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Fiasco Italo-Brittanico
Part 20: Final verdict on the March-Alfa Romeo 90CA

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Who?

Roberto Guerrero

What?

March-Alfa Romeo 90CA

Where?

Indianapolis, entry Turn 1

When?

1990 Indianapolis 500 (May 13, 1990, practice before start of qualifying)

Why?

Now why did the 90CA fail? A number of factors, all of them combined, were responsible for the fact that the 90CA failed so miserably.

However, one of the involved parties appears to be in the clear beyond reasonable doubt. Although Patrick Racing had almost started anew after the Penske/Ganassi take-over, the fresh start mainly concern hardware and facilities. The majority of the team members remained with the 'new' Patrick Racing. According to the Miller Genuine Draft Racing press kit the team had six newcomers joining 17 Patrick Racing veterans. Team manager Jim McGee and engineer Mo Nunn also stayed on, leaving the majority of the previous yearís champions still intact. During the summer the team was strengthened by the arrival of yet another respected name: chief mechanic Mike Hull. So although the team had to work from new facilities, its personal strength doesn't need to be doubted. The year before they regularly beat the Penske 'Panzers' on equal terms, so Patrick Racing was the least debatable component of the entire effort. This capable team was however saddled up with hardware that was simply not up to standard.

The loss of Fittipaldi was tough. But could he have made a difference? Was Roberto Guerrero the man for the job? In hindsight I find that difficult to answer. In 1990 there wasn't much to doubt about him. In his first four years at Indianapolis he finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 2nd, one of the best series of finishes a driver has achieved in his first four starts. And he had won other CART events already.

At the end of 1987 however, he had a terrible, near career-ending accident but he came back to the tracks in 1988. In hindsight, the accident was a turning point in his career. Roberto crashed in the first lap of the 1988 race and since the Alfa team failed to show up at Indianapolis in 1989, he missed the race that year. In 1990 he was still rated as a hotshoe and one of the best drivers in the CART series. So the choice of Guerrero as lead Alfa and thus Patrick Racingdriver seems, at least at the time, entirely defendable.

Signing Al Unser Sr for the second car was perhaps even smarter. Although Al had stopped doing full CART seasons his Indianapolis expertise was massive. Also, he was known to be a driver able to make the best out of the situation into and maximize beyond expectations. When Rick Mears was unable to continue the 1985 season because of injuries sustained in a massive in 1984, Al got the ride, having been the third Penske driver at Indianapolis first. He responded by getting into a title battle with son Al Jr. The title went to Dad.

In 1986 Al Sr was charged with developing the PC15 fitted with the brand new Ilmor-Chevrolet engine. Especially his input in the engine development was excellent, the chassis was a mess that even he couldnít really turned around.

Unneeded by Penske in 1987 Al still showed up at the Speedway, looking for a ride. Then Team Penske lost new recruit Danny Ongais after massively crashing an Ilmor-engined PC16. The PC16s were withdrawn and replaced with March-Ilmor 86Cs. There weren't enough Ilmors to go around to supply a third 86C so that kept its Cosworth, Al Sr was hired for this Penske insurance drive, and at the expense of Roberto Guerrero he won the race. Third driver for Team Penske in 1988, finishing third. Third Penske entry in 1989 but an early retirement, just like his team mates.

So Alís expertise as a development driver as well as his gift to maximize his equipment made him an excellent choice for Patrick Racing, if a bit undeserved for Al. At his age and in that phase of his career he didn't have the time to get involved with long-term projects that would need years to become successful. But Al didnít complain and did the best he could for Patrick.

The most questionable component appears to have been the chassis. The year before had been a rather false start with the project's March input receiving a big setback with the loss of designer Maurice Philippe. The transition from Capels to Patrick appeared to have gone fairly smoothly. Quite an achievement given the fact that Patrick Racing virtually had to start from scratch all over again.

Regrettably, the March engineers responsible for the Alfa Romeo project didnít make such a big a step as their rivals at Lola and Penske had done, and I dare to include the March-Porsche colleagues on that list was well. But since the March-Porsche 90P was of a entirely different design, letís not bring that car into the equasion. The 90CA had the most in common with the 1990 designs of Lola and Penske. The one thing March didnít do was adopting two wastegates for each bank of cylinders. Instead, a single wastegate was used, mounted near the turbo, compromising the rear end of the bonnet quite a bit. At this time I haven't found any evidence clearing up the question about who made the decision to use a single wastegate at that particular location. I suppose it was Alfa Romeo but Iím not sure. Anyway, given the aerodynamic consequences it was one of the worst decisions with regards to the car.

Aerodynamics were even more affected by shading the rear suspension components behind the bodywork instead of allowing the upper suspension wishbones being exposed to frontal view as had happened with the other 1990 chassis. On superspeedways in particular, some of the more drag-generating features of the car must have been killing the speeds. I haven't found any evidence of major redesigns of the chassis being proposed, let alone carried out. If March was fully supporting the effort with all its might I get the feeling it was been done so amidst a very big silence. I haven't found any media reports to that extent.

The March company itself was quite in turmoil during 1990. Within three or so years they lost some of the profitable markets for 'off-the-shelf' cars. There is more to tell about the factors causing the collapse of March but since I'm unfamiliar with March history I won't dive into that. Here, it suffices to know that not just the CART department was suffering but that the entire company was in big trouble, all of this affecting the CART department again as well. The March company as it was late 1988, early 1989 had become an entirely different company, including its CART department. Instead of building off-the-shelf racers with little to no serious competition March had to make a transition to works-supported projects with perhaps more research and engineering involved but on a much smaller scale production-wise. In hindsight, it wasn't given the time to successfully make that transition.

Then there is Alfa Romeo.

Nobody expected an engine builder announcing their plans to compete in CART less than two years before to come up with an instant winner. They had to find their way around and gain experience in a world of racing new to them. It had taken Cosworth and Ilmor time as well. Back in 1989 Alfa Romeo started with an underpowered engine and according to Johnny Capels they failed to reach the opposition's power outputs by the end of the 1989 season, despite all the efforts put in. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe that once the 1990 season started the Alfa V8 still wasnít on par with the other engines. Also, in the early months of 1990 the Alfa engines were said to be very unreliable which, it must be said, made it difficult to develop and improve the March chassis.

Alfa could be excused to some extent. But the fact that they were toying around with a Group C project (eventually turning out to be even more of a waste of efforts) indicates that there was no full 100% commitment to the CART project. The distraction certainly didnít help since Alfa Romeo had nothing to compare its progress with. The 90CA was so questionable that it was impossible to follow the curve of progress. The exclusive March deal could have been an asset if the car had been good or at least at the level of the Porsche-powered 89P. But since the 90CA chassis, in combination with the Alfa V8 at least, was a lemon the move to customer Lola chassis was a necessary one. The team did make some progress once they had a baseline to compare their engine with.

So who must be blamed for the failure of the 90CA?

Based on what I found in my research I think the blame must be shared. Alfa Romeo, despite their efforts and inventive thinking (to my knowledge no other CART engine builder ever tried a five-valve engine) they never reached a level of competitiveness that enabled them to fight it out with their opponents. Having mentioned the fivevalver I have my doubts whether this principle was such an advantage to begin with. It was something of a trend in F1 in the late 80s and early 90s but failed to succeed, leading to the principle being discarded a few years later. So what was supposed to be an advantage may well have been a handicap instead.

And then about March. The entire March organisation was in a big turmoil, not least because of the difficulties the CART department had run into in recent years. The transition from a producer of a fairly large number of off-the-shelf cars to a factory-supported partner (two different partners!) wasn't done quickly enough. But it canít be denied March was very unfortunate with both customers. The Porsche project appeared to take off and fulfil its promises but then that project was put back due to politics.

With the Alfa Romeo project, March had the misfortune of the assigned designer being lost prematurely, requiring a major restructuring at a time difficult enough as it was. Besides that, teaming up with Capels Racing in the first year appears, at first sight, not to have been the best possible choice. Now please don't read this as an attack on Capels/Morales, so allow me to explain. Capels Racing (initially Team Morales) was basically a team like many others in CART: running off-the-shelf equipment it had little recent background with major engineering and development of cars that were new and different compared to those used by the opposition. This was no disgrace. A number of teams with similar capabilities had performed quite respectably, Morales among them. In the world of CART Morales Racing had been well-organized and respected competitor.

The problem was, Alfa was unable to ask for a bigger, more renowned CART team to team up with. Most of these used the much coveted Ilmor/Chevrolet engine, the piece of hardware required for success. Alfa had to prove themselves first, and as such, Morales/Capels was a suitable stepping stone to larger things. But unlike Penske or Patrick the team lacked the required structure for being a major partner in a factory-supported effort. In short, Morales was a team with potential, experience and a decent reputation in CART but not yet powerful enough to come to the rescue as soon as March came up short. All of this led to a less than ideal start for the March-Alfa alliance. The initial setback even proved too big for a team like Patrick to get Alfa Romeo back on track with the 90CA. Given all of that, Capels Racing deserves kudos for getting things started for Alfa Romeo as they did.

Alfa Romeo didn't judge Capels Racing's input and efforts as insufficient either. When the 89CE was parked, becoming of little value other than museum duties, Johnny Capels got one of the two cars in appreciation for all of his efforts. How much more approval do you need?

From inside Patrick Racing, the comments I received about the 90CA were sad. Andy Gilberg from Marchives spoke crew member Larry Faust, Andy passing on the following details. Faust mentioned the Guerrero crash of May 14, and according to him, Roberto told the crew he never even noticed the rear wing collapsing and the loss in downforce since the engine hadn't gained any RPMs. Faust also recalled another detail. The cars had massive titanium wheel hubs with steel wheel nuts that would seize on and gall the titanium. Eventually the team found something of a miracle grease made in France. It was supplied in tiny tubes that cost about $400 each. That was the only thing that would allow them to get the wheels on and offÖ

Faustís general opinion of the car was that it was ugly and heavy. The cars also had badly fitting bodywork parts with sharp edges everywhere. The mechanics needed a toolbox full of cut-off wheels and grinders to work on the cars.

When Patrick Racing, Alfacorse and March started their joint venture, it was at a point from which the only way was up. Regrettably both partners supplying the two important hardware components didnít find the way up together, the weakness of one eliminating the chance to track down and improve on the weakness of the other. So, the March-Alfa Romeo 90CA was an adventure to forget for Patrick Racing and just about everyone involved with it.

A fiasco Italo-Brittanico indeed.