#TouringCarMadness, 1996, Alfa Corse misses it for good…

1996, the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterchaft was dead and Bernie, at the time Vice-President of the FIA, was in control of the now so-called FIA International Touring Car Championship – ITCC – through the governing body ruling and working out the Championship. As they might have thought, it was to help the DTM that Bernie got his hand on it and made it become the ITCC for good in order to make it grow even bigger and more global but well history tells that it never happened…

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Anyway, Alfa Corse was once again committed to the Championship which in essence would be the DTM gone global with 11 rounds to be held in Europe at Hockenheim (DEU), Nürburgring (DEU), Estoril (PRT), Helsinki (FIN), Norisring (DEU), Diepholz (DEU), Silverstone (GBR), Nürburgring (DEU), Magny-Cours (FRA) and Mugello (ITA) and two fly-away races at Interlagos (BRA) and Suzuka (JPN) all consisting of two races as per the previous seasons and still, it looked very German apart from the name.

Following on the two previous seasons experience, Alfa Corse had been working hard for the coming year and after the disastrous effort of 1995. From November, everything was being put together not to repeat all the glitches that hampered the two previous seasons.

The regulations had evolved a little bit and Homologation was now required. The 1996 car would be an evolution from the Abarth SE062 from 1995 and would be known as the SE065 but both would be used. The 1995 evolution being used by “supported” teams such as JAS and the latest one being for the “works” Martini team as well as the TV Spielfilm outfit. So as an evolution, the SE065 was very much different and as were the SE062 with structural changes happening again, the twin fuel tanks arrangement being outlawed and replaced by a single composite fuel tank to be located centrally in the cockpit, behind the driver and bolted to the roll over protection structure which as for the previous season formed the real chassis of the car. A regulation move that would not only help safety but also help the balance of the car with the weight being more central and structure being stronger as you will understand through the pictures featured below. On the new car, the rear was a complete composite structure built in the shell.

Transmission and particularly the location of the gearbox was updated through the rules as well with the original production location of the unit having to be retained as per 1993/1994 but this time with the fixing of the unit being possible on the front differential. This permitted access to the unit and ratios to be changed easily as for 1995. Main change regarding the unit itself was the switch to a Xtrac unit with hydraulics made by Abarth and electronics by TAG again.

Engine had evolved as well with an additional 20HP having been found and a new engine being in development. A 90° V6 unit based on a Lancia Thema 6V unit as the rules permitted the use of an engine that shared the V-angle and bore spacing from a production one and which was no other than the famous Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 known as the PRV unit.

It served the purpose for Pino D’Agostino and a new ITCC unit was born for Alfa Corse and known as the 690RC. An engine that would prove lighter and more powerful – much needed to keep the Mercs’ and Opels behind – than the previous one but this would prove very problematic for the team to introduce and we’ll come back to this later.

Funny is that Alfa Romeo with FIAT homologated two optional engine. One based on the Montreal V8 and one concerning the 834 V6 which was no other than the PRV based unit. A funny way to try and drown the fish…

Electronics were another big part of the development in order not to suffer from the problems faced in 1995. Heavy work was once again put on the brake arrangement, ABS and power braking system being developed with TAG through cooperation with Magnetti Marelli and Bosch, the car featuring a derived ECU known as type GCU-121 and derived from the 1992 McLaren MP4/7 of 1992.

On aerodynamics, the package being already good, development was being carried as per 1995 at the Fiat, Dallara and Williams wind tunnels and from early February, Alfa Corse with factory test-driver Giorgio Francia were already testing with the new package at Fiorano.

On the team and driver line-up, Fiat and Alfa Corse had been looking at bringing some new hot shoes in during winter. The whole organization had also been completely reworked with Alfa Corse Martini Racing retaining the official and factory status with Larini and Nannini while the support would now be achieved through the Alfa Corse TV Spielfilm which consisted of Giancarlo Fisichella and Christian Danner while the rest would run under the  Alfa Corse JAS banner.

For the later, this new team had been created to run the 1996 support line-up with Stefano Modena, Michael Bartels, Gabriele Tarquini. The Italian marque having ceased its BTCC commitment, newly Opel Euroseries champion and latest addition, Jason Watt from Denmark was also added as well as additional entries such as Max Wilson from Brazil and Naoki Hattori from Japan for the fly-away races.

Concerning the team, it had been created by Paulo Jasson, Maurizio Ambroghetti and Giorgio Schoen and established in the ex Autodelta premises in Settimo Milanese and close the factory Alfa Corse team with ex Alfa Corse and Abarth staff being the workforce behind.

But apart from the team names being different it was a whole factory effort, Alfa Corse Martini Racing being at the top of the pyramid as they would benefit from all developments first, then would come the Alfa Corse TV Spielfilm team of Fisichella and Danner and then the JAS team with each having its own team manager but all working towards the success of Alfa Romeo in the Championship and for Giorgio Pianta.

All looked good again for the coming season, a better version of a good car with a better organized effort and testing was showing some very good things on the paper. The Abarth SE065 was looking very good with the team testing at the ‘Ring and Hockenheim just days prior to the official start to the season and the drivers being very much looking forward to taking the honors back to Italy. And off they were in Hockenheim for the start of the season!

It didn’t turn out as well as they had thought… Germany, Hockenheim and Round 1, seventh in Race 1 and tenth in Race 2 for “Fisicho” was the best result of the weekend even if the the trio had secured the two top spots in Qualifying, after 20 laps, it was all gone because of the tyres. And they finished in tenth position for Nannini and eleventh position for Larini in Race 1 while they managed a twelfth and thirteenth in a reversed order Race 2. Giorgio Pianta however declared that the car was good and it was certainly true in terms of speed but the tyre issues would have to be looked at for the coming rounds. And from the opposition, Opel had won Race 1 with Manuel Reuter..!

Alfa worked on correcting the issues they faced at Hockenheim and showed up at the Nürburgring for Round 2 of the Championship with some good hopes following a test at the Mugello circuit. But it didn’t deliver as it happened to be more of a disaster… Danner was let’s say the best of the Italians, taking fifth spot on the grid behind the Mercs’ and an Opel but Larini was tenth, Tarquini twelfth and so on… In Race 1, Danner, Tarquini and Bartels made it a ninth, tenth and eleventh finish while in Race 2 Tarquini made it fifth and Larini seventh with Watt and Danner in ninth and tenth. The original story could have been different as in Qualifying, both Nannini and Fisichella were looking strong having set second and sixth time, it could have been stronger in the races but they were excluded due to infringement of the fuel rules… Apparently due to leftovers from that Mugello test… Italians…

Round 3 and Estoril, Portugal. The Italians not having delivered much in the previous rounds did do very good there with Nannini, Larini and Fisichella making it a 1-2-3 in Qualifying with a 1-2 finish for Nannini and Fisichella in Race 1 in front of four Opels. Nannini managed to win Race 2 as well, in front of the Opels again but for his team mate, it hadn’t been a good weekend with electronics forcing him out of Race 1 while a multiple car crash in Race 2 forced him out as well. But anyway, the Championship looked very good by then with all three manufacturers having taken wins, Opel was leading the field and the Italians looked like they were set on beating them.

Round 4 and the north with Helsinki, Finland, and its street circuit for the second year in a row. From Qualifying, Opel locked-out the first row of the grid with old boys Stuck and Ludwig showing some great speed followed by Bartels, best of the Alfa contingent with Nannini in sixth, Larini in seventh and followed by Fisichella in eighth place. In Race 1, Bartels managed to secure a fourth place finish while Opel, Stuck, Reuter and Ludwig took a 1-2-3. Fisichella finished twelfth with Nannini dropping to fourteenth while Larini crashed out… In Race 2, the Opel lock-out of the first three spots was repeated in the same order but this time, the Alfas looked stronger with Nannini, Fisichella and Larini taking a 4-5-6 finish. Opel was now the leader of the Championship with Reuter ahead by quite a margin and that would be the one to focus on if the Italians were to take the glory back. Nannini was the closest with third place in the Championship standings by then but only with fewer than half the points…

Round 5 and the Championship headed back to good old Germany with the Norisring in Nuremberg. Again, Opel secured the first three spots on the grid with Alzen, Ludwig and Reuter ahead of Stefano Modena in fourth and Fisichella in sixth with all other Alfas out of the top ten. Not a great weekend, the cars were hampered by braking issues leading to brake discs explosion. After a few funny electronic and power braking systems alterations in order to try and cope with the problem they did do better. In Race 1, Modena managed to secure third place while pushing Fisichella out, not a great thing as the later ended up eleventh and second best scorer for the manufacturer but well, that’s racing. Race 2, Opel locked-out the top five with Ludwig, Alzen, Lehto, Stuck and Reuter showing a true superiority while known of the Alfas could manage better than a thirteenth place for Modena… A weekend to forget again.

Round 6 and the Diepholz airfield, Germany. Long straights and fast chicane with funny hairpins but this time, Alfa Corse had managed to work out the brake problem with some new ducts and cooling developments. Funny is that the circuit would run a specific “Alfa” chicane due to the lobbying done on the previous round and following their brake discs troubles… This time, Qualifying looked good with Tarquini and Fisichella taking third and fourth behind the Mercs’ of Schneider and Franchitti and of course, ahead of the Opels! In Race 1, which was red flagged due to Tarquini crashing out in that “Alfa” chicane – a flat 4th gear one – best scorer for the Italians was Fisichella in third, followed by Modena in fourth with Nannini in sixth and Bartels in eighth place. The Mercs’ were back on the podium with first and second place but Opel was very strong with altogether, four cars in the top ten. In Race 2, the Mercs’ would stay on top again still with Schneider and Franchitti taking a 1-2 finish as per Race 1. This time, Modena took third while a lucky Van Ommen in a Mercedes followed in front of 5 Opels. Oh yes, the GM contingent was very strong.

For Round 7 of the Championship, the whole field headed to Great Britain and sunny Silverstone. Qualifying started well for a weekend that would prove a very good one for both Alfa Romeo but more certainly the JAS team and Gabriele Tarquini. The Opels were still very strong but the Mercs’ were nowhere.

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Alfa Romeo showed some promising performance in Qualifying and they would deliver during the two Races with Tarquini taking second followed by Larini and Modena, in third and fourth place respectively in Race 1. For Race 2, Tarquini took a magistral lights to flag lead and win followed by Lehto in the Opel while Jason Watt secured a third place for the Alfa JAS team as well. Alfa was proving that while they were probably down in the Championship standings, they were not ready to give away anything.

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But Tarquini had been central in this mid-season breakaway let’s say. Tarquini, a man who came to the JAS team straight from the BTCC knew the difficult circuit very well. An old airfield, flat without much reference point for a driver but some bloody fast corners and curves surely. As he had battled there more or less five times in the two previous year, it was clear that he had had an edge over his team mates. And well, not even the finally and newly introduced 690RC engine I referred to earlier and which equipped the cars of Larini, Nannini and Fisichella could close the experience gap.

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Back to the Championship and Alfas’ performance, that engine would actually become a turning point for the Italian manufacturer. From Round 8 at the Nürburgring, Germany, Nannini who had chosen the new option settled for pole position in front ot Franchitti and Schneider with the Mercs’ while Fisichella was in fourth. Nannini took a lights to flag victory in Race 1 and Race 2 in front of the Mercs’ again. Larini was the loser in that game as he settled to run a conservative option with the old 60° unit and could never managed higher than fifth during the weekend while taking a 30-second penalty in Race 2 following an on-track incident with the Opel of Reuter.

Fiat’s own management wasn’t really happy of the new PRV based 690RC unit being used and rumors were growing on a possible total withdrawal from the ITCC at the end of 1996 on the base of the Championship failing to deliver the exposure they were promised…

Round 9 at Magny-Cours, France. It would see the Italians in good form again with them securing a 1-2-3 in Qualifying with Larini, Fisichella and Nannini securing the front of the grid. In Race 1, they would go on and dominate with Nannini taking the win in front of Larini and Fisichella while in Race 2, Nannini would repeat it while Fisichella would finish second.

Even if the weekend had been successful in France, two weeks after and just before the Mugello domestic Round for the Italians, the news came out. The Fiat board had taken the decision to withdraw from the Championship at the end of the year and well, Opel joined the decision as well on the same arguments as the ones expressed by the Italians, a lack of exposure compared to the cost engaged. From then on, even if the Italians were challenging Opel in the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championship standings with Nannini, it was clear that the mood was to be completely different…

The Mugello Italian Round 10 followed and started good with Larini qualifying on pole in front of Schneider while followed by Fisichella and Nannini in third and fourth. In Race 1, Larini would take the win but in Race 2 he was sidelined with terminal damage after contact with Schneider who for the later would take the win.

Then came Round 11 at Hockenheim, Germany, a circuit that had never suited the Alfa Romeo… Larini took second in Qualifying with second best of the Italian contingent being Tarquini in seventh, not looking good from the beginning. In Race 1, Larini retired after 3 laps and Tarquini would end up best scorer for the Italian marque in fourth. In Race 2, Fisichella and Danner would finish fifth and sixth as best for the Italians. The usual Hockenheim trend was again confirmed. And with Nannini finishing sixth in Race 1 and retiring in Race 2, the Championship hopes were declared gone by Giorgio Pianta himself. This was followed by the announcement that Pianta was to be replaced as head of operation by Castelli for the remaining two rounds of the Championship. Fiat had taken over.

It looked like it was all slippin’ away for the Italians and Alfa or that was the apparent mood but at Interlagos, Brazil and Round 12, the first of the two closing flyaway races. Danner took a surprising pole with Larini in third and Nannini in fifth. In Race 1, Nannini would take the win followed by Modena who started from ninth and Danner. Race 2, Larini would take the win in front of Max Wilson, a local hot shoe brought by the Italians for the Brazilian round with Nannini in fifth. Hopes were coming back for the Manufacters’ Championship title but by that point, who cared?!

Suzuka and Japan were next with Round 13. Final “Final” to a short-lived International Touring Car Championship, Danner once again secured pole position with Modena in third, Larini in fourth, Fisichella in fifth and Nannini in sixth. Franchitti and the Mercedes would take Race 1 with Modena following in second and Schneider in third with three other Alfas’ behind. Race 2, Schneider would take the final win of the Championship but this time followed by Fisichella and Magnussen in a Mercedes and four Alfas’.

The Championship was finished and done, the future and studies even if already started would be crushed and Opel came out of all this on the top step, taking the Drivers’ Championship with Manuel Reuter and 218 points. They had been consistent and Schneider for Mercedes as well with 205 points while Nannini ended up in third with 180 points. On the Manufacturers’ side, Opel took it as well for 349 points while Alfa finished with 340… 9 points adrift.

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Bernie had succeeded in crushing the whole thing in pieces, budget had been an ever rising problem since the introduction of Class 1 by the FIA in 1993, manufacturers spending Formula 1 budget on cars that were supposedly based on production but no exposure was ever really given as it was promised. And remember that TV rights at the time were under the same man hat! Others did suffer as well, remember that BPR thing?!

Anyway, what it could have been is a long story but surely, the PRV based 690RC unit could have helped if introduced earlier, consistency wasn’t an Italian familiar word back then. On the Championship itself, when DTM was resurrected in 2000, it was nothing else than a better cost-controlled Class 1 regulation. Emphasis from the manufacturers on framing the rules – again – and for the cars they were to be as brutal and badass looking as the previous ones. If you consider the 156 ITC project, well, it pretty much looks like the second-gen DTM that came into play around 2012 a monocoque, a skin and some funny aero developments. In a way, it looks as history only repeats itself.

But whatever, the FIA Class 1 did produce some of the best racing and technology witnessed in touring cars, power and sparks with some fantastic drivers playing around which for some of them, would become very talented Formula 1 drivers.

The stillborn 1997 ITCC Zakspeed Calibra.

Anyway, I wasn’t old enough back then but oh yeah it looked good!


Sources

Alfa Romeo

FIA

Veloce Publishing

www.jakobebrey.com

1996/1997 Touring Car World

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