Knocked Out - 1990 Alba AR20 Subaru
In 1982, the Federation Internationale Automobile rolled out a completely new set of technical regulations meant to streamline virtually all areas of the world of motorsport. Previously the governing body had used a confusing mess of designations, which lead to Groups 1-6 being given an entirely new meaning every five or so years.
Now though, the FIA focused on bringing their nomenclature and regulation up to speed for the 1980’s. Instead of the chaotic numbers-based system, a clear and simple range of classes based on the alphabet was instated. Group A covered touring car racing and second-tier rallying, Group B top level rallying and GT-racing, and Group C was reserved for the fastest of the bunch: closed top endurance racing prototypes.
Group C was a reaction to the changing times of the late 1970’s, when oil crises and economic meltdowns had severely hurt the sport. Around the same time, the sport saw the rise of the turbocharger, which held the capability to produce truly insane power levels on a whim.
In response to these developments, the FIA decided to deal with both issues in one fell swoop by instating a maximum fuel limit. Each team would be restricted to five refueling stops for each 1000 km race. In essence, this boiled down to 600 liters of fuel for each standard event. For longer races like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, provisions were made to increase the maximum allowable amount of stops accordingly.
On the one hand this made the series appear to be more socially conscious, and on the other it prevented cars with turbocharged engines from dominating the races. The relatively easy way in which turbo engines could produce more power made the FIA wary of the possibility of special qualifying engines which would effortlessly overpower traditional naturally aspirated units.
Secondly, cars with turbo power had the ability to simply turn up the boost whenever a competitor came to close, making the racing seem unfair. Rather than ban the turbo engines outright, the fuel stop limit was deemed the more political and less disruptive option which would level the playing field. With the rules in place, a large naturally aspirated motor could compete with small displacement turbo engines on relatively equal terms.
At its introduction in 1982, the new category was received with open arms by manufacturers and racing fans alike. The innovative equalization formula had worked wonderfully, leading to numerous tough battles on track. Ford, Porsche and Lancia fielded factory teams, and Cosworth, Aston Martin, Peugeot, BMW were represented as engine suppliers.
The inaugural season proved so successful that the FIA instigated the creation of a lower C Junior category for 1983. With the front running cars getting ever more complex and budgets rising into the stratosphere, C Junior was created as a refuge for privateer outfits with much less money to spend. One such team was Italian squad Alba Engineering.
Alba Engineering was founded by Giorgio Stirano just before the roll-out of Group C in 1982. Stirano had started his love affair with motorsport as a rally co-driver and racing columnist while in university, and later found employment with Italian firm Osella in 1974.
Eventually, he moved with Osella to Formula One as chief engineer in 1980. Horrible results during the team’s first two season lead to Stirano being let go however, and he decided to set up his very own automotive design company instead.
Fortunately a call came from Italian racers Carlo Facetti and Martino Finotto, who needed a car to compete in the new C Junior category. Stirano agreed, but could not provide them with an engine. Facetti then designed and built the 1.8L turbocharged four cylinder CARMA (Carlo and Martino) engine which produced 410 horsepower.
To comply with regulations forbidding the use of engines not linked to an established manufacturer, the CARMA had to be renamed. The team struck a deal with Italian automaker Giannini Automobile to use their name and avoid a ban. Despite strong competition in the new C Junior category, including a seemingly misplaced factory effort from Mazda, Alba and CARMA managed to reel in the first two Group C Junior titles.
Following the incredible successes of 1983, Alba diversified by designing their next series of cars to be able to run in both the renamed Group C2, and the American IMSA Lights category. With very different engines used in IMSA, Alba’s cars were propelled by Chevrolet, Ferrari, Cosworth, Mazda and Buick powerplants of a wildly varying composition.
Unfortunately, the team was never able to replicate their early successes. Although new, more refined designs were brought out virtually every year, the good results stayed away. Models AR4-6 were all deemed failures on both sides of the Atlantic, as top 10 finishes became increasingly scarce. The AR6 introduced in 1986 seemed to be the final Alba for a long time, until a radical change forced Giorgio Stirano to dust off his pens once more.
As Group C evolved over the years, it became incredibly popular. By the end of the decade the World Sportscar Championship could count on factory efforts from Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan, Lancia and Aston Martin in C1 alone joined by countless privateers in both classes.
The grids were enormous, the cars spectacular to watch and the noises incredibly varied. As a result, the WSC’s share of the market had become so large it was starting to threaten the very pinnacle of motorsport: Formula One. To the average racing enthusiast this wasn’t a problem, as he now had two exciting championships to look forward to.
But for one Bernard Ecclestone, it was a right nuisance. To combat the issue, Ecclestone contacted his good friend Max Mosley, who had become a high ranking official in the FIA. Together they forged a plan to kill the WSC, and draw the many manufacturers active in it to Formula One instead. With this in mind Ecclestone orchestrated the introduction of a unified 3.5L naturally aspirated engine formula, which was identical to the one used in Formula One since 1989.
This would not only force the top car companies to build Formula One engines, but would also spell the death knell to the smaller teams, who couldn’t possibly afford to lease let alone built the much more expensive F1-units. Ecclestone had already developed a personal hatred for the lack of professionalism of privateers when F1’s 1989 engine switch had opened the door for a motley crew of underfunded teams. Motivated by this hatred, he finished them off by dissolving the C2 category altogether, citing “reliability problems” as the cause.
Naturally, the FIA’s drastic changes caused mayhem in the World Sportscar Championship. Just as Bernie had planned, almost all C2 teams decided to leave the series after the 1989 season. Unexpectedly though, C1-team Porsche did the same, claiming it had no interest in developing a 3.5L car. More C1 competitors complained about the sudden nature of the rule changes, and the FIA eventually agreed to allow postpone the formula for one more year to allow the manufacturers time to develop new machinery.
For a select few private teams though, the battle would only just begin. Helped by the reasonably cheap Ford-Cosworth DFR V8, British team Spice Engineering lead the way for private 3.5L designs, and area which would later be filled by wid-eyed entrepreneurs from Norma Auto Concept, Konrad Motorsport, Brun Motorsport, and the BRM and Allard revivals. Giorgio Stirano found himself among these stubborn mavericks, and decided to design a new car to comply with the 3.5L rules.
Of course, his biggest problem would be finding a suitable engine. The Cosworth DFR was always a good and sensible option, but Stirano opted for a decidedly more Italian approach. Instead of taking the quick and easy route, he reached out to former Alfa Romeo engineer and engine guru Carlo Chiti.
Chiti had only recently founded Motori Moderni, the firm responsible for the turbocharged V6 engine with which future people’s champion Minardi made their debut in Formula One in 1985. When the new engine rules became known to him, Chiti designed a 3.5L V12 in a bid to a small team in need of a good motor.
This however, did not happen. Instead he was approached by Japanese automaker Subaru, who wanted to take advantage of the new engine situation. Subaru was impressed by the Motori Moderni V12, but requested a small change. To make the engine fall in line with their road car products, it needed to be a boxer. Carlo Chiti enthusiastically complied, and the Subaru/Motori Moderni 1235 was born.
Subaru had not forbidden Carlo Chiti from reselling his engine to third parties, which enabled Stirano to secure one for his new sportscar project. On the face of it the new AR20 resembled its predecessors, and offered little more than a conventional aluminium monocoque chassis suspended on double wishbones. Underneath though, the car was built around the impossibly wide boxer engine. However, it quickly became clear the 1235 was offering far more disadvantages than benefits.
Although the wide layout gave an incredibly low center of gravity, it also interfered with the ground effect tunnels in the AR20’s floor. The massive cylinder heads protruded into the space normally reserved for the tunnels, with the downward-facing exhausts further complicating things. This hadn’t been a problem in the flat-bottomed Coloni F1-car, but was very badly affecting the Alba’s ability to produce downforce.
Even worse for the new car’s potential was the big twelve’s huge weight and appalling lack of performance. In its most aggressive setting on the Grand Prix circuit, the Subaru barely managed to crest 560 horsepower, while at the same time weighing 169 kg (351 lb). This was some 40 less than the Cosworth engine in the Spice, which left the overweight and underpowered AR20 completely for dead.
Undeterred by the dismal characteristics of the Subaru engine, Stirano entered it under the Alba Formula Team banner into the recently renamed World Sports Prototype Championship. Touring car driver Marco Brand (ITA) and former Jaguar, Sauber-Mercedes and Nissan works driver Gianfranco Brancatelli (ITA) were given the honor of racing the ticking time-bomb.
What followed surprised only Giorgio Stirano. The AR20 turned out to be so willfully slow it could only just come within half a minute of the pole position time set of 1:48.716 by the Toyota 90C-V of Geoff Lees (GB) and Hitoshi Ogawa (JAP) at the first event of the season, the 480 KM of Suzuka. A stupefying 2:15.538 was all the Alba could do.
At Monza, the much less experienced Fabio Manzini (ITA) took over from Brancatelli, resulting in another dreadful DNQ with a time of 1:49.27, some 20 seconds slower than Mauro Baldi (ITA) and Jean-Louis Schlesser (FRA) in the Sauber C11.
At Silverstone Marco Brand went out alone, but his 1:29.846 didn’t stack up all too well against the 1:12.073 of Baldi/Schlesser, and he again failed to qualify. As if by a miracle, Brand and Mancini were allowed a spot on the grid at Spa Francorchamps, despite being 24 seconds of the pace of the leaders.
But the Subaru wasn’t quite done yet. As the team prepared the car for its very first race start, the engine unceremoniously blew itself to pieces. This turned out to be the final straw for Giorgio Stirano, who ditched the atrocious flat monster in favor of a slightly more reliable 4.5L Buick V6.
The Alba AR20 was the result of one man’s stubborn ambition to refuse to budge under the wildly irresponsible rule changes introduced by a hijacked FIA. Under the nefarious influence of Bernie Ecclestone, the governing body went on a mission to search and destroy everything that had made Group C great.
As a result Giorgio Stirano’s fledgling Alba operation was caught in the crossfire, and tried its darnedest to survive. A seemingly ingenious link to Carlo Chiti’s Motori Moderni and the at the time promising Subaru F1 project appeared to be his best bet, but Stirano rapidly found out he’d been dealt a bad hand.
Just as the Coloni team was becoming the laughing stock of the F1-paddock with comically slow laps and an unrelenting stream of breakdowns, his Alba AR20 set records for the biggest gap between first and last place in qualifying. It took Giorgio four abysmal DNQ’s to realize what he was dealing with, but the damage had been done.
Alba left the WSPC for good at the end of 1990, and enjoyed a limited presence in IMSA Lights until 1993. That year, the full effects of Ecclestone’s schemes were revealed, as the World Sports Prototype Championship was cancelled in its entirety due to rising costs and a lack of entrants. In the years that followed, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Porsche, Toyota and Jaguar would all join Formula One.