Alfa Romeo's F1 program was classically Italian, i.e. lots of people, huge egos and ambitions, chaotic organization and neither enough money nor development
Alfa Romeo had dipped a toe into the waters of Formula One in 1971 when it supplied a V8 engine for Andrea de Adamich's works March. Then in 1976, Alfa supplied engines to Brabham. From there it was just a short step towards creating its own F1 team for 1979.
This 179C began as a 179B but was converted to C specification for 1981 with the hydro-pneumatic suspension that sophisticated teams used to circumvent the ban on sliding skirts. Chassis 006 first appeared in the 1980 British Grand Prix in the hands of Bruno Giacomelli, who used it for the rest of the season.
The highlight of the year was the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, where Giacomelli put it on pole nearly a second in front of the field. He led from pole until just after half-distance, when he was eliminated by an electrical fault. At the final race of the season in Las Vegas, Giacomelli secured a podium spot by placing third. Mario Andretti was so impressed that he left Lotus to join Alfa Romeo.
Chassis 006 has now been restored to race-ready condition without regard to cost. The vendor reports that 520 hp has been delivered on a dynamometer, and the car has not been raced since restoration. It is sold with many receipts and bills, FIA documentation, and a vast quantity of spares valued in excess of $60,000.
This is a thoroughbred Grand Prix Formula One Alfa that set pole, dominated a Grand Prix, and rewarded its driver with a podium finish.
|1980 Alfa Romeo 179C Formula One
|1979-81 (179, B-F variants)
|Original List Price:
|It almost bankrupted Alfa Romeo
|Tune Up Cost:
|$20,000 in labor plus parts every 200 miles
|Chassis Number Location:
|Left side of cockpit on the tub
|Engine Number Location:
|Not consistent or not present; on block flange as often as not
|Historic Grand Prix Association, 415.924.9022
This 179C Formula One sold for $153,750, including buyer’s commission, at the Bonhams Europe Nürburgring auction, held August 9, 2003.
This Formula One is the poster child for the vintage racing truism that “the cheapest thing you will ever do is buy the car.” There are only two sorts of buyers for such a car. The first is a starry-eyed novice with quixotic dreams and a lot of hard experience in his near future, not only behind the wheel but rather with checkbook out and pen ready. Hopefully, the car was purchased by the other sort: an experience-hardened Alfa cognoscenti with another Alfa F1 car who needs the spares. But the real question here is why the car was sold in the first place. We’ll get to that, but first, a little background.
In contrast to their superb sports and production car programs, Alfa Romeo’s F1 program was classically Italian in the “Cyclops” cartoon tradition, i.e. lots of people, huge egos and ambitions, chaotic organization, and neither enough money nor development. The Alfa engine was a beautiful concept and probably made the most horsepower in the series at the time, not to mention the most sensuous exhaust note (with the possible exception of the Matra), but it was heavy and wildly unreliable. Alfa used to show up at races with three engines per car and would change them every night. They’d have changed them at lunch too, had there been enough time. Even then they seldom finished. That was twenty years ago, when they were new. See where I’m going with this?
Aside from the engine, the cars are well constructed. The titanium suspension is a wonder of fabrication that was designed for the “sliding skirts” level of aerodynamic downforce, so it is plenty strong for normal use in this configuration. The transaxle is a Hewland FG 6-speed, so it works like it’s supposed to, doesn’t break much, and is easy to get parts for. Beware of reverse, though-it’s only there to meet regulations and won’t survive any use.
As a ground effects F1 machine with 520 hp, this is not a car for an amateur pilot. The challenge of driving such cars-with or without skirts-is described by my business partner like this: “For a given corner, you can drive through at 80 mph on mechanical grip or you can make it through at 100 mph on aerodynamic grip, but at 90 mph, you’re in the gravel trap.” You not only have to have the ability, but the cojones to step across the chasm to reliance on aerodynamic grip-and then stay there. This is easier imagined than practiced, and not for the faint of heart. But once mastered, it is fun.
Mechanicals aside, these are glorious cars. To quote the old line from Gumball Rally, “It’s such a handsome design!” The Alfa 179 is unique, beautiful, and stands out, even in as exotic a crowd as a vintage Formula One grid. The headers are titanium sculptures worthy of a museum. And at the risk of being repetitive, the sound! Everybody at the track will be waiting to hear you come past.
So on to the Sherlock Holmes question: What can we deduce from the circumstances surrounding this auction sale? Let’s see. You can buy a garden-variety, mid-1970s, DFV-powered Surtees or March that will run in the upper middle of the pack for $120,000-$140,000. You can buy a top-line ground effects car (also DFV-powered) for $200,000-$250,000. A collector grade 12-cylinder car (Ferrari, BRM, Matra) goes for $300,000-$700,000. Why then is someone offering a ground effects Italian V12, freshly restored, never raced, along with $60,000 worth of spares for a published low estimate of $125,000?
My educated guess is because it will cost at least half that per year to actually race it. Phil Denny (a specialist who actually supports several of these cars in vintage racing) explained that if you turn the engine to 12,500 rpm, (which is where you make the magic horsepower and the great noises), it’s good for 200 miles of use before it needs a rebuild costing about $20,000 in labor, plus parts. We’re talking about $25,000 per weekend if you want to really run it and be competitive.
Whoever actually put up their hand to buy the car was either very brave or very knowledgeable. If they were just very brave, the knowledge part will arrive soon enough.-Thor Thorson