On This Day 100 Years Ago, Alfa Built the Bugatti-beating P2

Alfa Romeo

The Bugatti Type 35 may well hold the most wins of any race car in history, but it had to overcome one major obstacle along the way: the Alfa Romeo P2.

Vittorio Jano, recently poached from Fiat, was personally tasked by Alfa founder Nicola Romeo with its design.  “Listen,” Romeo said.  “I am not expecting you to make a car which will beat all others, but I’d like one which will make us look good, so that we can make an identity card for this factory, then later, when it has a name, we’ll make the car.”

It’s fair to say that Jano exceeded expectations. He began by assembling a two-liter straight-eight engine with a double crankcase design, fixed steel heads, and gear-driven twin camshafts. At Fiat, Jano had been an early adopter of the supercharger so he added a Roots-type blower, complete with a pioneering intercooler. At 5500 rpm Jano’s engine produced 140 horsepower.

The P2’s chassis didn’t break any new ground with its traditional ladder frame, but the elongated tail aided aerodynamics and the staggered two-seater layout gave the driver a little more elbow room to twirl the big steering wheel.

The first P2 was completed on June 2, 1924, and driven immediately by Giuseppe Campari and Alberto Ascari, even before it was painted in Alfa’s trademark racing red. A week later it lined up at the Circuito di Cremona for its first true test over five laps of the 40-mile road course. Ascari took the checkered flag almost a minute ahead of his nearest rival, Alete Marconcini, in the Chiribiri 12/16, with Roberto Malinervi’s Bugatti T22 in third.

At Lyons, just a few weeks later, Bugatti brought five of its new Type 35s to attempt to steal Alfa’s thunder. It was not to be. Campari stormed to victory after five hours of hard racing, with the first of the Bugattis, driven by Jean Chassagne, a distant seventh place.

With a third win at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Alfa Romeo confirmed the P2’s pace. In the 1925 season it won two of the four rounds of the first-ever World Championship for Grand Prix Cars, securing the title for Alfa Romeo.

The dominance was short-lived, however, as a new rule for 1926 saw a change of engine displacement to 1.5 liters, favoring Bugatti. The P2 battled on in other categories and, in 1930, secured its most memorable success at the Targa Florio.

Achille Varzi somehow managed to complete the grueling 335-mile event around Sicily in six hours and 55 minutes, despite suffering from a fuel problem that could not only have ended his race but also his life. A broken bracket holding the spare wheel caused the fuel tank to leak. On the last lap of the 67-mile road layout, his mechanic attempted to add more gas to the tank while the Alfa sped on. It spilled onto the hot exhaust and immediately ignited. The mechanic tore out his seat cushion and frantically beat at the flames as they crossed the finish line. Louis Chiron’s Bugatti Type 35 B was almost two minutes behind. Another one-in-the-eye for Alfa’s rival, just before the P2 was retired from service.

Alfa Romeo P2 1924
Alfa Romeo


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