The moment the flag
fell to mark the beginning of the first ever F1 World Championship race on May 13th 1950 at Silverstone there was little doubt what car would cross the finish line first.
Four Alfa Romeo 158s lined up ahead of all others thus continuing their 3 year long
domination. One Alfetta (which means Little Alfa in Italian because of its
compact dimensions) retired during the race but the others finished 1-2-3 and left their
nearest opponent 2 laps behind.
What is most incredible is that this car was
already a 13-year-old design. When the new German Nazi government decided to go motor
racing it did so with remarkable funds, technology and people. Other nations
manufacturers couldnt keep up with these newly set standards. Italy, keen to stay at
the forefront of at least one aspect of motor racing turned its back to Grand prix cars
and decided to build cars for the Voiturette class. Voiturette or, in Italian,
Veturetta was considered a step-down class similar to Formula 2 or
Formula 3000 of today. Gioacchino Colombo designed a new Alfa Romeo 158 (15
for 1,500cc and 8 for 8 cylinders) on behalf of Alfa Romeo and its chief
Its straight-eight supercharged
engine produced nearly 200bhp at 7,000rpm. It had a single-stage Roots supercharger with
17.6psi boost and twin overhead camshafts. The engine block was cast in Elektron
(magnesium) and what was unusual for that time, it consisted of two separate castings
integrated with a common head. The sump and crankcase were cast with identical material.
The crankshaft was chrome nickel steel and the whole engine weighed only 363lb (165kg).
The car finished 1-2 in its first race at Livorno piloted by Villoresi and Biondetti.
It was August 7, 1938. But things would soon take a turn for the worse. The Italians
expected win the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix which was a major race on the International
calendar. The rules were changed and the Tripoli GP was run to the Voiturette class rules
to keep the Germans away and secure an Alfa Romeo victory. What organizers didnt
know was that Mercedes-Benz had secretly developed a Voiturette car, the W165. The Germans
brought 2 cars to Libya and promptly finished 1-2. Although the Alfas showed well they
proved unreliable when attempting to follow the Mercedes pace.
WWII followed soon after and racing
stopped for 6 long years. Legend has it that three Alfettas spent the war hidden in a
cheese factory in northern Italy and were subsequently brought out in 1946. The first
post-war race in which the Alfettas participated was held in Paris to Formula
Libre regulations. The race cars were prepared in hurry and both broke down,
obviously due to hasty preparation. The cars soon regained full form and Farina, Trossi
and Varzi all won races before the end of the year. Modified in 1946 the cars produced 254
In 1947 a new set of regulations
were established and the premier class was called Formula 1. The Alfettas
complied with the the rules and thus became Grand Prix cars. Modifications were carried
out on the cars which were then designated as Type 158/47, these modifications included
increasing the power to 300+bhp. However the work was postponed until 1948 after
Portellos bosses learned that the current car was strong enough to humble all of the
opposition. Tragedy struck on its debut at the 1948 Swiss GP when Varzi, trying too hard,
lost the car on slippery surface and was killed. New cars were raced at the re-opening of
the Monza circuit and Wimille, Trossi and Sanesi finished 1-2-3.
Before the end of the year Wimille,
one of greatest drivers of that era, was killed in a South American practice accident
while Count Trossi died in hospital of cancer. Alfa had in a short period of time lost all
three of its star drivers. This partly led to Alfas abstinence from racing in 1949.
In 1950 the missing stars were
replaced by the famous 3 Fs: Farina, Fagioli and Fangio. The cars were
improved and now developed 350bhp at 8,600 rpm. The Alfas went won at Silverstone and
continued their success to win all 6 rounds of the 1950 World Championship (excluding
Indianapolis). Alfa also won all five non-championship races they contested. Farina was
crowned World Champion followed closely by Fangio and Fagioli.
Towards the end of 1950, the Alfa 159 appeared. It was a
heavily redesigned and modified 158 with a de Dion rear axle instead of the swing axle
employed previously. It had increased fuel tanks made necessary by an engine producing
close to 420bhp at 9,600rpm!
1951 saw the Alfa Romeos first
major defeat since 1939 when Froilan Gonzalez drove a Ferrari 375 to victory in British GP
at Silverstone. The 27-race-long winning streak had ended. Ferraris won 2 more races
that year but Alfa Romeos Fangio managed to claim the World Championship at last
race of the season. There Alfa brought the 159M (Maggiorata = increased) cars with
reinforced frame tubes and cantilevers above both frame rails.
By then, Alfas fuel
consumption, thanks to ever-increasing supercharger pressure and rpms, had fallen to
1.7mpg (170liters/100km)! The cars needed 2 or 3 refueling stops to complete a race
distance while the 4.5-liter unsupercharged competition could run virtually non-stop. The
engines were thermally stressed to such a degree that a so called fifth stroke
was needed. This required that some amount of unburned fuel was needed to be run through
the cylinders just to cool them down a bit.
The cars had reached the limit of their development
and with not enough funds to build a completely new car Alfa Romeo was forced to withdraw
from racing and thus the incredible story of these cars came to an end.