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Fiasco Italo-Brittanico
Part 8: 1989 - Trying times during Alfa Romeo's CART rookie season



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March-Alfa Romeo 89CE


Museo Alfa Romeo, Arese, Italy


Since the Alfa team was going to debut its car on a street circuit, tests were organized on a venue that came close to such a track. While the other CART teams were busy at Indianapolis, the Alfa team went to the road track of Grattan, Michigan in late May. The team remained in Michigan for an oval test shortly thereafter.

But before the March-Alfa Romeo 89CE made its racing debut, the team was hit by yet another setback. This one, however, was a real tragedy. Designer Maurice Philippe died under very suspicious conditions and never saw his final brainchild race even once, let alone make quite a debut in Mo'town Detroit.

Capels Motorsports ran the car, numbered 21, without obvious sponsorship. The red car only wore Alfa Romeo and March decals in addition to a few parts-supplying sponsors but it had no title sponsor. The engine cover featured a large decal for the Garrett turbochargers being used. Studying pictures of the car shows it as being a long and relatively low car, fairly elegant and smooth.

Part of the agreement was that Alfa paid the bills for the project, making a title sponsor unnecessary. Not entirely new for a partner within the FIAT alliance to run unsponsored cars in their first year in a new formula. Back in 1979 and 1980 when Lancia participated in the World Championship for makes with the Gp5 Beta Monte Carlo Turbo, their cars carried no title sponsorship either. The lone exception was the Alitalia sponsorship on the cars that ran the 1979 Giro d'Italia.

For its debut race Guerrero had qualified back in the field but at the end of the race he was still running to score an impressive 8th place. Talk about a promising debut!

Promising as it was, it must be pointed out that the race itself was one of attrition. Only twelve cars made it to the end, all survivors scoring points. Nevertheless, Guererro was lapped only once by the winners so it wasn’t just a matter of surviving to save at least a bit of grace.

Regrettably, this was to be the highpoint of the entire season for Alfacorse-Capels Racing. The team made some headlines again in Toronto when Guerrero had been an early retirement and safely abandoned his car. It had not been taken away in time, however, and four laps later Mario Andretti, while trying to overtake (of all cars…) the March-Porsche of Teo Fabi, crashed into the parked Alfa, virtually destroying the Alfa and his own car, fortunately without serious injuries for Mario.

The team had not been angry at Mario, there was more anger felt at the chief steward of the course. The Alfa team wanted a full-course yellow to get the car out of the potentially dangerous location it was stranded in. They didn’t get that yellow and their fear of what could possibly happen did come true.

Although the car was seriously damaged, it was nonetheless rebuilt in a week's time time before going back in rotation again.

The team had only two cars but these differed slightly. One of the cars had some underneath tub modifications that weren't made on the other car. This modified car was the one that was used most often in races.

During the season, March made it known to Alfa Romeo that a replacement for Maurice Philippe would be found. Names mentioned for the job were Mo Nunn (at that time chief engineer at Pat Patrick Racing and very successful that year) and Tony Cicale, who worked on the March-Porsche project. Alfa Romeo designer Lombardi told the press that Philippe's death was sad and a big loss for the Alfa CART project. Still he kept faith in March solving the problems. John Baldwin was the eventual replacement for the lamented Maurice Philippe.

Then there was mention in the Italian press that Alfa would enter a second car for the season finale at Laguna Seca, driven by Nicola Larini, but eventually this never happened.

At Mid Ohio, the same race that saw Porsche win its first CART race, Alfa achieved its second (and last) point score of the season when Roberto finished 12th, picking up the final point.

Roberto felt this race was his best one of the season, despite finishing lower than earlier in the season at Detroit. But Guerrero knew all too well that his 8th place at Detroit was the result of attrition while the Mid-Ohio race had been a real race.

A little known fact about the 1989 season is that Roberto didn’t just race 89CEs that year. In the second-to-last race of the year at Nazareth the second car the team had brought along was no 89CE. Instead they brought the engine-development chassis 88C-009. According to team manager Johnny Capels this was the only occasion the 88C went through technical inspection during an CART event that year.

When the primary 89CE developed engine problems the 88C was pushed into action. Given the fact that the hybrid 88C was known to be a slightly better car, it could have been a blessing in disguise for Roberto. But fate intervened yet again. Right on the first lap Mario Andretti, who had started 9th, was anxious to gain positions but in doing so collided with his cousin John Andretti, who went into the wall and took Didier Theys and Roberto Guerrero with him.

So here is a very odd fact about the entire Alfa Romeo CART project. Though it is generally assumed that four different types of Alfa Romeo-powered cars were used in competition, there were actually five different chassis, the fifth one being a March 88C. But it was only raced once and even in that particular event it never completed a full lap…

The trusty 88C-009 was damaged beyond repair and never rebuilt for active duty though eventually it was built up again as a show car.

Added in September 2017:
But it looks as if there is evidence available on the Internet that 'muletta' 88C-009 made at least one other appearance during the season, at Elkhart Lake on the Road America circuit. Searching I found a folder of pictures taken during the CART event at Road America in 1989, and in one picture an Alfacorse car appears. Close inspection of the front suspension in particular, however, excludes any of the two 89CEs. So we must be almost certainly dealing with the 88C-009 muletta. Now, if this is a practice session or an actual race is unclear. Regrettably, I don't have access to records with actual chassis numbers used in that year's events to confirm whether this is either a race or a practice/qualifying session picture.

The season came to a close for Alfa Romeo at Laguna Seca where Guerrero spun off the track.

Looking back on the season, the results for Alfa Romeo weren't that good. The car was never competitive though it did finish on a few occasions. It suffered some reliability problems but that in itself was no shame for a new engine, although there are publications expressing the Alfa Romeo people's enthusiasm for the CART series and the ambiance.

When asked about the progress the team had made during the season, Johnny Capels informed us that the car made progress to a certain point but from there on stalled. The engine development kept going on all-out to the extent that so many new parts were tried that the entire program began to suffer from reliability problems as a result, thus affecting the race results. Capels did confess that the pace and progress made was different then he was used to. Capels also recalled that Alfa Romeo had not been very satisfied with the progress his team had made.

Here is an overview of the results during the 1989 CART season. The following abbreviations were used in the table below:

date: Date of event held, written in European style (day/month)
CT: Chassis type
C#: Chassis number, if known
S: Starting position on the grid
speed: Qualifying speed
F: Finish result
laps: Number of laps driven in the race
status: Reason of retirement, running at the finish or average race speed when full distance was covered
pts: Points tally in the 1989 CART PPG Championship

date track driver C# S R1 speed F laps status pts
18/6 Detroit Guerrero 89CE 22 82.855 8 61 Running 5
25/6 Portland Guerrero 89CE 23 112.489 23 26 Fuel injection
2/7 Cleveland Guerrero 89CE 21 130.151 13 76 Running
16/7 Meadowlands Guerrero 89CE 27 106.932 22 70 Suspension
23/7 Toronto Guerrero 89CE 19 102.489 28 4 Oil leak
6/8 Michigan Guerrero 89CE 27 210.440 22 99 Engine
20/8 Pocono Guerrero 89CE 22 194.767 16 185 Running
3/9 Mid-Ohio Guerrero 89CE 16 107.364 12 81 Running 1
10/9 Elkhart Lake Guerrero 89CE 20 121.229 21 17 Clutch
24/9 Nazareth Guerrero 88C 009 16 158.737 20 0 Contact
15/10 Laguna Seca Guerrero 89CE 21 104.158 25 23 Off course

Despite the fact that Alfa Romeo had been pleased with the cooperation with Capels Racing, March suggested to Alfa Romeo they should go to Pat Patrick Racing as this was a team with more potential. (The fact that Patrick had announced his retirement, and the team continuing under the guidance of Chip Ganassi was obviously not seen as a problem. Or was March thinking about teaming up with whatever shape the ’89 Patrick Racing team continued into 1990?)

After the Mid-Ohio race, March officially informed Johnny Capels that it, along with Alfa Romeo, wasn't going to continue with Capels Racing into the next season. But the separation with Alfa was on good terms. Johnny Capels fully understood what was happening and accepted the consequences. He had, however, no plans to get out of racing and made plans for the following season.

Putting the pieces together

During the final part of the season the first advances were made between Alfa Romeo and Patrick Racing. According to a prominent team member at Patrick Racing, their people were never told about the Ganassi takeover, and by the time the race at Nazareth took place he was informed about the team lining up with Alfa Romeo. He was unsure when and why Ganassi and Patrick decided to go their own way. As to why Patrick came back on his decision to retire, he told us that he had a sense that it just happened because of the team being so successful that year and then with the bonus of a factory deal coming up, including the financial commitment by Alfa that came with it.

Meanwhile, in the middle of December a CART board meeting was held that led to some major changes on the board. During a voting procedure the then current president John Caponigro was forced to retire from his position. Johnny Capels attended that meeting as well and after Capronigro was voted off he was offered, much to his surprise, the job of President and Chief Operating Officer of CART. After consulting several people and considering the employees of his team who had chosen to stay with him, Capels eventually accepted the job and ended his activities as a team owner. Before closing up his team, however, he assisted his employees to find new jobs within the racing world. But as we shall see later on, Johnny Capels was able to make some final contributions to the March-Alfa program of 1990.

Meanwhile within the Pat Patrick camp, the Ganassi take-over meant that Patrick had lost his workshop as well as one of the 24 CART franchises. Ironically, one of the founders of CART now had to participate without one of the franchises and all the related benefits such as a vote within the CART board. But Patrick took up the challenge and created a new Patrick Racing, succeeding in retaining a number of his key employees to take on a new challenge. Roberto Guerrero, who had a three-year contract with Alfa Romeo, came along to take the vacancy left by the departing Fittipaldi.

The jigsaw that would shape up the events of 1990 was just about complete.