Alfa Romeo is to return to Formula 1 in 2018 as title sponsor of the Sauber F1 Team, marking the firm's comeback to the sport for the first time since 1987.
While largely a sponsorship deal, the Italian brand said its new relationship will enable an exchange of engineering information between the two parties, “providing new opportunities for the two organisations within Formula 1 and beyond”.
The newly named Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team will retain its existing deal with Alfa Romeo's sister firm Ferrari to use its engines, taking to the grid next year with the latest 2018 powertrain. Alfa Romeo’s role is labelled as one that will focus on sharing engineering know-how.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Alfa Romeo parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said it will let “Alfa Romeo engineers and technicians - who have already demonstrated their capabilities with the newly launched models, Giulia and Stelvio - have the opportunity to make that experience available to the Sauber F1 Team”.
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Sauber Holding chairman Pascal Picci explained that “working closely with a car manufacturer is a great opportunity for the Sauber Group to further develop its technology and engineering projects”.
Sauber's team finished last in the 2017 F1 Constructors' Championship standings, with just five points. Its drivers, Pascal Wehrlein, Marcus Ericsson and Antonio Giovinazzi, finished 17th, 20th and 22nd respectively in the drivers' standings.
Ferrari junior drivers Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc, who won this year's FIA Formula 2 Championship title, are tipped to be the team's drivers for 2018. Leclerc has been mentioned as a potential successor for Kimi Räikkönen at Ferrari, but the team has always been reluctant to run rookie drivers. Using the Alfa Romeo deal to place him with Sauber would give Ferrari an opportunity to evaluate him in F1.
Alfa Romeo’s deal is similar to the title sponsorship deal between Aston Martin and Red Bull Racing. The British car firm will become Red Bull's title sponsor in 2018, enhancing a technical relationship that began in 2016 and has created the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar. While Aston is looking at becoming a powertrain supplier in the future, Red Bull will continue to use TAG Heuer-badged Renault units in 2018.
The new Alfa Romeo and Sauber deal ends a 30-year F1 hiatus for Alfa Romeo. It competed as both a constructor and engine supplier during a stint that started back in 1950. It won the inaugural F1 championship with Italian Nino Farina and the 1951 title with Juan Manuel Fangio.
The brand was an engine supplier in the 1970s, with mxed results. One of the most notable Alfa-powered F1 cars of the era was the Gordon Murray-designed Brabham BT46 'fan car' (pictured above). The machine featured a large fan at the rear, which the team said was to cool the flat 12 Alfa engine, but was largely a way of generating huge amounts of underbody downforce. Niki Lauda drove the car to victory in its only race, the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix, before the team withdrew it after protests from rivals – despite F1 bosses never ruling the car was illegal.
Alfa Romeo unsuccessfully competed as a works entry between 1979 and 1985.