GALLERY: Go Behind The Scenes On Our Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Film Shoot
Gather up a handful of some choice racing cars along with a trio of top drivers who brought them to the podiums in the period and you’re bound to have a good day at the track. If those cars happen to be a trio of Alfa Romeo Tipo 33s, the drivers have the last names of Bell, Merzario, and Galli, and it’s all going down at speed on the same track these cars were developed on decades ago? There’s really no room for improvement if you’re a cross and serpent devotee.
We’ve covered the progression of Alfa Romeo’s Tipo 33 line of racing cars before, accompanied by a look at the avant garde concept cars that were spawned from the Stradale chassis, but this day was as about the drivers as their machines. To hear them talking about the cars and the corners with the kind of zeal and joy that belong to great drivers with nothing left to prove is a refreshing change of pace to having a collector parrot the history that they weren’t ever really a part of. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to be sure.
Derek Bell even goes as far as to compare the wonderfully distended and cambered turn at the Balocco Proving Grounds first to the banks of Indianapolis before musing on the infamous Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps—and that’s coming from someone with definitive experience in the art of going bloody quick in slab-sided race cars. You don’t win five times at Le Mans and three times at Daytona without gaining some perspective on what speed really means. Considering the 33TT12 dominated the 1975 season of the WSC by winning seven out of the eight races on the calendar as well as an overall win at that year’s Targa Florio, it’s not like he’s praising the car for the sake of it. The TT12 variant of the Tipo 33 was an incredibly successful machine once it had a few years of development time, and it certainly doesn’t need any résumé padding.
Bell’s high regard for the car is accompanied by Merzario’s fondness for it, and he recalls first driving the prototypes of the TT12 in period and on this very circuit. He remembers that same section of banking too; the “huge curve in the back” he says on this day, gesturing airily over his shoulder as he leans on the near-vertical side of the Alfa with his name painted on the door. Along with his fellow factory drivers, he brought the car across the 300km/h mark at Balocco as they worked with the engineers and team managers to develop the budding champion, testing their own mettle along the way.
The 1970s and ‘80s were a sweet spot in the history of motorsport, a time when racing technology developed at a far quicker clip than today’s incremental advantages squeezed out of data wrangling and processing power, yet their pilots still had to take a glove off the wheel to change gears manually. In other words, cars like this one represent the height of analog racing when the limits were defined by the gumption of the men in the middle of these oversized go-karts rather than a bundle of algorithms devoted to traction control. Merzario sums up the era with a succinct but telling quip: “So what is the difference between then and today? Today we have guardrails, back then we had pine trees…”
In contrast, the 33/2 driven by Nanni Galli in the late-‘60s was far more curvaceous and traditionally good-looking, but it would be a mistake to think of it as a pretty face with nothing behind the eyes. Packing just 1995cc of displacement in its mid-mounted V8, it produced well over 100 horsepower per liter and it was victorious in its class at both Le Mans and Daytona.
Of course the cars are only part of the equation, and the trio of ex-racers are the ones that really bring the gravitas and context to the history they wrote with their sports prototypes, which deserve to have their stories told by those who were not only “there,” but in the cockpits. They are clearly delighted to be in each others’ company—surely the presence of three 33s didn’t diminish the atmosphere of rosy memory—but there is some sadness attached. For the same reason they’re happy to relive these moments together, there is the alternative scenario wherein their friends didn’t live past their thirties. These were trailblazing machines, driven by the people who weren’t afraid of finding out how fast they’d go.