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How Alfa won the 1975 World Sportscar Championship


Used Cars and F1 Stars
How Alfa won the '75 World Sportscar Championship

By Jon Paulette

Alfa’s 1975 World Championship for Makes title was more a testament to reliability than outright speed, but that doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment. It was a season of change for big-time sports car racing and Alfa, perhaps the team that changed the least, won the most. Keeping one’s engine together when others are losing theirs is as much a part of racing as anything else and the Alfa team took full advantage of a well-sorted combination.

Not that the run-up to the season was drama-free. With finances tight at Alfa headquarters, some tough decisions had to be made and Autodelta came dangerously close to extinction. Never one to back down from a challenge, Carlo Chiti managed to convince the directors to stay in racing, albeit with a focus on production-based cars. The sports car program, however, would survive only if outside backing could be found. Enter Willi Kauhsen, a former racer now trying his hand at team management. Kauhsen procured backing from Campari beverages and the Redlefsen sausage company, arranged for Autodelta to maintain and prep the cars and signed up an amazing line-up of moonlighting F1 drivers. Suddenly, the 33TT12s that had been headed for genteel retirement were thrown back into the fray. But were they strong enough to win in a series where the rules had changed drastically?

Prior to the season, the very French CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale) Technical Committee announced new rules that gave 2-liter turbocharged cars a massive theoretical advantage over their 3-litre naturally-aspirated competition. When the also very French Alpine Renault team unveiled a 2-liter turbocharged car a few days later, conspiracy theorists howled. But the not-even-slightly French folks at Porsche were also working on a 2-liter turbo program, so perhaps the lobbying effort was more multi-national than anyone thought. Either way, the turbo age had arrived and the new cars promised to be stunningly quick - assuming they could hold up for an entire race. The Kauhsen-Alfa team was hoping they wouldn’t.

The 24 Hours of Daytona opened the season, sort of. Thanks to a disagreement between International Motor Sports Association and the CSI, the race was initially excluded from the championship due to the reluctance of IMSA to run a Group 5 class and the reluctance of the Group 5 teams to attend in sufficient numbers to change IMSA’s mind. Three races into the season; Daytona was reinstated as part of the championship, which meant, if nothing else, more points for Porsche thanks to Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood’s win.

At Mugello, which was at least the European season-opener, the Alfa driven by Jacky Ickx and Arturo Merzario led for much of the race until a long pit stop for brake problems. Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Gérard Larrousse took advantage and scored the Alpine-Renault’s maiden win. Things looked somewhat dark for the non-turbo runners at that point, but the season was still new and so were the Alpines. Sure enough, at the Dijon 1000k, Alpine suffered a sudden attack of new-car blues that allowed Williams F1 teammates (early in the season, anyway) Merzario and Jacques Laffite to win.

The Monza 1000k saw a great battle between Merzario/Laffite, Jabouille/Larrousse and a Mirage driven by Jochen Mass and Tim Schenken. The Alpine and the Mirage had problems, the Alfa didn’t, and the home crowd went wild as the Alfa crossed the line for win number two.

Alpine and Mirage were among the teams that elected to skip the 1000k race at the daunting Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Kauhsen’s team not only brought both cars, but was canny enough to bring back Belgian hero Ickx for this race. Ickx, always brilliant in the wet, built up an impressive early lead as torrential rain hammered the track. Teammate Merzario somehow managed to squander every last bit of it during his stint, which allowed the second Alfa, driven by Derek Bell and Henri Pescarolo, to win the rain-shortened event by a lap.

Only 16 cars took the start at the Coppa Florio in Sicily, and the Alfas, driven by Merzario/Mass and Bell/Pescarolo raced to an untroubled one-two finish. A healthier field turned out for the Nurburgring 1000k, with a new, improved and very quick Alpine leading the way in qualifying. Jochen Mass, partnered with Jody Scheckter in a third Alfa, bolted to an early lead, but the Alpine-Renault soon whistled by. The French entry led until turbo problems set in, which left the Alfa and Mirage teams to fight for the trophy. The Mass/Sheckter car experienced brake problems and faded to sixth, but Merzario and Laffite were able to hold off the charging Mirage driven by Schenken and Howden Ganley for a close win.

Thanks to a different set of fuel regulations, Le Mans was not a part of the championship in 1975 and most of the prototypes, Alfa included, stayed away. The Gulf team did make the race and the Ickx/Bell team won in the Cosworth-powered GR8. It was the second Le Mans win for Ickx and the first of three he would win co-driving with Bell.

When the championship reconvened in Austria for the Osterreichring 1000k, a second Alpine had joined the mix, with Tyrrell F1 teammates Scheckter (contracts were a bit more casual back then) and Patrick Depailler joining Larrousse and Jean-Pierre Jarier. With thunderstorms enveloping the circuit, the Scheckter/Depailler car splashed to an enormous lead before watery electrics and a balky fuel system ended their day. The ultra-reliable Alfas cruised to a one-two finish, with Pescarolo/Bell heading Merzario and new hire (Lafitte was busy locking up the European F2 title) Vittorio "The Monza Gorilla" Brambilla.

The series wrapped up with the Watkins Glen 6 Hours and, as usual, the Alpines ran faster and the Alfas ran longer. At half-distance, a thunderstorm rolled in, numerous cars spun off and the race was eventually red-flagged for 65 minutes. When racing resumed, the two Alfas spent the next three hours working their way to the front and scored their fourth one-two finish of the season. Pescarolo/Bell took the win, with Merzario and special guest star Mario Andretti in second.

The win at the Glen was a fitting end to a very successful season. Reliable cars, talented drivers and skilled preparation came together to produce seven wins and Alfa Romeo’s first world championship since Fangio won the Formula One crown in 1951. Had there been a driver’s title in 1975, it would have gone to Merzario, who scored four wins. Not bad for a team that was only put together at the last minute!

Bonus Trivia
Willi Kauhsen went on to make an expensive and ultimately fruitless attempt at Formula One in 1979. The Cosworth-powered cars, driven by Gianfranco Brancatelli, appeared at two races and failed (by a large margin) to qualify for either of them. At that point, former Kauhsen employee Arturo Merzario, whose eponymous team wasn’t doing much better, purchased the operation. New ownership, new paint and a new name (Merzario A4) made little difference. The car’s shining moment (such as it was) came when Merzario managed to flog the thing home 11th in the non-championship Gran Premio Dino Ferrari at Imola. He was two laps behind winner Niki Lauda, who was driving what turned out to be his final race for the Brabham Alfa-Romeo team. Lauda called it a career (for the first time, anyway) during practice at the Canadian GP. That win was also Alfa’s last in Formula One.

John Player Motorsport Yearbook 1976, edited by Barrie Gill

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