Featured: Italy's Greatest Touring Car: Experiencing The Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI DTM High In The Swiss Alps

Italy’s Greatest Touring Car: Experiencing The Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI DTM High In The Swiss Alps

By Virgiliu Andone
October 1, 2021
1 comments

Photography by Virgiliu Andone

 

An Italian racing engine spinning at 12,000rpm will sound pretty damn good just about anywhere, but it’s especially sweet when that wailing soundtrack is bouncing between cliffs and mountain tops high in the Swiss Alps. Better still when it’s packaged in thin-gauge steel and carbon fiber bodywork wearing the colors of Martini Racing and sporting a Biscione on its nose.

Like many of the great touring cars, the Alfa Romeo 155 V6 TI DTM is only superficially related to the road car it shares a model designation with. Barring the car’s aerodynamically ambitious valences and biplane wing, its profile is a match for its mass-produced relative. Underneath the skin it’s a very different story. And the skin itself is made of considerably more carbon fiber than you might think.

This car was the Italian response to the Germans loosening the regulations for the DTM for the 1993 season. The championship up to that point had been defined by the battle between the big three German manufacturers, but it would be Alfa Romeo leading the world’s preeminent touring car series into a new era. The 155 V6 TI DTM became the first ground-up factory effort to take advantage of the new regulations during the 1993 season, and with the main competition coming from Mercedes-Benz-backed teams running updated versions of their older 190Es, Alfa Romeo dominated the championship, taking the manufacturers’ title and leading Alfa Corse driver Nicola Larini to the drivers’. The 155’s season—a debut, no less—remains the most successful of any car in the history of the DTM. It’s a carbon-clad, box-bodied piece of high technology, and any chance to see and hear one of these monsters in motion is worth it. Feeling quite spoiled, I recently got to have such an experience amongst the clouds and snow capped peaks above St. Moritz.

As an Alfista, I’ve gotten happily accustomed to the presence of some of the most iconic creations from the brand I love at the Bernina Gran Turismo. Surrounded by the towering topography of the Alps, their sounds are amplified into something beyond a beautiful exhaust note, as if a whole field of the same car was responsible for the full-bodied output. Between the deep thrums and roars of pre-war 8Cs and 6Cs to the unmistakable screams of the Bialbero twin-cam four at redline—in its myriad iterations—it’s odd that the other immensely loved and proliferous Alfa Romeo engine is often missing from this group. The “Busso,” that growling V6 that motivated so many of the performance-oriented versions of the Milanese brand—from the GTV6 to the 75, from the cubist SZ to the urbane 164.

In some wonderfully karmic compensation for this absence, this year we got to experience what is arguably the highest expression of the venerable V6, as delivered by its most ambitious of installations, the spectacularly successful Alfa Corse entry into the DTM. The lump fitted to this car is basically a different species than the Bussos that are typically talked about, but at the core of its design is a 2.5-liter 60-degree V6 engine block developed from the road car. “Developed” in this case meant tearing off everything else and rebuilding it with the highest performance in mind.

And perform it did, powering the four-wheel drive Alfa to 12 wins out of 20 races in the season. From 1993 until the 155’s final season in the DTM (1996), the engine and the rest of  car were tweaked and upgraded, eventually seeing a new engine based on the Peugeot/ Renault/Volvo, or “PRV,” V6 for the last season. The 155 never reached the heights of its debut in 1993, but every iteration is remarkable to behold in 2021.

It’s hard to believe your eyes when you’re standing next to what is such a precious but still under-appreciated Alfa Romeo racing cars. It’s weird mix of familiar sedan and blank-check motorsport weapon keeps a crowd around it at all times. It’s a fascinating example of this touring car juxtaposition, and in my eyes it’s even more iconic than the E30 M3 of the preceding era. To the more encyclopedic fans of Alfa and the DTM, this 1995-spec car should look wrong. The reason is that it looks like the team’s 1996 car, as the Martini sponsorship only took effect for the 1996 season. And, as a 1996 car, it would have the PRV-derived engine, not the Busso-derived one.

As such, when the 155 into the garage on the first evening of the Gran Turismo weekend with its Martini stripes highlighted by the fluorescents, my hopes for experiencing some Busso nirvana were not very high. But there was an intriguing detail that gave me pause. The car wore the names of both Nicola Larini and Alessandro Nannini, the Alfa Corse DTM pilots at the time—one on each side. All was not what it seemed. Usually they would each have their own car.

Further research and a chat with Ronnie Kessel, whose company Kessel Classics fielded this entry, filled me in on the history of this unique car. In fact, it is a 1995-spec DTM entry, raced by Nicola Larini for three races. It took the pole position in Magny-Cours, while racing in the red and white Alfa Corse livery. It was later painted in the Martini livery to announce the partnership for the following year, hence the presence of both drivers’ names—it was basically last year’s car painted to look like its successor. This is of course meaningless to most people, but it’s a cool bit of trivia for people like me who can’t learn enough about these things. Given the fact that a lot of the parts of the 155 TI were sourced for the Lancia Delta HF Integrale program, including its all-important four-wheel drive system, I always thought the 1996 Martini livery—a livery that is more associated with the Fiat group’s rally-winning Lancias—was a cool way of showcasing the scope of the relationship between the Fiat brands and Martini Racing, which were often headed up by the same groups of people.

Although the 155 V6 TI (Turismo Internazionale) looks very much like a 155, the more you look at it up close, the more you realize there is not much of the production car left besides a visual echo. The DTM version has a tubular chassis with an intricate trellis frame construction, long suspension arms, and a longitudinally mounted engine (to support the four-wheel drive system). It has a Busso block, but in all honesty that’s really where the similarities with the production V6 end, this one being more than happy to rev near the 12k mark, so it’s much more like a Formula 1 power unit of the times, just as all the DTM competitors of the period would become during those years of big dreams and big spending. It’s largely carbon fiber bodywork is wafer thin, wider, lower and positively pockmarked with aero features. This was the first touring car to really blur the lines between production and prototype, and it performs like a weapon. This is a very dangerous car to drive on the narrow Bernina Pass at speed, its steep limits matched by its thin margin for error.

The tires need a lot of heat to grip and take advantage of the downforce, and at well over 400hp of output mainly being sent to the rear slicks, it’s tricky to maneuver through lower speed corners. But then again, the fact that it weighs just over a ton makes low speeds easily rectified given enough runway. It was never intended for mountainside hairpins, but Ronnie Kessel is no stranger to taking all kinds of surreal machinery up this course over the years, including some vintage Formula 1 cars.

He was feverishly weaving on the way down the hill, trying to get some heat in the tires, much to the dismay of all the photographers that tried to catch him in a long exposure panning shot. On the other hand, that was really the only way this car could have made it safely to the starting line, so—much like Ronnie behind the wheel—we had to up our games (read: shutter speeds). The tentative pace on the way down the pass was contrasted by a bat-out-of-hell surge up the mountain during his timed runs, with the car coming to life with a wail that would wake the dead. Its brazen livery looked out of place without sponsor-laden tire walls and grandstands in the background, and this unique combination of car and location was a spectacle that I think would give goosebumps to Larini and Nanini themselves if they were to witness it. As if things were not already crazy enough, the guys at Kessel Classics had the idea to attach some smoke rockets to the diffuser, you know, for a bit of drama. The outcome was a bunch of briefly heart-sunken Alfisti perched in the hillsides, assuming the worst. Maybe that was the joke all along?

We often associate older racing cars with historic moments of their heydays, in memories  experienced either first or secondhand, but sometimes, on special occasions, we can add a contemporary moment to the greatest hits from a bygone time. I can’t think of a better example of this than seeing this car on public roads in the Alps. Sure, the 155 V6 TI didn’t have to fend off the powerful Mercedes-Benz challengers of its competitive years, but the feeling of seeing it making its way up the Bernina Pass, on the edge of unforgiving cliffs and amidst unrivaled natural beauty, is in my eyes at least as captivating as seeing it in action so many years ago. It created an unique moment, a celebration of heritage the Busso in its most radical iteration, and the audacity of the Italian team that not just dared to take on the almighty Germans at their own game, but also the competence to take the title on their first attempt. But even if you couldn’t give half of a rat’s right butt cheek about DTM history and which liveries belonged to which seasons, just look at this thing. And if you ever get a chance to hear it, take it.

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