At the inception of the Formula One World Championship in 1950, prominent Italian sporting brand Alfa Romeo was more than ready to take on the best of the best. Competent racing machinery was few and far between in those difficult years after the horrors of World War II, but Alfa had a trick up their sleeve.
All they had to do was pull off the covers of their 158, a Voiturette-class machine dating back to 1938. With its 1.5L supercharged V8 and over 350 horsepower, the old machine had easily out-muscled its naturally aspirated opponents to take the first F1 world title in the hands of Nino Farina.
Nino Farina took Alfa Romeo to new heights in 1950.
An updated 159 model with a two-stage supercharger and 425 horsepower followed in 1951, and Alfa Romeo easily repeated the trick with future superstar Juan Manuel Fangio, as the Argentinian secured the first of what would be five titles.
However, Formula One as a category fell apart for 1952. Very few teams were able to survive in F1 under the dominance of the Italian machines, causing most to withdraw from the top category.
Ironically, Alfa Romeo was unable to fund the production of a new car, the 2.5L naturally aspirated 160, and withdrew from the sport following a failed attempt to secure government funding. As a result, the 1952 championship would be contested under Formula Two regulations.
The 177 was the first step into Alfa Romeo's return to the sport.
As the company focused on touring car and sportscar racing, it took almost three decades before Alfa Romeo's management could be persuaded to consider a reentry into the pinnacle of motorsport. Spurred on by semi-factory tuning and racing department Autodelta, lead by engine guru Carlo Chiti, the Italians found their way back to the grid in 1979 with the 3.0L flat-12 powered 177.
The same engine had powered the famous Brabham BT46B "Fan Car", but had become a dinosaur with the advent of ground effect. As the flat engine's cylinder heads were in the way of the venturi tunnels needed to generate the mysterious force, Alfa Romeo switched to a much narrower V12.
However, it was too little too late for Alfa Romeo once again, as naturally aspirated engines were being rapidly overtaken by ever more powerful and more reliable turbo engines from Renault and Ferrari. It took the Italians until 1983 to finally join the forced induction party again, with the debut of the 183T.
Unlike the common four cylinders of Hart and BMW, or the V6s of Honda, Renault and Ferrari, the 183T was equipped with an unusual 890T 1.5L V8. The flimsy engine turned out to be a colossal mistake. Just as it became more reliable and powerful, the FIA introduced a ban on refueling, a major handicap for the intensely thirsty engine.
The 185T was an absolute dog.
The issues with the engine were exacerbated by absolutely appalling overall performance from the chassis themselves, in particular the 185T. The car was so horrible in fact it was withdrawn mid-season in favor of its predecessor, which proved to be much more competitive in updated form.
Disgusted with the appalling results, Alfa Romeo pulled out of Formula One for the second time at the end of 1985. Even so, they remained as a supplier to the tiny Osella team, which they had been supporting with engines and even discarded chassis since 1983.
Ligier was to be Alfa's new partner in the second half of the 1980s.
The relationship with Osella was tenuous as best though, and left space for a new engagement in the sport. Done with being a factory team, Alfa Romeo entered into a partnership with French privateers Ligier, who were about to lose their supply of Renault engines as the French manufacturer was preparing an exodus of its own.
Alfa Romeo chose to walk BMW's way for their new engine.
Naturally, the troublesome V8 was discarded for the new project, with Alfa Romeo instead delivering the final supply of 890T engines at parts at Osella. For the Ligier effort, Alfa Romeo's lead engineer Giovanni Tonti was drafted to come up with the ultimate turbo engine.
Unsurprisingly, this design brief lead him to veer in the completely opposite direction relative to the old V8. This meant he settled on a four cylinder layout, similar to the all-powerful BMW M12/13, and the lesser Hart 415T and Zakspeed 1500/4.
The big boost Benetton B186 BMW was almost undrivable on slow circuits, something Alfa Romeo wanted to prevent.
The four cylinder layout promised much better fuel economy, eliminating one of the biggest drawbacks of the older powerplant. And with rumors going around of a decrease in displacement to 1.2L in order to stifle the turbo car's ever increasing speeds, Tonti felt the straight four was the best engine for the job.
As four cylinders had been used for many years in the sport, the Alfa Romeo team was able to identify a key issue. Particularly with the monumentally powerful BMW, drivers were forced to contend with a massive amount of turbo lag, followed by a very violent burst of power. Especially on slower circuits, where low and mid-range power were favored, this was a terrible characteristic to have.
The Alfa Romeo 415T was designed to be the ultimate compromise.
A very big element of this problem was the fact the BMW relied on a single enormous turbocharger. The massive turbine wheel took ages to spool up, and when it finally did had a tendency to viciously attack the transmission, the tires and the driver.
The team posing with one of the first versions of the 185V.
Tonti's solution was to replace the single large turbo with two smaller examples, which would spool up much faster. With boost available much earlier in the rev range, and a less savage cut-in of power, the new 415T engine was designed to be much more drivable than its contemporaries.
As a 4.0 bar (58 psi) boost limit was to be introduced for 1987, the loss of absolute top end power was deemed acceptable as well. The fuel-injected, 16-valve, 1.5L engine pushed out around 850 horsepower under this boost limit, giving it favorable performance even in its first iteration.
As the engine reached completion during 1986, the team was ready to commence a testing program. With the Ligier chassis still in development, Alfa Romeo decided to repurpose one of the old 185Ts they had sitting around the workshop.
A single chassis was adapted to the 415T, which was easier said than done. Since it was a four cylinder, it couldn't be bolted directly to the chassis as a stressed member, unlike the V8. Because of this, the team had to weld together a separate subframe to support the little monster.
Note the ribbons mounted to the sidepods; a primitive way of measuring airflow.
Dubbed 185V, the car was tested by Alfa Romeo factory ace Giorgio Francia and Ligier driver Rene Arnoux at Balocco, Alfa Romeo's test track in Northern Italy. Though little is known about the results of these test, there's strong evidence the 415T wasn't the spectacular revolution Giovanni Tonti had hoped it would be.
In the lead up to the 1987 season, the Ligier JS29 was also tested fitted with the Alfa Romeo unit. However, Rene Arnoux didn't mince his words in the press, comparing the engine to used food.
With Alfa Romeo recently having been taken over by Fiat, which also owned F1 rivals Ferrari, the comments gave Fiat management the perfect excuse to pull the plug on the expensive and ultimately pointless project.
Rene Arnoux (left) tore the Alfa engine apart in interviews.
The feared displacement reduction the 415T had been designed for had been replaced with an outright ban on turbo engines, which was to take effect in 1989. This, coupled to the apparent lack of performance, reliability, or both (Arnoux wasn't very clear on that), made producing, running and maintaining a brand new turbo engine a fruitless affair at best. The ties with Ligier were cut immediately, forcing the French squad to frantically search for a replacement.
With the Formula One campaign shoved in the bin once again, Alfa Romeo went on to purchase Motor Racing Developments, also known as Brabham, which had bankrupted itself during 1987. Together they would go on another fun but ill-advised adventure, resulting in the first F1-spec V10 engine ever created, bolted to the back of the exotic Alfa Romeo 164 ProCar.