Alfa Romeo’s involvement with motor racing goes back almost as long as motor racing itself, and the team had won every race in the inaugural 1950 season, but had withdrawn after the 1951 season, when their 15-year-old car design was shown up by Ferrari and the factory declined to spend money designing a new one. Since then, Alfa had competed in sportscar racing to develop its new flat-12 sports engine, and by the mid-70s, Formula One teams were showing interest. Brabham won the race to sign an engine contract, but struggled with reliability, not least due to the weight of the engine. In an attempt to counteract the weight, Brabham developed the famous “Fan Car” which won on its debut at the 1978 Swedish GP, but was swiftly banned, condemning Brabham-Alfa to struggle to the end of 1979 with it. Meanwhile, though Alfa Romeo had decided to return to Formula One as a works team and debuted their new car in 1979 first with the flat-12 and later a V12 layout. The team only competed in a few 1979 races, and ran their first full season in 1980. Bruno Giacomelli scored points with 5th places in Argentina and Germany, but the team was hit hard by the death of driver Patrick Depailler practising for the German race. With veteran Vittorio Brambilla and young charger Andrea de Cesaris both failing to impress as replacements, Alfa Romeo scored something of a coup to sign 1978 world champion Mario Andretti away from the struggling Lotus team to partner long-serving Giacomelli.
22. Mario Andretti
Born in Trieste, Italy just as World War 2 was ending, Mario lived in a displaced persons camp until the age of seven, when his family emigrated to the US and by then, racing was in his blood with childhood memories of the great Italian names of the 1950s – Ascari, Farina, Ferrari and of course Alfa Romeo. The Andrettis became US citizens in 1964 and that same year Andretti made his Indycar debut at Trenton. He competed in his first Indy 500 the next year and spent the next decade racing in the US, but Colin Chapman at Lotus had spotted him and in 1968 Andretti gave F1 a try. He continued through the late 60s and early 70s to drive sporadically in F1, and even won a race for Ferrari on his team debut at the 1971 South African GP. However, his primary career remained Stateside until his Parnelli team decided to enter Formula One in 1975 and took Andretti along with him. His best results with the team were a fourth and a fifth place, and he took too races off to race Indycars, but when Parnelli folded after the first two races of 1976, he stayed in F1 with Lotus, combining his expertise at setting up a car (a must in oval racing) with the team’s groundbreaking work in ground-effect aerodynamics. Reliability was an issue in 1976, but 1977 saw four race wins – more than any other driver – but reliability, accidents and plain bad luck meant he only finished third overall. In 1978 the stars aligned and the Lotus 79 dominated the series. Mario took his world title at the Italian Grand Prix, but there were no celebrations; teammate and friend Ronnie Peterson was unsuccessfully fighting for his life after an accident at the start of the race. Lotus imploded after the glory of 1978, though. The new Lotus 80 was a disaster and the team had to go back to the 79, by which point the others had caught up, and 1979 and 1980 were frustrating years, so a move to Alfa Romeo seemed tempting.
Popular Italian Bruno Giacomelli made his way initially through British domestic racing, before moving into European Formula Three and Formula Two. Winning the 1977 European F3 Championship in dominant style brought him to the attention of Formula One teams and he had a trial drive with McLaren that year, followed by a handful of races with them the following year. Signed up for 1979 by Autodelta, then running Alfa Romeo’s racing affairs, he became the lead development driver for the new Alfa Romeo works project, scoring the team’s first points in Argentina in 1980 and helping the team recover from Depailler’s death at Hockenheim with fifth place in that race and a pole position at the final race of the year at Watkins Glen.