Speed Thirst - 1985 Alfa Romeo 185T

Famous Italian manufacturer Alfa Romeo had mad a return to the F1-field in 1979 after being absent for 26 years since winning the championship with Juan Manuel Fangio in 1951. The illustrious firm had lost its competitive edge in the intervening years. The world of Formula One had changed drastically, and Alfa Romeo was struggling to get to grips with foreign concepts like ground effect. 

Their flat 12 engine proved to be entirely unsuitable for the new format, which forced them to the back of the grid. Alfa Romeo tried to recover by using a V12, but by then they were again lagging behind as the turbo era was taking shape. After pioneering work by Renault, more and more major manufacturers were enticed by the massive power advantage of turbocharged engines.

 

Vittorio Brambilla, Alfa 177.

Vittorio Brambilla, Alfa 177.

Virtually all engine manufacturers (with exception of BMW and Hart) decided the best configuration for a 1.5L turbocharged engine would be a V6. Contary to a straight 4 engine, the unit could be used as a stressed member bolted to the chassis, aiding rigidity. In addition it was relatively compact, fuel-efficient, and allowed room for twin turbochargers. Alfa Romeo, cocky flamboyant Italians as they were, decided differently.

Instead of a V6, Alfa decided to up the ante with a 1.5L twin turbocharged V8, called the 890T. Starting in the 1983 183T model, the engine produced a disappointing 640 horsepower, where its competitors had already reached levels close to 850. Another problem was the 890T's tendency to drink a heck of a lot more fuel than the V6’s and straight 4’s. In the 1983 season this was not much of a problem, as fuel stops were still permitted.

Alfa Romeo's unusual 890T V8.

Alfa Romeo's unusual 890T V8.

By 1984, the FIA changed things up a bit for Alfa Romeo. Fuel stops were banned entirely, and the cars were slapped with a 220 liter fuel limit. By 1984 the 890T produced 680 horsepower, which still wasn’t enough. The car’s drinking habit and lack of power meant it would either break from being pushed too hard just to keep up, or simply run out of fuel.

Alfa Romeo was by now getting pretty desperate and ordered its designers Mario Tollentino and John Gentry to set things right for 1985. The biggest challenge was to get the 890T to stop drinking so damn much. With the new 185T chassis they tried to accomplish this by simplifying its aerodynamics to reduce drag. Lower drag would mean the car would be even slower through the corners, but the reduced air resistance helped the engine along and increased top speed. The engine was mated to a modified Hewland 6-speed manual gearbox. Total weight remained at 550 kg (1212 lbs).

The two cars would be piloted by two veteran drivers, Riccardo Patrese (ITA) took the role of lead driver in #22. Patrese had been in Formula One since 1977, earning drives with Shadow, Arrows and Brabham. Alongside him would be Eddie Cheever Jr. (USA) in #23. Cheever had joined the F1-circus a year later than Patrese, but could easily match him for experience. Drives for Osella, Tyrrell, Ligier and the factory Renault team gave him an equally strong resume.

The pair had joined Alfa Romeo in 1984, and had shared in its turbocharged misery. For 1985, they were eager to finally score a respectable result. Patrese was already a race winner, while Cheever had been on the podium 5 times. With such a strong lineup, Alfa Romeo knew their problems would not start with the drivers.

Ricardo Patrese and his team.

Ricardo Patrese and his team.

Unfortunately all that talent had nowhere to go. The car’s lack of power had remained unchanged from the 184T model, with just 680 horsepower still on tap. The competition had meanwhile reached the better part of 900 horsepower in race trim. This meant the drivers still had to push the lazy V8 to the edge to even keep up with the pack. The 1985 season would therefore prove to be a troublesome one.

The engine simply refused to be competitive.

The engine simply refused to be competitive.

The cars qualified 14th (Cheever) and 18th (Patrese) in their first outing at Jacarepagua, Brazil. After 42 laps both cars were out. Cheever reported significant engine trouble, and Patrese had a violent flat tire that damaged the car badly on lap 20.

Portugal’s Estoril circuit saw Patrese qualify 13th and Cheever 14th, showing minimal improvement. Patrese spun his 185T on the 4th lap and stalled it, with Cheever lasting 36 laps until the 890T gave up the ghost.

Ricardo Patrese stepping out, 1985 San Marino Grand Pri

Ricardo Patrese stepping out, 1985 San Marino Grand Pri

The third round was the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. There Cheever remained on point with a 12th qualifying time, while Patrese slipped back into 18th. Again the drivers had to push like hell to keep up with the rest of the field. The long straights and fast flowing corners of Imola meant the underpowered Alfa's were at a serious disadvantage. For Patrese the incessant pushing resulted in a blown engine after just 4 laps. Cheever again outlasted him to have the engine explode on lap 50.

Eddie Cheever, 1985 Monaco Grand Prix.

Eddie Cheever, 1985 Monaco Grand Prix.

At Monaco, Eddie Cheever surprised everybody, himself included, by setting the 4th fastest time in qualifying. His amazing lap was less than three tenths of a second slower than polesitter Ayrton Senna in his vastly superior Lotus 97T. The clunky Alfa had received some updates, and seemed to be suited to low speed tracks where absolute power was much less important. An enthusiastic Cheever immediately gave rave reviews in the press about the updated car.

We have a new wing here, which is better than the old one, and the grip is good. Most of all though, we’re understanding more and more about the Bosch Motronic, and throttle response is excellent. I think we can run with just about anyone on power as well. I mean, the car is good all round right now - if it can finish.
— Eddie Cheever

Patrese also improved slightly, managing a 12th position on the grid. The results shone a positive light on Alfa Romeo, with plenty of press coverage. Eddie Cheever's miraculous performance in particular had the Italian squad in high hopes. Unfortunately the 890T hadn't been beaten into submission yet. After just ten laps the American was sidelined by a broken alternator.

Meanwhile, Ricardo Patrese was fighting for position with former Brabham team-mate Nelson Piquet. The pair had been nose to tail for a number of laps, with the superior BMW-power of the Brabham keeping Piquet close. On lap 17, Piquet moved to the inside of Patrese at St. Devote, looking for a pass. 

Patrese brutally shut the door on him and slammed the Brazilian into the guardrail. The Brabham bounced back into the Alfa, resulting in a spectacular fireball. Despite the hard blow and massive damage, the two were unharmed and respectfully shook hands by the side of the track.

At the Canadian Grand prix, the team was in for a shocking surprise. Qualifying yielded the same disappointing results with Cheever 11th and Patrese 13th. But on race day, a true miracle would take place. Powered only by their hopes and dreams, both Alfa's made it to the finish line. Ricardo Patrese managed to recover to 10th, while Eddie Cheever slumped to 17th. Event though the team had still failed to score points, the result was very encouraging.

On the grimey city streets of Detroit, the positive results would continue. The low speed street circuit was in the 185T's favour. The car's competitiveness on tight tracks was further demonstrated by Cheever, who clocked an impressive 7th time in qualifying. His team mate could get to 14th. Another race finish for Cheever saw him drop down to 9th, with Patrese out with electrical problems on lap 19.

Patrese leading Cheever, 1985 French Grand Prix.

Patrese leading Cheever, 1985 French Grand Prix.

At the French Grand Prix, Patrese and Cheever would qualify 16th and 17th respectively. The Paul Ricard track was ill-suited to asthmatic Alfa's, as it featured a terribly long straight. Because of the high amount of time spent at full throttle, the track was known as an engine killer. The 185T surprised again merely by making it to the finish on the tough track. Cheever lead the way in 10th, with Patrese following closely in 11th.

The dismal results had made Alfa Romeo reconsider the future of the 185T program. In a desperate move, the 184T chassis was brought back. The car's aero package was modified to 1985 standards, and renamed 184TB. The reworked machine was then given to Eddie Cheever for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone

The sheer lunacy of that decision became apparent in qualifying. Cheever was generally the faster of the two, but he suffered a dramatic setback to 22nd. Patrese in the newer car qualified 14th, a clear testament to Alfa Romeo that the 185T chassis was never the problem. On race day Eddie Cheever would retire after 17 laps with turbo failure. Ricardo Patrese recorded his second finish of the season, coming in 9th.

On the pit wall the crew was certainly miffed.

On the pit wall the crew was certainly miffed.

Despite the bad omen given by the 184TB's debut, Alfa Romeo decided to drop the 185T chassis entirely. The team finished the season with the 184TB, which somehow performed even worse. Every single race it entered ended in double retirements. After this embarrassing waste of time and money, Alfa Romeo decided to turn its back on Formula One for the second and final time.

The worst car I ever drove.
— Ricardo Patrese