TeamsAlfa Romeo SpA 1951 By Jeremy McMullen
Something that is truly 'classic' is timeless. It means that it endures. A truly outstanding piece of engineering is capable, within Formula One, to remain competitive for anything from a few months to a few years. World War II extended the life-span of automobiles in competitive racing. However, what Alfa Romeo was able to accomplish with its 158/159 Alfettas was truly remarkable. What the team was able to do with the very little it had is a testament to the car's abilities, as well as, the team and the drivers the team employed.
Coming into 1951, the 158 Alfetta had been refined to a very small degree to become the 159. The main difference between the two was the fact the 159 had a two-stage supercharger, whereas the 158 only had a single-stage supercharger. This was about the extent of the improvements Alfa could do given the fact the team had a very small budget to go out there and compete in Formula One. But such was the competitiveness and ability the team's car and drivers had that even with limited resources the team would continue to thrive.
Like many teams, when they begin to run into financial difficulty, a rather continuous episode of new driver after new driver begins to run through the doors of Alfa Romeo. Of course, this revolving door excluded the team's superstar drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and defending world champion Giuseppe Farina.
Despite having the champion and the runner-up in the driver's championship driving for them, as well as, the most dominant car, the costs of grand prix racing were such that Alfa Romeo faced serious financial difficulties coming into the 1951 season. As a result of the financial difficulties, the Alfa Romeo team didn't appear at a grand prix until the early part of May and that was for the 3rd BRDC Trophy Race held at Silverstone, England.
England in the early part of spring is usually a big question mark when it comes to the weather. And the race that took place on the 5th of May in 1951 would be one of those memorable moments when the English weather truly got the best of everybody.
The 3rd BRDC Trophy race was comprised of two heat races that were 15 laps in length. The heat races were then followed by one final race consisting of 35 laps of the 2.88 mile circuit. Alfa Romeo arrived with four cars to be driven by Farina, Fangio, Bonetto, and Sanesi. Fangio and Bonetto took part in the 1st heat race. Bonetto had set the fastest time for his heat race, and therefore, started on the pole on the inside of the 1st row. The grid arrangement for the race was a not too unusual 4-3-4 arrangement. Fangio set the 7th fastest time and started the 1st heat race from the outside of the three car wide 2nd row. Fangio would overcome this rather poor starting spot and would end up winning heat one by 3 seconds over the Ferrari 375 driven by Reg Parnell. Bonetto finished the heat race in 3rd.
In the 2nd heat race, Sanesi started from the pole position. Consalvo had been able to set a time faster than even what Bonetto had been able to do for his heat race. Farina struggled and was only able to set the 8th fastest time. However, this worked out rather well for Giuseppe in that he would start the race from the inside of the 3rd row. In the heat race, Farina was able to get to the lead and instantly began to pull away. At the end of the 15 laps, Farina had won by over 30 seconds over Alfa teammate Sanesi.
Before the final race even got underway, the rain got underway. The Alfa 159 was never really short on power. All that power, and in heavy rain, and any car becomes difficult to drive. As the race got underway, the rain began to rapidly increase in intensity. British driver Reg Parnell was able to take his Ferrari 375 to the front, followed by fellow Brit Duncan Hamilton in his Talbot-Lago T26C. Very soon, the already heavy rain became a torrential wall of water. The track began to flood in areas. This led the organizers to wave the checkered flag after only 6 laps. Parnell ended up winning by some 21 seconds over Hamilton. Graham Whitehead finished 3rd in his ERA R10B, one lap down. Also one lap down, and in 4th place, was Alfa Romeo's Juan Manuel Fangio. Alfa's other drivers finished 9th, 10th and 16th.
After playing in the rain at Silverstone, the Alfa Romeo SpA team didn't show at any event until the first round of the 1951 Formula One season, the Swiss Grand Prix held at Bremgarten. The rain would end up following the Alfa team there too before the race was over. However, the result was much more to the satisfaction of the team's hopes.
The Swiss Grand Prix that year took place on the 4.52 mile road course near Bremgarten. The distance to be covered was 42 laps, or, 190 miles. This was the first time that year Alfa had to square off against Enzo Ferrari, its former designer. Both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari came to the 1st round of the championship with four cars. Alfa's driver line-up included Farina, Fangio, Consalvo Sanesi and Emanuel de Graffenried.
In qualifying, it would appear that Alfa was going to pick right up where they left off from the previous year. Fangio went out in his 1.5 liter supercharged 159 and set the pole time. Farina backed his teammate up by taking the 2nd spot on the grid. Sanesi and de Graffenried qualified for the race 4th and 5th. Only Luigi Villoresi and his Ferrari 375 were able to break in and keep Alfa from taking the top-four spots in qualifying.
The actual race appeared to be just a retelling of qualifying as only one of the Ferraris was able to climb in there and keep Alfa from sweeping the top-four spots. The race started out under overcast skies. Fangio led the way, but, Giuseppe was able to get by and take the lead for a total of five laps. As the race wore on, the overcast skies started to also drop rain on the circuit. After the flood Fangio and Farina went through in Silverstone, they were rather unaffected. Fangio absolutely dominated the rest of the race. With the exception of the five laps Farina managed to lead, Fangio led every lap and set the fastest lap of the race as well. Fangio finished the race in just over two hours and averaged almost 90mph. Juan Manuel would go on to win the race by almost a full minute, but not over Farina. Ferrari driver Piero Taruffi was also unaffected by the changing conditions and was able to run-down Farina for 2nd place. Farina finished 3rd, another 25+ seconds behind Taruffi. Sanesi and de Graffenried managed to sweep the remaining points paying positions for Alfa Romeo. In total, Alfa Romeo scored 18 points in its efforts at the Swiss Grand Prix. At the end of the race, Alfa had its four drivers in the top-five of the drivers' championship. Of course, it was only the first race, but it seemed Alfa would dominate just as it had the year before.
One week later, on June 2nd, the team took part in the 5th Ulster Trophy race held at the Dundrod circuit in Dundrod, Northern Ireland. Organizers of the Ulster Trophy race invited the Alfa Romeo team in order to attract interest amongst the public and competitors. The invitation was accepted and Alfa arrived with only one car, but it was driven by the reigning world champion Giuseppe Farina. The spectators and the competitors weren't disappointed by some poor performance by either Farina or Alfa. Farina put his 159 on the pole during qualifying, beating out Parnell and his Ferrari by almost 6 seconds. Farina beat out 3rd place starter Brian Shawe-Taylor and his ERA-C R8C by almost 30 seconds.
The race wasn't some sort of exhibition type race. It was a rather long distance race. The road course at Dundrod was 7.4 miles of roads surrounding its horse racing track. The race distance was dramatically increased over the previous year's event. The previous year, the race distance was 15 laps for a total of 111 miles. For 1951, the race distance had been increased to 27 laps and a total race distance of 200 miles.
In the end, the Italian team proved to be too much as Farina went on to win the 5th Ulster Trophy race. The top-four qualifiers finished just as they had qualified. Farina beat Parnell by a margin of over one minute. Another, almost, two minutes passed before Shawe-Taylor crossed the line in 3rd. In a battle with Shawe-Taylor, Bob Gerard ended up being just beaten and had to be happy with finishing 4th, just as he had qualified. In fact, the battle between Shawe-Taylor and Gerard was the best action of the whole race. Despite being a lap dowbn, the two drivers fought it out to the bitter end. And in the end, Shawe-Taylor edged out Gerard by only two tenths of a second!
Another two weeks after Farina maintained Alfa's honor at Dundrod, the whole team was back in action at the next round of the Formula One championship. The next round of the Formula One championship was the Belgian Grand Prix, which took place at Spa-Francorchamps. Taking place on the old 8.77 mile public road course, this would be an opportunity for the 1.5 liter supercharged engine to let loose and run, but, it would end up showing how Alfa's financial struggles were coming to affect the team. Alfa Romeo brought only three cars to the Belgian Grand Prix. They were piloted by Fangio, Farina and Sanesi; the top-three Alfa drivers in the championship race.
Fangio was able to let his 159 loose during qualifying and took the pole for the race. Farina was close and able to start 2nd. Ferrari qualified 3rd, 4th and 5th. Sanesi was only able to start 6th.
The race distance was a long one. In total, over 315 miles would be covered by 36 laps of the 8.77 mile road course. The day of the race was warm and dry; perfect weather to see what Fangio could do at the wheel of his 159, and he didn't disappoint. As the race got underway, Fangio led and was fast. He would end up setting the fastest lap of the race with a time that was actually faster than his qualifying time by almost three seconds. Setting the fastest lap of the race would give Fangio another point toward the drivers' championship, but it would end up being the only point with which the Argentinean would leave Belgium.
Fangio had some new and experimental wheels on his 159. However, at the first pit stop, there were problems. It didn't take a matter of seconds, but minutes, to rectify. This handed the lead to Farina, and he never looked back the rest of the race. Toward the latter stages of the race he came under some pressure from the two Ferraris of Ascari and Villoresi, but he was able to hold them off to take the win. Unfortunately for Alfa Romeo, no other team driver was able to finish in the points. Therefore, after two races, the top-two in the driver standings were still Alfa's, but Farina only had a 6-point advantage, and Fangio, only a 4-point advantage over Ferrari driver Ascari.
On July 1st, the French Grand Prix took place in Reims, France. Though not an amazing track, Reims is one of those places steeped in history, and in the history of the 1951 Formula One season, Reims was the sight of the 3rd round of the championship, not counting Indianapolis. When it comes to auto racing history, the 1951 French Grand Prix would be one rather strange event.
The layout of the circuit at Reims was very simple. Comprised of public roads, the layout basically followed the path of a triangle. This meant the circuit was essentially three long straight-aways only interrupted by hairpin turns. Because of this design, the overall average speed per lap was rather high. Fangio went out and proved to be the class of the field in qualifying once again as he set the fastest lap. Juan covered the 4.85 mile course in 2:25. This pole made Fangio three-for-three when it came to qualifying for championship races. Fangio's teammate, Giuseppe Farina, once again qualified 2nd to his Argentinean teammate. The other two Alfa drivers, Sanesi and Fagioli, qualified 5th and 7th respectively.
When the race began, Fangio took control. He led the first lap and then was passed by Farina. Things only got worse from that point on for Juan Manuel. The day was sunny and hot and troubles began to visit teams, including Alfa Romeo. Less than fifteen laps into the race Fangio began to experience problems with his 159 and was forced to retire from the race, for the moment, on the 15th lap. However, on the 20th lap Fagioli pulled into the pits and got out, and Fangio got in. Juan Manuel left the pits taking over Fagioli's drive. Given a new lease on life, Fangio took Fagioli's car and went out and immediately set the fastest lap of the race, which was only two seconds off his pole time.
After a deficit of some 20 laps had mounted, the crew finished up the necessary repairs to what was Fangio's car. This allowed Fagioli to re-enter the race, although more for just completing laps than truly having a shot at any points.
Ferrari also pulled the same maneuver when Ascari's Ferrari failed due to gearbox problems. After driving the first 35 laps, Gonzalez pulled in to allow Alberto to take over. This was mostly in response to what Fangio had done. So as to lose as little points as possible, Ferrari decided to have Ascari take over in hopes to remain in the championship fight.
Once Fangio got behind Fagioli's car he was absolutely flying. Fangio showed his true ability as a driver as he was able to come up through the field and take the victory. Fangio ended up completing the 77 laps in a little over three hours and twenty minutes and had an average speed of 110 mph. He defeated Ascari, driving Gonzalez Ferrari, by almost a whole minute! The victory and the points were shared by Fagioli and Fangio. For Fagioli, the victory meant he would go down in the record books as the oldest driver to ever win a Formula One race; a record that still stands. What is also special is the fact that this was technically Fagioli's first and only victory in Formula One. With Fangio's help he would share the win and would score 4 points toward the championship. It was a winning deal for Fangio as well in that he also got to leave France with points toward the championship. The good thing for Fangio was that he had also managed to set the fastest lap of the race. Therefore, Juan Manuel didn't leave with just four, but five, points.
The only other Alfa driver that managed to finish in the points was Giuseppe Farina. He was able to finish 5th. This earned him two points toward the championship. The result was rather disappointing for Farina; however, given the fact he started the race from 2nd place on the grid.
Leaving Reims, the championship stood at Fangio with 15 points and Farina 14. Ferrari drivers Ascari and Villoresi had 9 and 8 respectively.
The next race in which Alfa Romeo competed was another of the championship races for 1951. July 14th the British Grand Prix was held at Silverstone, England. The last time Alfa was here they practically needed to build themselves an ark to make sure the flooding didn't carry them away in the storm. But a storm of another kind was awaiting them this time.
For the first time all season long, Juan Manuel Fangio was beat out for pole at a championship event. And the drubbing was only beginning. Jose Froilan Gonzalez set the pole time in his Ferrari 375. Fangio and Farina would start 2nd and 3rd respectively, but it was obvious the prancing horse of Ferrari was beginning to catch its stride.
Sanesi qualified 6th and Bonetto 7th. At the first race of the Formula One season, Alfa had blocked all but one Ferrari from the top four qualifying spots. By the British Grand Prix, it seemed the roles had truly switched. Fangio and Farina were still fast, but on a whole, it seemed that Alfa was having to fight each race to get into the top spots on the starting grid.
When the green light shown to start the race the two Argentineans quickly disappeared into their own little world to fight it out who would win. Over the course of the race, the lead would change hands between the two a couple of times. Even Peter Walker, in the rather new BRM, would even score a lap in the lead somehow. However, the battle was really only Fangio and Gonzalez. It had the appearance of something more like an Argentinean family feud than a race simply because of the fact of how those two dominated. Fangio would end up leading 30 of the 90 lap race, but, it would be Gonzalez who would end up leading the majority, including the most important one. Jose enjoyed the dry, mild weather and led 59 laps. He would end up winning the race, the first ever Formula One victory for Ferrari, beating Fangio by almost a minute. These two were in such a class of their own that they had a two lap lead over 3rd place finisher Luigi Villoresi.
Despite not winning the race, Alfa showed they still had outright pace when Farina was able to take away one point from the race for having set the fastest lap of the race, which was only one second slower than the pole time of Gonzalez. This was to be Farina's only bright spot in the British Grand Prix; however, as his race would come to an end on lap 75 due to clutch problems. Sanesi would miss out finishing in the points by just one place as he finished the race 6th overall. Fangio finished the race 2nd and added 6 points to his championship tally. Fangio left England pretty much having firmed his grip as the main threat to take the drivers' championship title. Juan Manuel had 21 points, Farina 15 and Villoresi 12.
After the defeat handed to them two weeks prior, Alfa Romeo travelled to Nurburg for the German Grand Prix. The grand prix in 1951 took place on the famous 14 mile Nordschleife road course.
The two key players in the championship both arrived to the Nordschleife with four cars each. The driver changes really started to begin for Alfa by this point in the season. Of course Fangio and Farina were there, but for the German Grand Prix, Alfa brought Felice Bonetto back. In addition, Alfa hired talented German driver Paul Pietsch. Paul was a talented driver and had achieved a few good results throughout his career, however, he was not to the same caliber of any of the four drivers Scuderia Ferrari fielded for the race.
The British Grand Prix saw, in effect, the beginnings of a changing of the guard. Ferrari had been able to break Alfa's dominance in qualifying, and then, had been able to add the necessary exclamation mark by taking the victory. This changed the mood, the feel, of the championship. Ferrari's drivers, every one of them, really began to believe and have confidence. It was unmistakably apparent when the season traveled to the Nurburgring. Scuderia Ferrari took the top-two spots in qualifying, with Ascari sitting on the pole. Fangio was the best qualifier for Alfa at 3rd on the grid. Farina started alongside of his Argentinean teammate in 4th, but the two Alfa pilots were sandwiched from behind by the other two Ferrari teammates of Villoresi and Taruffi. Paul Pietsch qualified a respectable 7th. Bonetto struggled with his car and could only qualify as high as 20th. This was really unfamiliar territory for Alfa to be this far back in the field.
If qualifying didn't signal a change, then the race sure did. The previous year, it was not all that surprising to have Alfa dominate most all of the top spots at the finish of a race. However, it was plain to see with the 20 lap race around the Nordschleife that Alfa Romeo was now in a place of having to truly work for a good result, not just expect them to happen.
When the race began, Fangio proved he and that the 159 were still capable of taking the fight to the Ferraris. However, Fangio hadn't been used to having to fight while driving the 159. It wasn't that the car wasn't at all good. In fact that wasn't true at all as Fangio would go on to lead 8 laps of the race and would set the fastest lap of the race with a lap equal to Ascari's qualifying time. It was just that Ferrari had become that good as well. Alfa's budget constraints were making the team unable to adjust and redesign in order to re-gain the advantage it once enjoyed.
During the race, this lost advantage became apparent. Fangio had to fight lap-after-lap, but was unable to sustain a fight against Ascari. Alberto would go on to win the race with Fangio following 30+ seconds in arrears. Juan Manuel undoubtedly focused on scoring what points he could. He had the lead in the championship at that point and had a 4 minute advantage over Gonzalez. Therefore, Fangio settled for 2nd and for the 7 points he would earn having one of those seven being the extra point he received for setting the fastest lap time of the race. As a sign of the switch from Alfa to Ferrari being the dominant team, it is interesting to note that, other than Fangio's 159 in 2nd, there were five Ferraris in the top-six places. The other highest scoring Alfa at the German Grand Prix was Felice Bonetto who had actually retired from the race with magneto problems.
Despite the team's woes, Fangio continued to stretch his lead in the drivers' championship race. At the conclusion of the German Grand Prix, Fangio had a 10 point lead over Ferrari driver Ascari. Unfortunately for Alfa Romeo, only Fangio and Farina remained in the top-five of the championship race.
After looking absolutely dominant in the first event of the Formula One season in 1951, things began to unravel for the financially unstable Alfa Romeo team by the time the season made its way to Germany. Ferrari had begun to surge, whereas, it was going to take everything within the Alfa Romeo team to keep the title from slipping away. The one key factor the beleaguered team had going for it as the season headed into the final events was Fangio. Fangio could take a descent car and make it great, or at least good enough. And good enough is what Alfa was going to have to rely upon for the remainder of the season.
After Germany, the company's financial crisis was ever-worsening. This led the team to cut back on its schedule of races. As a result, the Alfa Romeo SpA team didn't show for another race until the non-championship race in Bari, Italy on the 2nd of September. This was over a month since the team's last race. However, it was only two weeks before the Italian Grand Prix, and so, the Bari Grand Prix was a good preparer for the championship race.
Though not a championship race, Fangio was able to help get the team back on the right track. The team used what resources it did have and, during the time away, made some adjustments. This inspired confidence in Fangio, who promptly went out and took the pole for the race which was to take place on a 3.44 mile street course around the streets of Bari. Farina, the only other Alfa driver present in Bari, was able to qualify his 159 4th.
As had happened before, when the race started, it soon came to be just between the two Argentineans. By the end of the 65 lap race, Fangio and Gonzalez had lapped the rest of the field some three times! And, in the end, it was Fangio that was able to better his fellow-countryman for the win. Farina's race lasted only 8 laps when he was forced to retire due to some sort of problem with his pistons.
Two weeks later, the 7th round of the championship was due to be run. The Alfa team stayed in-country and traveled to Monza, Italy for the Italian Grand Prix. Always a popular race, twenty-one drivers would qualify for the 80 lap race.
Juan Manuel seemed to have helped right the Alfa ship as he went out and promptly took pole, covering the 3.9 mile road course in 1:53. Things were further looking well when Giuseppe was able to put his 159 on the grid 2nd, right next to Fangio. Felice Bonetto was able to qualify 7th. De Graffenried was back behind the wheel for Alfa and was able to put his car on the grid 9th.
The attrition rate at Monza had always been rather atrocious, and everybody was expecting more of the same. Neither the track, nor the race, would let people down in bringing good cars to terrible ends.
At the start of the race, Fangio led and was able to hold onto that lead for a period of time. Very shortly, Farina's race came to an end when his car developed engine problems. Six laps into the race, Farina's race was done, or at least so everyone thought. Giuseppe sat the race out a while as the team mulled over the possibility of doing what they had done earlier on in the year. There was only one concern and that was what if Fangio also suffered a failure. Finally, the team decided, and, sure enough, Felice Bonetto came into the pits after 29 laps and handed his car over to Farina. Alfa's main nightmare scenario was about to become a reality.
De Graffenried's race was over after just one lap due to compressor problems in his engine's supercharger. This meant there wasn't a spare car available should disaster hit Fangio. And disaster did hit the points leader, only 10 laps after Farina had taken over Bonetto's car. Fangio's race came to an end when his car developed engine problems after 39 laps. Fangio's retirement left only nine cars still running by the end of the race. But was of utmost importance was the fact that Fangio's 10 point advantage in the points had all-but been eradicated when Ascari cruised home to victory some 24+ seconds over his teammate Gonzalez. The one bright spot was the fact that with Bonetto's car, Farina had been able to set the fastest lap of the race, thereby denying Ascari one more point. Instead of it being down to just one point then, Fangio was down to a two point spread over Alberto. Juan Manuel had 27 points, Ascari 25 and Farina had 17.
After looking so dominant at the first round of the Formula One championship earlier in the year, the sophomore championship year was definitely going to go down to the last race, and up for grabs by more than just one team, unlike during the first year.
In between the second-to-last and the last of the Formula One championship races, Giuseppe Farina, and some of the Alfa Romeo team, travelled back to England to take part in the 4th Goodwood Trophy race. The trophy race was a rather short race and had the feel of being more like an exhibition than an outright race.
However, the Trophy race took place on a 2.38 mile road course located in West Sussex, England and attracted some outstanding talent. The talent was such that, despite having brought a 159, the best Farina could do during qualifying was 4th. Of course the much slower and tighter nature of the course actually negated many of the performance advantages the 159 had on any of the other cars.
Undeterred, Farina took the lead during the 15 lap race and was able to hold off Reg Parnell in a Ferrari 375 for the victory. Farina's win prevented Parnell from being able to repeat as Goodwood Trophy champion.
Almost exactly a month after Farina's victory at Goodwood, the Alfa Romeo team was back on the track for what was Formula One's last race of its sophomore season. On a whole, the season had been a good one. The battle for the championship was not being decided 'in-house' so to say. There were two teams who each had drivers in a position to capture the drivers' championship. And it would all come down to one last race taking place on a 3.9 mile street course around Pedralbes, Barcelona, Spain.
The race would be remembered for how incredibly hot it was, and, it started out with someone who was absolutely as hot as the weather. Alberto Ascari went out on the 3.9 mile circuit and set the fastest time in qualifying. Fangio wasn't much slower, but would still start the race 2nd. Interestingly, from 1st on through to 8th, Ferrari and Alfa staggered perfectly. Ferrari qualified 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th. Alfa Romeo drivers qualified 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th.
Eighteen drivers would start the race in the incredible heat and sunshine. Alberto led early. However, the incredible heat started to adversely affect his tires, and so, after three laps, Fangio pushed ahead into the lead. From that moment on, the race was practically over and the championship secured for Fangio.
The Ferrari drivers started the race with smaller diameter tires. The incredible heat caused separation of the tread in almost all of the Ferrari cars. So the highly anticipated, climatic battle for the championship was over before 10 of the scheduled 70 laps had been completed. Once Fangio was aware of what was happening, he just settled into a nice, comfortable pace and cruised to his first championship. This was one last highlight, and a wonderful way to go out, for Alfa Romeo.
Although Alfa Romeo's financial position was bleak, its chances of having another driver's championship was good as long as one of its drivers had the name Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio's talent made up for much of the updates Alfa Romeo were unable to afford to do to their 159 throughout the season. However, the 159 was still an incredible force to be reckon with, especially in the hands of some incredible drivers like Fangio and Farina. The base design that was well over a decade old had produced two-straight world champions. The 158 and 159 were truly champions in engineering, and helped to lay the groundwork for Formula One's focus on incredible machines.
Alfa Romeo's contribution to grand prix racing is obvious. It was one of the top teams throughout the early years of grand prix racing. It became 'the' team to beat in Formula One's first two seasons. Alfa, and its 158 and 159, were the epitome of what Formula One strives for. Alfa and its machines were fast and reliable. When it comes to Formula One, Alfa Romeo was the first dominant 'factory' team. There were other factory teams, but at the time of Formula One coming into existence, there was no team better than Alfa Romeo. It set the standard, or benchmark. The presence of Alfa Romeo in the early years of Formula One helped to set the stage for a serious championship series, where endurance and technology would matter. Of course, it could also be said that Alfa also helped to establish Formula One as an expensive form of motor racing, and, in essence, help to drive themselves out of competition. Whether true or not, Alfa Romeo did help to make Formula One the pinnacle of motor sport.