Colorful Chaos - 1990 Alfa Romeo SE 048SP

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Group C sportscar racing reached its zenith in the late 1980's. Propelled by massive manufacturer interest, a strong privateer presence and full grids, the World Sportscar Championship was close to becoming the most popular racing series on the planet. The incredibly varied field of lightning fast prototypes ensured there was something for everyone, which saw the crowds get bigger and bigger.

However, the WSC's success wasn't appreciated by everyone. Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of Formula One's commercial division, was watching Group C's aggressive expansion with a fair bit of jealousy. As the series' influence grew, Formula One's dominant position weakened. Most displeased, Ecclestone arranged a meeting with some of his FISA-contacts, and devised a plan of attack.

Group C's entry level C2 category was banned for controversial reasons.

Group C's entry level C2 category was banned for controversial reasons.

For the 1990 season, Group C's regulations were to be changed drastically. Out were the turbocharged and large displacement monsters of old, and in were mandatory 3.5L naturally aspirated designs. The format was eerily similar to the one introduced in Formula One the year prior. Bernie's scheme was to force the manufacturers competing in the WSC to build wildly expensive Formula One engines. Secondly, the popular entry level Group C2 cars was also banned for supposedly being "too unreliable". 

For giant concerns like Mercedes, Peugeot and Jaguar this was hardly a crippling problem. One the other hand, Ecclestone knew the smaller privateer outfits would lack the financial and engineering capacity to follow the new rules. This would lead to smaller grids and a crippled championship. After the lack of entries would destroy the WSC, he would swoop in and try to lure the surviving big manufacturers into Formula One. As the bigger companies had already built F1-style engines, the switch would be relatively easy to make.

The Lancia LC2 was Fiat's original Group C weapon.

The Lancia LC2 was Fiat's original Group C weapon.

One such company to fall for the bait was the Fiat Group. Through its subsidiary Lancia it had been competing in the sportscar scene since 1982 with the LC1, in the last year of Group 6 regulations. With the advent of Group C, the company switched to the incredibly powerful Ferrari turbo V8-engined LC2. The new cars proved to be more than capable of beating Porsche's dominant 956 in outright speed, but lacked reliability and fuel efficiency. After a  four season program starting in 1983, the works Lancia team pulled the plug on the project at the end of 1986. With just three wins, the project was a bitter disappointment. 

The cancellation of Lancia's works Group C effort left the Fiat Group without a presence in the lucrative World Sportscar Championship. The announcement of the new engine rules for 1990 presented an opportunity to rectify this issue. As Lancia was focused on its Group A rally program en Ferrari was busy trying to find a return to success in Formula One, Alfa Romeo was left as the only Fiat-subsidiary able to start a sportscar project.

The failed 164 Procar project provided the engine for Alfa's new Group C challenger.

The failed 164 Procar project provided the engine for Alfa's new Group C challenger.

Alfa Romeo had not competed in the sportscar scene since the late 1970's, which made them unable to design a competitive Group C car by themselves. With this in mind they contacted the Abarth tuning division, which had also developed the Lancia LC2. Osella defector and chief Abarth designer Giuseppe Petrotta went to work on the new car.

With the chassis design coming along nicely, the engineers turned their attention to the biggest problem: finding a suitable engine. Luckily Alfa Romeo had gotten ahead of itself. The company had already designed a 620 horsepower 3.5L Tipo 1035 V10 engine for the Ligier Formula One team. The deal with Ligier never materialized, so the engine found its way into the ambitious 164 Procar project. Procar was meant to be a support series for Formula One, featuring F1-engined prototypes with silhouette bodies from ordinary saloon cars. Sadly Alfa Romeo was the only one to build such a machine, which saw that project also scrapped.

Chief engineer Giovanni Tonti testing the Tipo 1035 V10.

Chief engineer Giovanni Tonti testing the Tipo 1035 V10.

Now the engine would be granted a third life as a sportscar powerplant. Although the engine had seen some encouraging short runs in the Procar, Alfa Romeo had no idea how it would handle the prolonged punishment typical of an endurance race. Engineer Claudio Lombardi set out to develop the unit further to try and improve its durability. Because the new Abarth chassis hadn't been completed yet, the V10 was fitted to an old Lancia LC2, which served as a test mule. Abarth dubbed the car SE047, and commenced a rigorous testing program. 

The LC2-based Abarth SE047 V10 test mule.

The LC2-based Abarth SE047 V10 test mule.

During the tests, the true sprint race nature of the engine quickly revealed itself. The V10 performed remarkable, but also confirmed Alfa Romeo's worst fears. On numerous occasions the engine's belt drive failed, resulting in countless bent valves and a bunch of very angry Italians. The issue would take a lot of  time and money to fix, time and money that parent company Fiat was not willing to spend.

Fiat demanded the 048SP to be fitted with Ferrari's superior V12.

Fiat demanded the 048SP to be fitted with Ferrari's superior V12.

Instead the big wigs decided the disastrous Tipo 1035 just had to go. For the third time in a row the engine was denied a chance to compete. Fiat's management selected Ferrari's 60-valve Tipo 036 V12 engine to replace Alfa's ten cylinder problem child, much to the dismay of Alfa Corse's proud engineers. Their V10 would never even make it to the new chassis.

The new car continued Abarth's  naming scheme, adopting the code name SE (Sports Experimental) 048SP (Sport Prototipo). Petrotta's design was simple, conventional and effective. The chassis consisted of a carbon fiber monocoque clad in an elegantly beautiful body, with the radiators mounted in the front for an old school touch. The 048's defining features were drag-reducing rear wheel covers, and the traditional Alfa Romeo grille on the nose. Another feature new for Group C was the giant airbox, which served to force-feed the hungry V12.

As per the new regulations, a minimum weight of 750 kg (1653 lbs) was required. The Ferrari V12 proved to be far more powerful than Alfa Romeo's lackluster V10, producing some 680 horsepower. This was a figure no other 3.5L prototype could match. However, the V12 was still in Formula One configuration, making it ill-suited to long endurance races. Unlike the Ferrari 640 F1 car, the 048SP did not feature the experimental 7-speed semi-automatic gearbox. In its place Alfa Romeo opted to use a more reliable 6-speed manual transmission. 

The engine change might have angered Alfa's engineers, but it proved to be a wise decision. The Ferrari motor incorporated innovative features such as an electronic engine management system. The technology made it possible to quickly check readouts about the engine's performance. The feedback loop made it much easier to properly execute any development changes. Finally, Alfa Corse and Abarth could make up some time on the chaotic project.

Somehow, Privateer Gianpiero Moretti of MOMO fame caught wind of the project, and started negotiations about running the car in the WSC. Moretti talked extensively with Alfa Romeo, but failed to close a deal. It would be the 048SP's one and only chance of entering racing. Still covered under a veil of secrecy, Alfa Romeo continued to work on the scarlet machine.

In September 1990, Fiat's executive branch issued another order from above. Alfa Romeo was to cease all work on the SE 048SP Group C project. In light of Lancia's total domination in the WRC, the troublesome sportscar program was deemed too expensive and irrelevant. A Ferrari-powered prototype did little to promote the struggling Alfa Romeo brand. Because of this, Fiat felt a production based touring car program would make much more sense. In the end they made the right call, as the World Sportscar Championship folded in 1992 under the exact same circumstances envisioned by Bernie Ecclestone.

The Alfa Romeo SE 048SP was a typically gorgeous Italian machine faced with typically Italian problems. It was called into life as Fiat's radical new avatar of sportyness, but failed to deliver for a number of reasons. Alfa Romeo's fragile V10 engine gave the project its first major setback before the chassis had even been built, resulting in hasty modifications to incorporate the Fiat-mandated Ferrari V12. 

The V10's failure forced Alfa's engineers to begrudgingly accept the superior engine, severely hurting their pride. Just as things were looking up for the project, Fiat brought the hammer down. The cancellation made all the hard work completely meaningless, as Fiat realized it had no real purpose for the maligned car. As a PR-stunt the still highly secret 048SP was shown to the public in 1992. After its 15 minutes of fame it disappeared back into Alfa Romeo's Museo Storico, where it collects dust to this day