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After a three-decade absence, Alfa Romeo returns to Formula 1

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Automaker Alfa Romeo has a long and storied history in Grand Prix and Formula 1 racing, dating back to the 1920s. The last time the Alfa Romeo name graced a Formula 1 car in any manner was 1987, when it supplied the turbocharged 890T engine to the Osella team. But, in 2018, the Italian automaker and FCA brand becomes a title sponsor of the Switzerland-based Sauber team, now renamed the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team.

The recently announced agreement includes “strategic, commercial, and technological cooperation” between Alfa Romeo and Sauber, but does not include engines (or, more correctly, “power units” since they also include an electric motor) branded with the Alfa Romeo name. Instead, Sauber will equip its 2018 chassis with current-year Ferrari F1 power units, an improvement over the 2017 season that saw the Swiss team equipped with year-old Ferrari engines.

Following World War I, Grand Prix racing returned to Europe in 1920, and during an abbreviated season of just two races, Alfa Romeo scored a victory at the Mugello Circuit with driver Giuseppe Campari. Campari and Alfa Romeo won again at Mugello in 1921, but the brand was absent the following season. From 1923-’25, Alfa Romeo was a force to be reckoned with in Grand Prix racing, posting three wins in 1924, six wins in 1924, and capturing the first World Manufacturer’s Championship in 1925 with the legendary P2.

Alfa Romeo P2

Alfa Romeo P2, circa 1925. Photo courtesy FCA.

The next few years saw the rise of Bugatti and Delage, but Alfa Romeo returned to its winning ways in 1929. Alfa Corse, the Alfa Romeo works team, took championships in 1931 and 1932 (with driver Tazio Nuvolari), and, in 1933, Alfa Romeos proved victorious in 19 of the season’s 38 events. Proving this was no fluke, Alfa Romeos earned another 18 wins in 35 races during the 1934 Grand Prix season, fielded by privateer teams (like Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari) since the Italian automaker no longer ran a works squad. Change was on the horizon, though, and Germany’s “Silver Arrows,” the cars of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, would capture every remaining championship in the prewar years.

Alfa Romeo P2

The P2’s 2.0-liter straight-eight, rated at 155 horsepower in 1925.

When Grand Prix racing resumed in Europe following World War II, Alfa Romeo was again a competitor. In 1946, Alfa Romeo and Maserati were the manufacturers to beat, but in 1947 Alfa Romeo dominated, winning three of the four Grandes Épreuves races and 10 other Grands Prix.

The Formula 1 World Championship debuted in 1950, and the Alfa Corse squad utterly dominated the competition, winning every race entered and, according to Roger Smith’s Formula 1: All the Races, leading all but seven laps of the entire F1 season.  The following season saw Alfa Corse repeat and Juan Manuel Fangio, the team’s star driver, earn his first World Championship, but Ferrari was proving ever more difficult to beat. Without money to design an all-new chassis for 1952, Alfa Romeo withdrew from Formula 1 racing.

Alfa Romeo 159

The 1951 Alfa Romeo 159, a design that dated to the prewar years. Photo by Lennart Coopmans.

Though Alfa Romeo would supply engines to a handful of F1 privateer teams in the 1960s and 1970s, it wouldn’t plunge feet-first back into the sport until 1979, when Autodelta appeared as an Alfa Romeo works team to contest five of the season’s 15 races. Reliability of the all-new V-12 proved to be an issue, with Autodelta drivers Bruno Giacomelli and Vittorio Brambilla finishing just two races in six starts. Improvements were incremental in the ever-changing sport, and after scoring just 50 championship points in seven years, Alfa Romeo again departed the series in 1985, providing engines for the perpetually underfunded Osella team through the 1988 season.

Technically, these were only branded as Alfa Romeo engines through the 1987 season. Reliability of the Alfa Romeo 890T engine, a turbocharged, 1.5-liter V-8 screamer, proved problematic during the 1986 season—with 29 early retirements in 40 starts—but positively nightmarish during 1987. In 17 starts among three team drivers, cars were retired prematurely in all events, though driver Alex Caffi was scored in 12th place at the San Marino Grand Prix after covering over 90 percent of the race distance. Seeking to avoid any further negative publicity, Alfa Romeo agreed to supply engines to Osella for 1988 on the condition that these were branded as Osella V-8s.

Alfa Romeo 177

The Alfa Romeo 177, raced during the 1979 F1 season. Photo by

Alfa Romeo’s return to F1 in 2018 is under much better circumstances. Though Sauber finished last in the championship standings in 2017, the team was limited by the performance of a year-old Ferrari power unit, an obstacle that won’t be faced in 2018. Of the multi-year agreement, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne said,

This agreement with the Sauber F1 Team is a significant step in the reshaping of the Alfa Romeo brand, which will return to Formula 1 after an absence of more than 30 years. The brand itself will also benefit from the sharing of technology and strategic know-how with a partner of the Sauber F1 Team’s undisputed experience. The Alfa Romeo engineers and technicians, who have already demonstrated their capabilities with the newly launched models, Giulia and Stelvio, will have the opportunity to make that experience available to the Sauber F1 Team. At the same time, Alfa Romeo fans will once again have the opportunity to support an automaker that is determined to begin writing an exciting new chapter in its unique, legendary sporting history.”

Charles Leclerc (L) and Marcus Ericsson pose with the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 team’s latest car and livery. Photo courtesy Alfa Romeo Sauber F1.

Drivers Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc will race for Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 during the 2018 season, which opens on March 25 with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.