The Day the Lights Went OutApril 23, 2020
Carlo Chiti was many things. A brilliant racecar engineer, intuitive and with great foresight, but he also possessed a considerable element of humanity. One of his penchants was being a saviour of stray dogs; if he found one, he would sometimes bring it into work at Autodelta in Settimo Milanese and care for it with food and shelter and visitors would sometimes be astonished to see that the dogs were protected from the elements above by large pieces of Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 bodywork, held up by metal tubing, possibly from old chassis. The care he provided for the dogs was similar to the care he lavished on his mechanical ‘children’ too. By the time he was assigned the job of sorting out the Tipo 33 sportscar project he had amassed huge experience, first at Alfa Romeo, then at Ferrari, before leaving and the ATS debacle, then setting up Autodelta with the Chizzola brothers.
The successes achieved by the GTAs and TZs, under the latter banner, encouraged Alfa boss Giuseppe Luraghi to suggest to Chiti that Autodelta become the company’s competition arm and so it moved from Udine in the far north-east of Italy to Settimo Milanese, in south western Milan, far enough away from the parent organisation to be able to work without too much corporate bother.
By this time, in the mid-1960s, the Tipo 33 project had existed for a while, nurtured by Alfa engineers Orazio Satta and Giuseppe Busso, but it was not an homogenous whole, so, in 1966 Chiti was asked by Luraghi to, it is said and as the story goes, ‘sort out the mess’.
In 1967 the first Tipo 33 took to the tracks, but initially it was far from a well-developed and engineered whole. Talking to Nanni Galli for the book on the cars I wrote with Ed McDonough it sounded frightening, especially on downhill Targa Florio road stretches.
For 1968, Chiti produced the Daytona coupe, as the T33/2 was called after success at that year’s Daytona 24 Hours and the model picked up reasonable results across the world. It was still only a 2 litre V8, but eventually a 2.5litre version was built and then a 3litre was introduced, with a new chassis for 1969.
This was not a great success initially, but progress was made, as Chiti continued the development programme until, by the end of 1970, a version with different bodywork showed considerable improvements had been achieved but, as Nanni Galli also said to us ‘The problem with the 3litre cars was weight and balance. For the 1971 version we convinced Chiti to move the engine forward and lower the front end. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better.’
Henri Pescarolo told us that he ‘loved the cars, the team and Chiti’ saying that all the team drivers were friends together. Those drivers were Henri, Andrea de Adamich, Rolf Stommelen and Toine Hezemans, with Nanni Galli at most races. All very experienced endurance sportscar racers.
The 1971 World Sportscar Championship started in January at Buenos Aires. Some pundits had gone on record to suggest that Alfa had their best chance yet of some good results with their T33 cars, but Chiti must have wondered if his luck would ever change when, a short time into practice at the South American circuit, new recruit Emerson Fittipaldi picked up a nail in a tyre at high speed and the resultant shunt totally destroyed the car, luckily with no damage to the driver who found another drive in a Porsche for the race and never did actually get to race a T33. Said Emerson to us in an interview, ‘It was the biggest crash of my entire career at nearly 200mph! But the car had been great to drive.’ Yet another star endorsement.
Tragically, this was the race that cost the life of Ignazio Giunti when, driving the brand-new Ferrari 312P 180degree 12 flat out, he rounded a bend to find Beltoise pushing his Matra uphill to the pits, out of fuel. The impact had immediate tragic effect on the talented young Italian and this brings us to the opposition that Autodelta was facing in this World Series.
The FIA’s knee-jerk ‘safety’ changes to the World Sportscar capacity regulations halfway through 1967 had led Ferrari to pull out of the series for 1968, whilst Porsche ran cars against little opposition except for the Wyer GT40s. Alfa produced what became known as the Daytona T33/2 Coupe as reported above and Ford built the F3L based around the Cosworth DFV V8, but it was all-change in 1969 as Porsche took the FIA for a ride of a different order by building 25 5 litre prototypes and called them Sports Cars, a category the FIA had reserved for ‘production’ sports-racing cars that required a minimum of 25 to be built, but crucially allowed a capacity limit of 5litres. Porsche simply built that many prototypes and called the model the 917. This prompted Ferrari to follow suit late that year with their 512S.
The Tipo 33s though were running with the genuine Sports Prototypes, maximum capacity 3litres and had no real opposition in their class except older Porsche 908s. That was until Ferrari decided to return to the World Sportscar Championship with an exquisite jewel-like car based on their 3litre 180degree V12 Grand Prix engine, which they called the 312P. Their intention was to run one car through 1971 with a full team in 1972, by which time the FIA had decided the 5litre Sports Cars would no longer run.
So, for the year of 1971, World Sportscar race winners could be chosen from the factory Gulf sponsored 917s and their counterparts run separately by Porsche Salzburg, the Ferrari 312P and the Alfa Tipo 33s.
The first three races of the season had shown that Chiti had grounds for feeling some optimism. At Buenos Aires his cars had finished third and fourth and after missing Daytona they did even better at Sebring, taking second and third.
In April the series arrived in Europe and first off was the UK round to be held as usual at Brands Hatch. It would be a six-hour race titled the BOAC 1000 Kilometres and had been convincingly won the previous year by the Gulf 917s in the wet, with Pedro Rodriguez putting up a drive still spoken of in awe today and although pundits predicted the same result this time, there were those who gave equal chances to either the Ferrari or the Alfas.
The weather for this April race was much the same as usual. It was grey, cold and damp but the T33s were first out from the get-go in practice on Friday and by the end of the day Stommelen was fastest for Autodelta with Ickx in the Ferrari second, there being only 0.4 of a second difference. Driver pairings for Chiti’s cars were Andrea de Adamich/Henri Pescarolo in car 54 and Rolf Stommelen/Toine Hezemans in 55. It seemed that these 3litre Prototypes were much nimbler than the 5litre cars round the twists, turns and humps of the Kentish circuit. Autodelta had fitted lighter, brand new gearboxes for this race, which saved about 10kg in weight.
For our Tipo 33 book, Henri Pescarolo had told us that the engines ‘were reliable up to 9000rpm, but the cars were much faster if you used 9500rpm, but equally it was too easy to overrev them with disastrous consequences.’ This may have had a bearing on later results.
So, by the end of Friday, the grid order was T33, 312P, 917 as Rodriguez had managed fastest 5litre time, which was still a second slower than the flying Stommelen.
Saturday’s sessions confirmed the times of Friday. In the morning Jacky Ickx was sent out in the 312P to take pole and managed a 1minute 28.2seconds. Chiti immediately sent Stommelen, his ‘hare’, out and he ‘simply hurled the plump, stubby little Alfa round and down Paddock hill’ according to Simon Taylor in Autosport, setting a 1minute 27.8.
Was it all over? The Porsche 917s had shown themselves to be no threat on this occasion, although Jo Siffert finally put his example onto the front row of the grid and Ickx could only get to within 0.2 of a second of the swift Alfa until, right at the end of the day, Clay Regazzoni threw the 312P around to take a last-minute pole time 0.4 of a second quicker than Stommelen. De Adamich, in Alfa 54 with Pescarolo, had been content with times in the 29s.
It was still cold and drizzly on race day Sunday April 4th and the track was very slippery. Despite this, 20,000 spectators turned up to watch the UK’s round of the World Sportscar Championship.
Unusually, the organisers chose a rolling start to the race and the Alfas, running on intermediate tyres initially fell back behind those on full-wets as Ickx screamed the little 312P into the lead, with Rodriguez displaying his usual wet-weather skill behind in second place.
The first incident was not long in coming as McGovern, in a slow Dulon, spun right in front of Ickx on lap 5. The Ferrari went off and hit the barrier head on, but somehow the Belgian got the car going and headed for the pits and replacement front bodywork which, with a check over, took eight laps to complete. From that moment on, as Regazzoni told me much later, ‘we just drove that car for 6 hours as if it was a Grand Prix. We were flat out.’ Meanwhile, the Alfas were holding positions third and fourth, being on less suitable tyres then the leading 917s.
After two hours and the first routine pit-stops the Alfas were still running third and fourth, but a 917 had had fuel problems and Ickx was the fastest car on the circuit, having hauled the 312P up to tenth place overall. Then, around the third hour, the Rodriguez 917 stopped completely around the back of the circuit and retired. The Alfas were now second and third with the Stommelen/Hezemans car leading and on the same lap as the overall race leaders. By this time, the 312P was beginning to become a threat as Regga’s pace had hauled it up to fifth place, but it was still at least three laps behind.
Just as four hours were up at 16 00, the leading 917 suffered a badly bungled pit-stop with wheelnut problems and the Stommelen Alfa went past twice before it was sorted. This, of course, put Autodelta into the lead and the team ‘into paroxysms of delight’ as Autosport reported. Not only that, but De Adamich took the 54 Alfa past the 917 also and into second place. So, it was a Tipo 33 one/two.
At 17 00, Chiti and the team experienced déjà vu. Rolf Stommelen slowed a little passing the pits and then, rounding Druids hairpin, a huge cloud of smoke exited the exhausts of the V8 as the engine blew up in a spectacular way leaving De Adamich holding on to a four-lap lead over the hard-charging Ferrari 312P, which Regga now had up to second place overall and closing. Andrea later said that he thought that he and Henri had conserved their engine better than their team-mates, but whatever the reason, Chiti told them to take it easy for the final hour or so. They were helped by the Ferrari suffering starter motor trouble at its last pit-stops with the solenoid jamming, only solved by the application of jump leads.
Regga was flying throughout the race, but especially in the closing stages, taking a further lap back off the leading Alfa, then nearly running out of fuel and having to pit at the very last moment for a few gallons to be sloshed in and the jump lead pantomime carried out, to enable him to scream the 312P out of the pits again. At this stage the cold, damp spectators, hardly anyone having left all afternoon, were on their toes as the race played out and watching as, six hours twenty-four minutes and thirty-two point two seconds after the race started, Tipo 33 number 54 crossed the finish line to win for Autodelta at last, at an average speed of 97.17mph.
The 312P finished second, whilst two 512Ms were fourth and fifth, but nothing should be allowed to take anything away from Chiti/Autodelta/the team and the drivers’ achievement, 50 years ago, of winning the first World Championship race for Alfa Romeo since October 28th 1951, when Fangio won the Spanish Grand Prix in an Alfetta.
It had been a truly historic occasion.