Rolling back the years. The supercharged Alfa Romeo 158/159 was the car that set the Scuderia Ferrari on its way to becoming Formula One’s most revered racing team.
There cannot be another car in the world with a longer successful competition history – and it was designed for Alfa Romeo by Scuderia Ferrari. The 1.5-litre supercharged Alfa Romeo 158 won its first race in 1938 yet was still good enough to win five out of a total of six rounds of the inaugural Formula One World Championship in 1950 (save the anomalous Indianapolis 500), a feat yet to be repeated by any other constructor. Its ultimate development was as the 159 in which the great Juan Manuel Fangio won the opening and closing races of the 1951 season and claimed the first of his five Drivers Championships.
It might be an odd thing to say about a 64-year-old engine displacing a mere 1.5-litres, but the entire experience of driving the 159 is dominated by that motor. It was designed by Gioachino Colombo who would go on to be responsible for both Ferrari’s first V12 engine and its most famous: the 3.0-litre unit used by both the Testa Rossa and 250 GTO. By 1951 the Alfa engine was generating 425hp at 9,500rpm and its only real weakness was fuel consumption, which in race conditions measured 125-175 litres per 100km, necessitating frequent pit stops. Ironically, Ferrari’s first ever F1 win came at the British Grand Prix that very year and as a result of José Froilán González’s normally aspirated 4.5-litre V12 375 stopping just once, compared to twice for Fangio’s Alfa.
Imagine if you can a car with skinny tyres, drum brakes, primitive suspension and a power-to-weight ratio superior to that of a Ferrari Enzo. That’s what the 159 has to offer. Although the chassis is quite capable by the standards of 1951, the exit of every corner is a battle between power and traction, with power almost always winning and smoky wheel spin the result. The car is relentlessly fast, ripping through gear after gear to reach terrifying speeds that the abysmal brakes are in no way capable of handling. The steering is so heavy that you immediately realise why all the best drivers of the day were short, stocky and possessors of massive upper body strength. Even a few laps of a relatively safe and easy test track is exhausting work. How Fangio and his colleagues must have felt after over 450km around the old Nürburgring can barely be imagined.
Enzo Ferrari’s ties with Alfa Romeo began when he realised the best way to enter the world he loved was to work with cars.
After Enzo won the 1923 Circuito del Savio in Ravenna, the mother of the aviator Francesco Baracca presented him with a Prancing Horse shield for luck.
In 1932, with the birth of his son Dino, Enzo abandoned driving and concentrated on the Scuderia Ferrari, founded in 1929.
The Prancing Horse appeared on an Alfa Romeo for the first time on 9 July 1932, at the Spa 24 Hours.
Enzo was involved in Alfa Romeo projects, most notably Tazio Nuvolari’s record-breaking Bimotore and the 158.
The 158’s technical sophistication was demonstrated when the car dominated the 1950 and 1951 championships, with a turbocharged 1.5-litre engine.
Enzo left Alfa Romeo in 1939, promising not to build a car carrying the Ferrari name for four years. After the war, the first Ferrari appeared in 1947.
When José Froilán González’s Ferrari beat the Alfa Romeos at Silverstone in 1951, Enzo famously said, “I have killed my mother”
Today, he would be happy to see Ferrari and Alfa Romeo back together: the noble Milanese brand appears on the new SF15″T F1 car.
Journalist Andrew Frankel at the wheel of the celebrated Alfa Romeo 159, the only supercharged car with a volumetric compressor to have won an F1 World Championship.