Formula One turns 70 today…and it owes it all to the Alfetta 158

Formula One birthday

Formula One celebrates its 70th birthday today but today is also a day to remember the Alfetta 158 and the 3Fs team.

Helmets weren’t a thing, there was no television and spectators lined the edge of the race track, today (May 13th) marks the 70th anniversary of the first Formula One race. It was held at Silverstone in 1950 and was won by an Alfetta 158…this is the story of how that win came to be.

This story begins in 1938 just before the unpleasantness of World War II. The world’s gentlemen racers were flinging their machines around racetracks and brands from Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Audi and Alfa were beginning to make names for themselves.

One of the standouts of this era was the Alfetta 158. This straight eight-cylinder engine with a single-stage compressor and triple-body carburettor was a weapon. And, while weight saving is common with car makers these days, the use of lightweight alloys like elektron and nickel-chromium for the crankshaft meant this engine weighed just 165kg. A relative featherweight for the day.

Alfetta 158 fans will know the transmission was set up in a transaxle arrangement because it took up less space and helped to spread the weight evenly between the front and back. This setup made it onto the road car versions too.

Alfetta 158

Just as this Italian rocket was being tuned for racing, World War II kicked off and everything changed. The Alfetta 158s were hidden away for protection as factories and workers switched over to producing munitions and machines for the war effort.

And the story of the smuggling out of Milan of the Alfetta 158 is as nail-biting as any Hollywood blockbuster. It goes a little something like this…

In 1943, the Germans had occupied Milan with more and more roundups and arrests taking place each day. Alfa Romeo had stashed a handful of Alfetta 158s inside its Portello factory but there was a fear the vehicles would be discovered and carried back to Germany as spoils of war.

A clandestine meeting of Alfa Romeo workers took place and a plot was hatched to remove the vehicles in trucks. Hiding spots were secured. Even Italian speedboat champion Achille Castoldi who’d set a world speed record in 1940 using an Alfa Romeo 158 engine offered to hide one.

Trucks were sourced and the moving day selected. The volunteers met secretly at the Portello factory and loaded the Alfetta 158s onto trucks. But, just like in any great thriller, a German Army patrol arrived as the convoy was about to roll out. Just as the whole plan seemed about to crumble… a hero stepped forward.

Swiss-born Alfa Romeo test driver, Pietro Bonini, lent out of the lead truck and, in perfect German spoke to the soldiers, waved a safe-conduct card at them and the convoy was allowed to pass. None of the trucks had been checked and none of the other drivers were spoken to…fortunately.

The convoy split up and drove the Alfetta 158s to their hiding spots on farms, garages (where they were hidden behind false walls) and even underneath false piles of logs.

Alfetta 158 racing

When the War eventually ended in 1945, racing was back on the agenda. The hidden Alfetta 158s were returned to the Alfa Romeo factory in Portello where they were restored and prepared for racing. Between 1947 and 1948, Alfa Romeo won race after race, with Nino Farina winning the Gran Prix of the Nations in Geneva, Varzi won the Valentino Grand Prix in Turin, and Tossi tore the competition to shreds to triumph in the Gran Premio of Milan. The Alfetta 158 was as dangerous after the war as it had been before it.

A change was coming. See, car makers across Europe wanted to get away from one-off races and create a more meaningful series. The FIA Formula One World Championship was created in 1950 and the first round was slated for 13th May (1950). And it was ‘owned’ by Alfa Romeo.

Pole position was taken by Giuseppe “Nino” Farina who also set the fastest lap and won the race. Second came Luigi Fagioli, and third Reg Parnell. Alfa Romeo had taken the first four spots on the grid and finished the race first, second and third.

Alfa Romeo’s Farina, Fagioli and Fangio became known as ‘the 3Fs team’ and dominated the early years of Formula One, winning every single race they entered, ending on the podium twelve times and achieving five fastest laps.

The 3Fs team

Towards the end of that first season, Alfa Romeo rolled out its Alfetta 159 which was being tuned for the following season. It was raced at the Monza Grand Prix on 3 September 1950 and was driven to victory by Nino Farina. The Alfa Romeo wheelman became the world’s first Formula One World Champion.

As Giuseppe Busso, Alfa Romeo designer said, “our main problem was deciding which of the three drivers should win any given race”.

On 3 September 1950, for the Monza Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo tried out the technical resources of the Alfetta 159, actually developed for use in the following year’s Championship. The new Alfetta made its debut with a victory. At the wheel was Nino Farina, who became the first ever Formula 1 World Champion. It backed this up with Jaun Manuel Fangio becoming World Champion the following year.

Alfetta 158 racing

After winning the first two seasons of Formula One, Alfa Romeo retired, only returning to the track in 2018.

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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.