish in third, the fuel visibly pouring out of the rear during the remaining 10 laps. Where was that black flag, you ask? Ah, but this is Italy.

With the first three races going to Alfa and the second triplet to Ferrari the Pedralbes circuit in the suburbs of Barcelona was set for a tremendous showdown. Fangio still led the title race with 27 points, but Ascari now had 25 points, with Gonzalez on 20 and Farina on 17. Nino had some practice at Goodwood on September 29, winning the 15-lap Goodwood Trophy in a 158, ahead of Reg Parnell's Thinwall Ferrari and some rather insignificant local opposition. Peculiarly, Farina also drove in a 5-lap handicap race, where the 158 started from the back and came through the field to win. One month later, the Spanish GP would decide the championship.

Pedralbes was a road course laid out in the suburbs of Barcelona, using the Avenida del General Franco, known to the locals as 'La Diagonal', as the main straight. This enormous stretch of road enabled very high speeds and this became a vital factor in the race. Set on the traditional date of the Grande Premio Penya Rhin that had made Pedralbes internationally known, the track now played host to the Spanish GP, an event returning to international prominence after the glory days of Sitges and Lasarte. Alfa Romeo had again brought four cars. Fangio, Farina and Bonetto drove the 159s with the De Dion rear axle while De Graffenried was again entrusted with the older car. Ferrari also took along four cars, with Taruffi joining the regulars as he did at Monza. Ferrari fitted his cars with 16-inch rear wheels, which proved a disastrous decision. According to most reports it was done to get better acceleration, but Taruffi, in his autobiography Works Driver, tells a different story. He claims that the halfshafts on the 4.5-litre Ferraris were weak, causing fears within the team that the Avenida Franco and its bumpy surface would put undue strain on them in case the cars were fitted with their usual 17-inch wheels.

In practice there was nothing of the sort of trouble that the Ferraris were to befall on race day. Ascari dominated to set pole by a margin of 1.2 seconds, and he duly led away from the start. But after four laps Fangio found that he was being hit by pieces of tread coming from Ascari's rear tyres! He quickly found his way past while the Ferrari slowed. Within two laps time the Ferrari drama started: first Taruffi was in with a thrown tyre thread, the next lap Villoresi followed with the same problem. Two more laps and Ascari was also hit by tread trouble, decimating the Ferrari challenge. Only Gonzalez was running on his original tyres but when the problem eventually hit him his pit crew decided to take their chance with the halfshafts and fitted the proper 17-inch rims. Froilan found that the car drove perfectly on the new wheels while the halfshafts survived the race without a problem, Froilan even coming back to take second from Farina. Ascari came in two more times before his crew decided to switch to the bigger wheels. But by this time Fangio had serenely motored away into the distance. Yes, the serenity that applied to some of the Alfetta's earlier wins was back for its last performance!

So where everyone was expecting the Ferrari tide to roll over Alfa once again, the 375s were hit by a monumental tyre cock-up that put Michael Schumacher's recent tyre debacle at another Barcelona track completely in the shade. All Ferrari could do was watch Fangio come home for a famous last win, with Gonzalez second, Farina third and Ascari managing only fourth. An era had ended, and it was right that Fangio and Alfa should be the ones to close it off victoriously.

Driving the Alfa in our picture is Giuseppe 'Nino' Farina, the first World Drivers Champion. A fierce racer and cold man, the dottore was known for some rough driving tactics that would make Michael Schumacher look like a sissy. Although he was with Alfa in their two World Championship-winning seasons, he was not an Alfa man per se. An established pre-war star and the oldest of brothers to found the Pininfarina coachbuilding company, he did start his racing career in an Alfa Romeo sportscar, crashing badly on the Aosta-San Bernardo hillclimb, but then went on to race Maseratis for the Scuderia Subalpina. In 1936 he switched to Scuderia Ferrari to race their Alfas in Grands Prix before he started his first acquaintance with the Alfetta vetturetta on Alfa Corse's return to racing. Being the 158 lead driver during 1938 and 1939 he won the Coppa Ciano at Leghorn and Swiss GP at Bremgarten while also taking the Tripoli race in 1940, just before the war started. Then, returning after the war, Farina found his way back to Alfa, taking the 1946 GP des Nations at Geneva, before seeing the team tide roll towards Wimille and Varzi. Disenchanted he switched to a private Maserati - and won the 1948 Monaco GP with it, just before becoming a works Ferrari driver. With Wimille, Varzi and Trossi gone, Alfa Romeo SpA signed Nino for their World Championship assault and Farina's fourth and last stay with the marque.

With Alfa Romeo withdrawing, Farina returned to Ferrari and what turned out to be a back-up role to the all-conquering Alberto Ascari. When Ascari left for Lancia in 1954, the old fox was promoted to team leader again. But an arm-breaking crash in the Mille Miglia prematurely ended his hopes of re-establishing himself at the very top. At Spa he valiantly raced with a cast before suffering another horrible crash during a sportscar event at Monza, causing him to miss the rest of the GP season. He made a brief return in 1955, scoring some excellent results, but the pain was too much. Yet another Grand Prix driver to be killed in a road accident, Nino perished while crashing his Lotus Cortina into a telegraph pole in the Savoy Alps. He was on his way to the 1966 French GP, the scene of Mike Parkes' F1 debut - and another driver to lose his life on the road.

In 1951, Nino played very much second fiddle to Fangio, as Fangio's bad luck in the first World Championship year was now transferred to the hard-driving Farina. So our picture in fact comprises the first to last in terms of World Championship Grand Prix wins for Alfa Romeo. World Championship domination started with Farina at Silverstone in 1950, and ended with the 159 at Pedralbes, Fangio taking the win and the crown.

Reader's Why by Greg England

This is the last race for Alfa Romeo in Formula 1 before the return of the marque to F1 in the late seventies. The Italian driver Guiseppe Farina had been born in 1906 and was a well-established driver prior to the Second World War. Following the war, Farina returned to motor racing and campaigning cars for Maserati and Ferrari. He was signed to drive for the works Alfa Romeo SpA team in the new world championship in 1950. Farina had a good year, winning three of the six races, and scoring a critical fourth place finish and three fastest laps to just beat out teammate Juan Manuel Fangio for the championship. Farina scored two poles and did not start lower than third. The Alfa was easily the dominant car, as Fangio won the other three races and the other four poles. In the 1951, Ferrari proved to be much more competitive with the Alfa. Farina managed only one win, a shared second, two thirds, and a fifth en route to fourth in the championship. Fangio scored two solo wins and a shared win along with two second place finishes to beat out Alberto Ascari and Froilan Gonzalez in their Ferraris in the championship. Coming in to the last race at Pedrables in Spain, the championship was still undecided. Ferrari had won the last three races in a row and seemed to have the measure of the Alfa. Ascari put his Ferrari on pole, with Fangio second, Gonzalez third and Farina fourth. Fangio would pass Ascari on lap four and lead the rest of the way to clinch the championship. The following year the regulations were changed due to an anticipated lack of competition for the two Italian teams. Alfa built and tested a car for the new regulations, but when it proved uncompetitive, they decided to drop out of F1 racing. Farina joined the Ferrari team for the 1952 season, along with Ascari and Piero Taruffi. Ferrari won all seven races in the championship and Ascari would be the champion, with Farina second and Taruffi third. Farina had two poles, but could only score four second place finishes in the season. Still with Ferrari for 1953, Farina scored one victory at the Nurburgring and added three second and one third place finish. The result was a third place in the championship behind Ascari and Fangio. Ascari left Ferrari for Lancia in 1954 and Farina was the team leader. He finished second in round one in Argentina, but the broke an arm in the Mille Miglia. He raced at Spa in the cast, leading five laps before an ignition problem ended his day. Unfortunately, Farina would be badly burned in a sportscar crash at Monza and miss the rest of the F1 season. He returned to racing in the 1955 season, but then retired, unable to stand the pain he suffered while racing. Farina would be killed in a road accident en route to the 1966 French GP.