On February 20, the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team launched its new challenger, the C37, for the 2018 Formula 1 championship.
Frédéric Vasseur, Team Prinicpal, commented, “I am very much looking forward to the 2018 season, and to seeing Marcus (Ericsson) and Charles (Leclerc) on track. We have put lots of effort and hard work into the C37 over the last few months, and it is fantastic to be launching the new car today. Our target ahead of 2018 is clear: We have to catch up with the field and to continue improving our performance during the course of the season. We have put lots of energy and commitment into the development of the C37. The return of Alfa Romeo to Formula One sets another milestone in the team’s history, and I am proud that such a historical brand has chosen us for their return to the sport. We are eager to start the 2018 season as the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team.”
Interestingly, the 2018 season will mark the return of the Milanese powerhouse to the Formula One grid after a 33-year absence.
While Alfa Romeo has competed in motorsport throughout its over 100-year history, it has only periodically made forays into Grand Prix racing and Formula One. In the 1920s and ’30s, Alfa’s monoposto 8C racecars were a dominant force in European Grand Prix racing, being driven by the likes of Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola.
Then, after World War II, the Formula One World Championship was created and in its inaugural season, Nino Farina and Alfa’s Tipo 158 “Alfetta” would emerge as clear champions, followed by another championship in 1952, this time in the hands of Argentinean legend Juan Manuel Fangio. While the underlying reasons are often debated, Alfa Romeo chose to retire from Formula One after the 1952 season, with the Quadrifoglio not gracing the Grand Prix starting grid again until 1970, when a McLaren M7D was equipped with one of Autodelta’s Tipo 33 V8 engines.
The next few years would see the occasional appearance of Alfa-engined Grand Prix cars, including the now famous March 711 fielded for Ronnie Peterson in 1971. But in 1976, Alfa became an official engine supplier to the Brabham team, resulting in a brief return to the winner’s rostrum.
With renewed on-track success, Alfa Romeo made the decision to return to Formula One as a constructor in 1979, with the introduction of the Tipo 177. But Alfa’s factory effort experienced up and down fortunes over the ensuing years, with the team showing occasional flashes of competitiveness, but no victories. By the end of the 1985 season, Alfa pulled the plug on its Formula One program, not to return until this February.
Some might argue, “Is this really a return or just a badging exercise?” I would argue, that based on the patterns and history described above, this is likely just the first move in a multi-step return. While the “Alfa” engine being used in the Sauber is, in fact, a Ferrari-developed unit, keep in mind that Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo are all brands under the FCA umbrella, which fluidly interchange all kinds of resources and development. Also, remember that when Alfa last returned to Formula One, in the 1970s, they first did so as an engine supplier, got their collective feet wet, then went all in with their own effort. Finally, as has been the case for so many major manufacturers entering Formula One in recent years, the modus operandi is that you first partner with an independent team (e.g., Benetton/Renault, Stewart/Jaguar, BAR/ Honda, Brawn/Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull/Aston Martin) then eventually assimilate and rebrand the entire operation. Given all the above, I’d be willing to wager that Sauber eventually gets absorbed and Alfa will once again return to Formula One as a fully fledged constructor…especially if Ferrari ever makes good on its periodic threats to leave F1! First Alfa returns to the North American market, then they return to Formula One…it’s a good time to be an Alfisti!