|Alfa Romeo P2|
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Alfa Romeo's first attempt at building a Grand Prix racer was nothing short of a disaster. An obvious copy of the highly successful six-cylinder engined Fiats, the 'Grand Prix Romeo' or 'P1' was 'designed' by the Milanse company's chief engineer Giuseppe Merosi. At its debut, during the 1923 European Grand Prix at Monza, the P1 was convincingly outpaced by the latest eight cylinder Fiats and one of the drivers suffered a fatal crash in practice. Out of respect the remaining Alfa Romeos were withdrawn and were not raced again. Nicola Romeo did not give up and sent a young Enzo Ferrari to Turin for a chat with Fiat's chief engineer Vittorio Jano. The two men came to an agreement and Jano joined Alfa Romeo with immediate effect.
Predictably Jano's first assignment was to develop a replacement for the under-performing P1. He carried on where he had left off at Fiat and drew up twin-cam straight eight engine. Jano employed the lessons learned during the 1923 season and made numerous detail changes compared to his original design. Instead of using two blocks of four cylinders, he created four blocks of two cast-iron blocks for ease of construction and better reliability. The integral heads featured two valves per cylinder, actuated by twin overhead camshafts. Whereas the Fiat 'eight' used shafts and bevels to drive the camshafts, the Alfa Romeo, relied on spur-gears, just like the earlier Peugeots. An Alfa Romeo developed Roots-type supercharger was used to 'boost' the power to a commendable 134 bhp at 5500 rpm.
Mated to a four-speed gearbox, Jano's first Alfa Romeo engine was mounted in a pressed-steel ladder frame. With a solid axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs and Hartford friction dampers, the new Grand Prix car's front-end was wholly conventional. At the rear the frame tapered in and featured a big arch over the live axle, considerably lowering the car's ride height. Even more unusual were the rear springs, which were mounted within the chassis rails. The rolling chassis was covered with a straightforward body with bullnose radiator cover as its most striking feature. The drivers had the choice of a pointed or cut-off tail. Some drivers believed the latter offered more stable cornering. As a finishing touch the dark red machines sported a 'quadrifoglio' (four-leaf clover) badge on the engine covers, which is used for sporting / racing Alfa Romeos to this day.
Developed in complete secrecy, the new Alfa Romeo 'P2' made its surprise debut at a 200 mile race at Cremona in the spring of 1924. Lead driver Antonio Ascari immediately impressed and won the race with an average of nearly 100 mph. A burst tyre in the Coppa Acerbo prevented Giuseppe Campari from taking back-to-back wins for the new Alfa Romeo. Next up was the all-important French Grand Prix, held this year on public roads around Lyon. The Alfa Romeo team was joined by the seasoned manufacturers Delage, Sunbeam, Fiat and Bugatti for the 810 km race. The rivals were baffled by the new-comer's pace and could do little but follow Ascari and Campari, at a respectable distance. Ascari led until the dying minutes of the race when he grounded to a halt with a cracked block. His team-mate's P2 held out long enough to win Alfa Romeo's first major Grand Prix.
A month later Alfa Romeo had the perfect opportunity to get revanche for the disastrous 1923 Grand Prix at Monza. No fewer than four P2s were lined up for the Italian Grand Prix. The only opposition came brand new Mercedes Grand Prix cars and Ascari led his team-mates to a shattering one-two-three-four victory. The fifth placed Rolland-Pilain Schmid finished a full hour after Ascari had completed his 80 laps. Over the subsequent winter, Jano made detail changes to his highly successful design. He managed to extract a further 20 bhp from the supercharged engine. In 1925 the Alfa Romeo team competed in the inaugural World Championship, which consisted of four rounds; the Indy 500 and the European, French and Italian Grands Prix. One result could be dropped, so understandably the team did not bother with the Indy 500.
For the first major race of the seasons, the European Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, Alfa Corse entered three P2s for Ascari, Campari and Gastone Brilli-Peri. Ascari recorded the fastest lap and won the race ahead of Campari. Tragedy struck during the French Grand Prix, at Montlhéry, when Ascari fatally crashed from the lead of the race. Nicola Romeo withdrew the two other P2s, leaving an easy win to Delage. Three cars were once again entered for the season finale at Monza. American Pete DePaolo, who had won at Indy with a Duesenberg, was the replacement for Ascari. Brilli-Peri absolutely dominated the race and beat second placed Campari, who had teamed up with Giovanni Minozzi, by nearly 20 minutes. The third placed Bugatti was a further ten minutes back. Alfa Romeo won the World Championship ahead of Duesenberg. To commemorate the World Championship a laurel wreath was added to the nose badge of all production Alfa Romeos.
For the 1926 season the displacement limit was dropped to just 1.5 litre, rendering the Alfa Romeos obsolete. By this time Jano had turned his attention to developing the all new 6C road car, which would establish Alfa Romeo as a serious manufacturer and its derivatives also won numerous races. The surviving P2s were used in Formula Libre races held throughout Italy for several more seasons. The engine was slightly enlarged, lifting the power to 175 bhp. A further ten races were added to the P2's tally during these seasons. The Grand Prix car's swansong came in 1930 when Achille Varzi drove a mildly modified P2 to victory in the daunting Targa Florio. Six years after it was driven to a debut win, the P2 was finally retired after that impressive success on the roads of Sicily.
The hugely successful P2 would be the first in a long line of fabulous cars designed by Vittorio Jano for Alfa Romeo. Although perhaps not as famous today as its successors, the Alfa Romeo P2 was certainly the best Grand Prix racer of its era. Alfa Romeo would go on to win all major European races at least once in the subsequent years and only (temporarily) ended its involvement in 1951 after winning the first two Formula 1 World Championships with the all-conquering 'Alfettas'. With the P2, Vittorio Jano laid the foundations for all these successes. As with many of his designs, especially the engine is a work of art. It could run reliably at a very impressive 6500 rpm in period. In a 1964 interview with American historian Griff Borgeson Jano explained that the valve springs prevented the engine from running even faster. His firm belief was that with modern springs, speeds of up to 9000 rpm would definitely be possible.
Of the six Alfa Romeo P2s built in period two are known to exist today. Alfa Romeo have one in their collection that has been restored to its original World Championship winning configuration, complete with the pointed tail. It's on display in their fabulous Museo Storico but also regularly exercised. For the September 1981 issue of Road & Track it was track-test by 1961 World Champion Phil Hill who was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the car. He was equally in awe of the brave and tenacious drivers that completed incredible distances in the stiffly sprung P2 on very rough surfaces. The second survivor is Varzi's 1930 Targa Florio winning car, which sports a flat radiator and a spare wheel mounted longitudinally in the tail. This P2 can be seen in Turin's Biscaretti museum.
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