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May marks the 70th anniversary of the very first Formula 1 Grand Prix race ever in 1950 at Silver-stone, during which Alfa Romeo nabbed the first ever F1 World Championship, writes Naman Arora
Nino Farina, driving at the helm of the Tip Alfetta 158, became the first ever World Champion during an era where crash helmets were optional, there was no television and spectators were entirely distributed on foot alongside the racing track.
The Alfetta, based on the eight-cylinder straight-line engine of the 1938 Alfetta, was a technological milestone of its time. Alfa Romeo, in the early 20th century, was known for its light alloys and the famous ‘transaxle’ which has now become ubiquitous in all cars that have the engine placed on the same end of the car as the driven wheels.
But the Second World War ruptured the research and development at the Italian marquee, but a few Alfetta 158s lay hidden in Milan. When Milan was occupied in 1943, Alfa Romeo technicians and labourers decided that they must be moved. They began planning to carry them away in trucks. Various passionate Alfa admirers volunteered to hide one, including the speedboat champion Achille Castoldi who had set a world speed record in 1940 using an Alfa Romeo 158 engine.
But a problem arose. Just as the convoy of trucks was about to depart, a patrol appeared with their weapons at the ready. Fortunately, the Alfa test driver Pietro Bonini was Swiss and had lived in Berlin for some years. Speaking confidently in perfect German and waving a safe-conduct authorisation he assured the commander and saved the day. The trucks departed. The 158 models were then taken to garages and farm sheds, to be hidden behind false walls or heaps of logs to wait for better times.
After the end of the war, those same Alfetta 158 models were brought back to Portello and carefully restored and prepared to return to racing. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 was the first of the eight races that constituted the first FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Countries that had been at war with one another were united in a single sporting event.
Giuseppe “Nino” Farina conquered the pole position, the fastest lap and the final victory. Second came Luigi Fagioli, and third Reg Parnell.
The 158 combined outstanding speed, handling and reliability which made it the ultimate achievement of motorcar technology of that moment. At its first launch in 1938, it had a 1.5-litre engine and 185hp compressor. For its second launch, after the war, the compressor became dual-stage and the engine reached 275hp and by 1950 it had reached 350hp at 8,600rpm. And to top it off, its weight/power ratio was only 2kg/hp, a value in line with today’s super sports cars.
The new Alfetta made its debut with a victory, adding on a second victory next year, before the team retired for 28 years.
After taking the world championship in 1950 and 1951 with its iconic Alfetta engine, the Alfa Romeo constructor team retired, unbeaten, from F1, until 1979.