Monday, 9 January 2017

Alfa Romeo Bimotore

This car from the Donington Park museum was part of a display in the racing circuit's Paddock Suite at the SeeRed meeting in September 2004.
It's one of the 1935 Alfa Romeo Bimotores, a twin-engined car which was built and raced by Scuderia Ferrari against the German Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars. The programme of that Donington Park race included an article about the Bimotore that had earlier appeared in the Italian magazine Auto Italia:

'There's a rumour that Alfa Romeo's Bimotore, one of the most powerful racing cars of all time and preserved here at the Donington Collection, was the result of too much red wine one night in December 1934. At the time, Alfa's competition affairs were in the hands of Scuderia Ferrari and there was a desperate effort going on to stem the tide of German racing victories. The story goes that a drink-fuelled conversation between Alfa development engineer Luigi Bazzi and his long-time friend Enzo Ferrari led to a new project being born. Bazzi's idea was to redeem the Scuderia and Alfa's reputation by building a Bimotore, with one engine in the front of the car and the other behind the driver. 
Grand Prix races of the period were run to the weight-oriented 750kg formula, where the Italians could not hope to compete with Mercedes and Auto Union. But there were some races in which engine size and weight were unrestricted, and it was here that Bazzi hoped to make his mark with a new, hugely powerful car.
Two Bimotores were constructed, of 5.8-litres (two 2.9-litre straight eights) and 6.4-litres (two 3.2-litres) respectively. Each was based on a modified Alfa P3 frame, stretched by 15cm, with Dubonnet independent front suspension and semi-elliptics at the rear. The rear engine was fitted in the extended area behind the driver, driving forward to the gearbox, from which the drive was then split and transmitted to separate propshafts to each rear wheel. Because there was now an engine where the fuel tank had been, twin tanks were located outside the frame, giving a rather bulky but undeniably potent look.
The first Bimotore was tested on the closed public road between Brescia and Bergamo on April 4, 1935, with Tazio Nuvolari behind the wheel. Unfortunately the speed was not officially timed: if it had been, the Bimotore would still be the fastest-ever Alfa. But there was a problem. The car was so powerful that the tyres could not possibly cope with the forces being put through them.
Even so, Scuderia Ferrari pronounced they had a winner. In fact, since this unique and potent car carried a Ferrari prancing horse badge on the radiator, some journalists reported it as being the first Ferrari.
By mid-May, two cars were ready for the Tripoli Grand Prix: the larger 6.4 for Nuvolari and the 5.8 for French driver Louis Chiron. On the face of it the two Bimotores looked to have a distinct advantage, producing 540bhp and 510bhp respectively, when the Mercedes had 'only' 350bhp and the Auto Union 380. However, the Bimotores were much heavier and it was clear in practice that the Englebert tyres were not going to be up for the job.
As the starter's flag fell, Fagioli's Mercedes was first away but Caracciola soon got past him. On lap two, Nuvolari pushed the Bimotore into second place, only to come into the pits on the next lap for his first tyre change - and there were to be an incredible 12 more! The race settled into a classic fight between Varzi and Caracciola, with Caracciola winning in the end. Nuvolari could pass any of the other cars at will and, in spite of his 13 stops, he finished in fourth place. Chiron, who had driven cautiously, was fifth.
Only two weeks later, the two cars went to Berlin for the Avusrennen in two heats and a final. Yet again, Nuvolari did not restrain himself and was in the pits for a tyre change on only his second lap; by doing so he failed to qualify for the final. In heat two the canny Chiron stayed out of trouble, preserved his car and qualified for the final. There he played the same game, letting Fagioli and Varzi fight it out while holding his car back. In the end Fagioli's Mercedes won and Chiron had worked his way up to second: a superb result.
On June 15, 1935, Nuvolari took the 6.4 Bimotore to Altopascio on the Lucca-Firenze autostrada to make an attempt on the Class B International Speed Record. Running on Dunlop tyres, Nuvolari achieved 208mph, broke the record, got an award from Mussolini and perhaps wondered why no one had thought of the Dunlops earlier!
After that moment of glory, the project was abandoned and the 6.4-litre car was dismantled. However, in 1937 the ex-Chiron 5.8 was sold to Englishman Austin Dobson. With a revised front suspension featuring trailing links and coil springs instead of the Dubonnet ifs, the Bimotore took some lap records as well as sixth place in the Brooklands 500.
The car was then sold to the Hon Peter Aitken in 1938, who cut it in half, did away with the rear engine and fitted a new rear with quarter-elliptic springs, in which form it was raced as the Alfa-Aitken. Tony Rolt raced it between 1946 and 1949 but in the early 1950s it went to New Zealand, where it was eventually found in a terrible state by Tom Wheatcroft. It was restored over a long period by Hall and Fowler, after a replacement 2.9 engine had been found for the rear.
Rick Hall was one of the first people to drive the restored Bimotore and reported that the car was 'bloody frightening', with a tendency for the rear end to snap out wildly in corners. Stiffening the front suspension helped, while rear axle check straps made the handling more predictable.
The torque is so great that any sudden move on the accelerator will provoke wheelspin but once the knack of getting the power smoothly to the rear wheels has been mastered, it becomes much more of a pleasure to drive.
You have to admire Nuvolari's ability to pilot the Bimotore at race speeds, weaving around the Auto Unions and Mercedes before braking hard and then accelerating up to 200mph - on every lap. It may not have been the first Ferrari, but it's certainly worthy of the name.'

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