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ALFA ROMEO VERSUS FERRARI—THE 1951 GRAND PRIX SEASON PART 1

NINETEEN-FIFTY-ONE WAS only the second year of F.I.A.’s sanctioned World Drivers’ Championship. Grand Prix regulations were essentially the same as those in 1938: Supercharged engines were limited to 1 1/2 liters; normally aspirated, to 4 1/2 liters. (Turbochargers? They didn’t show up in F1 until the 1977 Renault RS01, by which time it was 1.5 liters blown versus 3.0 liters unblown.)

Back before World War II and into 1950, the supercharged Alfa Romeo Type 158/159 ruled supreme. However, as Corrado Millanta, R&T Italian correspondent, said in January 1951, “The 4 1/2 liter unblown race car now threatens the superiority of the 1 1/2 liter supercharged car.” 

This unblown car’s manufacturer? Ferrari.

A year later, in R&T January 1952, Millanta was to call the 1951 Grand Prix season “the hardest fought and technically most interesting Grand Prix season in twelve years.” 

We’ve recently seen a hard fought World Drivers’ Championship (to wit, last year’s Verstappen versus Hamilton). But I believe Millanta’s claim of “technically most interesting” still has validity today, even after more than 70 years. The Type 159 Alfa Romeo and the 4 1/2-liter Ferrari were certainly dissimilar machines.

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on this battle gleaned from R&Ts of January, October, and November 1951, and January 1952. 

To Supercharge or Not. The Alfa Romeo Type 159 differed very little from the pre-war Alfetta. Its 1479-cc inline-eight had two-stage Roots supercharging as opposed to the Type 158’s single blower. Millanta included a footnote concerning the choice of Roots blower versus the centrifugal type supercharger fitted to Indy cars. (From 1950 to 1960, by the way, the Indianapolis 500 was a round of the World Drivers’ Championship). 

Millanta noted that the Roots device provided boost in low- to medium-speed corners, whereas the centrifugal blower’s boost characteristics suited American ovals where “the engine doesn’t have to change speed quickly and continually.”

Above, the Alfa’s two-stage supercharged double-overhead-cam inline-eight .The sizable intake duct leads from the superchargers to carburetion. Below, the Ferrari’s V-12 had a single overhead camshaft on each bank and triple carburetors. These images from R&T, January 1951.

Millanta said, “Mr. Ferrari deserves every respect, being the revolutionist of the situation…. This solution, besides being very interesting technically, has the advantage of being a more economical type to build. The Ferrari… has 330 hp @ 6000 rpm against the 340/350 hp at 9000 rpm of the Alfa 159.” He also cited the naturally aspirated car’s relative frugality with fuel, being able to “run the entire race without any stop for gas.”

Pit stops were more leisurely in those days. This and the following images from October 1951 R&T. 

At the 1951 German Grand Prix, Millanta described, “Fangio makes his second pit stop, calming drinking spring-water as the mechanics change rear tires and refuel.” 

Above, Ascari’s Ferrari on the way to his winning the 1951 German Grand Prix. Below, Fangio’s 2nd-placing Alfa. 

Fangio and his Alfa lost to Alberto Ascari’s winning Ferrari by 30.5 seconds at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.  

Retardation, With More to Come. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and other competitors of the era employed huge finned drum brakes. (Of course, today’s cars rely on disc-brake retardation. A disc-braked Crosley won the first Sebring’s Index of Performance in 1950; the winning C-Type Jaguar was the only disc-braked competitor at the 1953 Le Mans. Drum brakes persisted in Formula One for years: The Maserati 250F, highly successful from 1954 through 1957, had drums. By contrast, the 1957 Vanwall had Goodyear discs.) 

Both the Alfa Romeo above and Ferrari below featured huge brake drums with plenty of cooling fins.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue Corrado Millanta’s assessments of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, and the 1951 season. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

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