“Balocco,” intones the Italian narrator, letting the name linger. “A peaceful village of 250 people, hidden among the vast rice fields of the Vercelli area.” And it does appear peaceful. All is calm as the viewer is taken on a monochrome tour of this agricultural commune an hour east of Turin. The voiceover deferentially drops out for these idyllic moments.
Alas, it’s a ruse. One perpetrated by the devils in marketing at Alfa Romeo. Now the camera cuts to the glassfibre form of a TZ2, stationary as its test driver repeatedly runs the car’s twin-cam four to the redline like a psychopath. A dog runs for cover. A clergyman quickens his step. An engineer watches on with the hint of a smirk. The TZ takes off and a step-nose Giulia GTA gives chase. Mayhem has arrived in Balocco.
The short promo-documentary that ensues isn’t simply a dream-like vision for Alfisti (and who isn’t just a little bit Alfisti?). Made in 1966, a year after the first Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA was born, it’s six minutes of behind-the-scenes action from the most fruitful chapter in Alfa’s post-war story. A chapter of road racers. Of “the family car that wins races”, as the tagline went. The footage is also, in some small way, why photographer Max Edleston and I are haring through the Alps in the cold darkness, itinerary a-tatter. We’re headed for Balocco in our own Giulia road racer, but it isn’t going quite as slickly as the film.
Back in 1966, our narrator (his detached delivery in stark contrast to the antics of the TZ and Giulia, which are being driven onto their chrome door handles, in very close proximity and with lots of oversteer) says Balocco is the site of a new test ground for Alfa Romeo, one of the most “complete” in Europe. Here, the brand’s all-conquering racers are being honed, with insights then trickling into showroom products.
The Balocco we’re racing towards tonight is a different place, and not just because today it now has plenty of reassuring Armco and is flooded with crossovers. Since the 1960s, the site has gone from two tracks and 500 acres to 27 tracks and 1160 acres, with gravel roads, pavings, a high-speed bowl, salty fords, low-friction tracks, steering pads and the epic 13-mile Langhe route, which simulates the country roads of the wine region in southern Piedmont, without the grape-hauling tractors.