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Sergio Limone and the "Alfa Corse" Saga

After the extraordinary adventure with the Lancia Delta Integrale, the engineer from Turin - and father of the 037 - found himself catapulted into a completely new sporting world. In the early ‘90s, the Delta was biding its time until retirement, and the company management decided to wager everything on the new Alfa Romeo 155. A car that wouldn’t have to cope with snow, ice and mud, but with the tarmac of major European circuits. Thirty years on, exclusively for Speedholics, Limone takes a trip behind the scenes of that unknown yet thrilling and gratifying challenge.

Photos courtesy of Sergio Limone Archive - Alessandro Barteletti Archive

Anyone au fait with motorsports history, whose favourite ‘poster car’ was the Lancia Delta Integrale, will have no trouble identifying the period of Sergio Limone’s career that best tells the story of the man and the professional. Seventy-three years carried lightly, the physique of a ballplayer and eyes that run as fast as the bolides he designed in over thirty years working for Abarth, he is one of the “heroes” who in the 1980s and early ‘90s helped Lancia to dominate the rally circuits. Today he still has the same curiosity as he had when, just thirteen, he dreamed of a future in racing cars. “But not as a driver. I never had that kind of ambition, it didn’t interest me,” he tells. “What attracted me, if anything, was to be able to learn the technique, how to design cars.”

More “Torinese” than gianduia cream, Limone has always preferred rallies to track racing. And he has never tried to hide this.

It’s a matter of curriculum, he would say today, as this is the field that offered him his greatest professional satisfactions (seven Manufacturer’s titles and six Driver’s titles with Lancia). But, as he explains, it’s also a matter of feeling: “I was lucky to work in years in which the regulations offered ample freedom of action. Creativity paid off. In those days, rallies meant unpredictability and improvisation. Today the great variable is the race conditions, but the rules are much stricter than in the past and don't allow designers to let their imagination run wild.”

And after an introduction like this, we are almost embarrassed to ask about the races on the track.

“I may exaggerate slightly if I said that I always found them boring, but I must admit that it was quite a trauma for me when, in December 1991, I found out that the Delta and the rallies were to be abandoned, focusing instead on the touring car races with Alfa Romeo. But why? According to the Fiat Group management of the time, Alfa Romeo had more global commercial potential than Lancia. In fact, we had won six world rally championships, and seeking a seventh title with a car that, by then, was at the end of its career didn’t make much sense. Alfa, on the other hand, had just presented the 155: racing it, and winning, would have meant raising its status to that of a true Alfa Romeo, boosting sales.”

A bit like the GTAs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, even though, in contrast to its predecessors, the 155 wasn’t a racing thoroughbred. Among the brand’s purists, some even considered it to be on a par with the Fiat Tempra, which was anything but a sports car. “That’s true, but if you look at things that way, the Lancia Delta wasn't born as a sports car either. The 155 was based on the Fiat Tipo 2 front-wheel drive chassis, but the Turbo Q4, the first version we worked on, had inherited all the four-wheel drive mechanics of the Delta Integrale, with the exception of the rear suspensions which, although IWD, didn’t match the classic McPherson layout. So, the racing 155 shared much of its DNA with a car that had won everything there was to win.”

So, you took the standard Q4 and turned it into a racing GTA. What changed in the passage from road to track? “We didn't have much time to develop a car to race in the Italian Superturismo Championship in 1992, at the same time getting ready for a huge challenge for a team that was quite small and with limited resources: the 1993 German DTM. The design was managed in Turin, with a direct line to Alfa Corse in Settimo Milanese. We made all the changes needed for competition use on the track, and immediately noted a clear advantage compared to the Delta: born over a decade later, the 155 had benefited from more detailed aerodynamic studies, so it cut the air better and it was easier to make it fast. The greatest difference between the road and the competition versions was the rear suspension, which was very similar to that of the Delta.”

In Italy, 17 wins in 20 races: an undisputed domination that rang a warning bell for the German cars battling in the DTM. “The Germans certainly pricked up their ears, even though they were quite confident that they would have an easy ride. I remember one very funny anecdote that, more than any other, describes that ironic and rather mocking climate that welcomed us in Germany: on the first race in Zolder, the Mercedes team made us a large cake decorated with a snake biting their symbol, the three-point star. We had completed 4,000 kilometres of test runs and our car was far more modern than the 190E, but there was no certainty of winning on the début race, especially with two test cars. But it was a great surprise, just like the final championship title won, a race early, by Nicola Larini, who set the record of ten wins out of twenty races

Collegno air field (TO), 22 December 1993. The first day of 155 V6 TI testing ahead of the 1994 racing season. Sergio Limone chatting with Sergio Contesi, head of the Abarth “Esperienze” department (leaning on the car roof)
Some members of the Alfa Corse team before the penultimate DTM 1993 race in Berlin, on the city’s Vus circuit, where Nicola Larini (facing away, leaning on his 155) came in third place to win the title one race early. From left to right: the sports director, Claudio Chierici; head of vehicle design and experimentation, Sergio Limone; Larini’s race engineer, Antonio Tomaini; the general director, Giorgio Pianta; Alessandro Nannini’s race engineer, Marco Calovolo

In the racing world, you are famous for your special skill in interpreting the most hidden loopholes in the regulations. Class 1 Touring regulations, which limited engines to a maximum of six cylinders and 2.5 litres capacity, was an absolute novelty for the DTM. What were the greatest difficulties in developing this car? “We were free to revolutionise the car, and that’s what we did, in fact the only thing that remained the same as the standard model was the angle between the cylinder banks of the V6 engine, derived from the Alfa 6 2.5. One thing I remember like it was yesterday was the huge stir caused by the upturned tailpipes. As our car was faster than the others, the German newspapers construed that strange invention with a big dose of imagination, even suggesting that it hid some kind of aerodynamic advantage. But the truth was far simpler: out of desperation, the only way I could find to make the 155 pass the sound test was to turn the exhaust upwards, to reduce the reverberation and remain within the noise limits set in the regulation. In 1994 we made some other changes, lowering the car and making it faster, but we had some problems in the team management. We won a lot of races, but always with different drivers. And so we didn’t win the title again.”

And the year after that? “That was even tougher. The regulation gave more freedoms, and we were unprepared. We were late in developing the car, and arrived short of breath, while for the new Mercedes C-Class they had come up with suspension arms similar to those used in the Formula 1 cars…”.

The Mercedes traditionally had rear-wheel drive, while the Alfa Romeo cars had four-wheel drive. Which one had the advantage? “The C-Class weighed around forty kilos less than the 155, and to compensate the drive gap due to having only two-wheel drive, it had an actuator that hurled a 50 kg mass forwards during acceleration. The four-wheel drive was very helpful on the wet, but also made a difference on a dry track, as dividing the power over two axles meant less stress on the tyres, so softer mixes could be used to increase the grip on the tarmac.”

The 155 V6 TI was made famous by winning the German DTM against giants of the calibre of Mercedes, BMW and Opel. But much less is said about the 155 TS D2, with its 2-litre, 4-cylinder Twin Spark engine.

“Yes, and it’s a shame, because in 1993 it almost won the Italian Superturismo Championship, and the year after that it won the BTCC in the UK. Maybe today its technology makes it quite low-profile because objectively it was inferior to that of the V6, which, beneath a silhouette reminiscent of the standard models, hid numerous developments, including loads of electronics and a super-advanced chassis. Once again, it was all a matter of regulations: although there was a certain amount of freedom for the engine, choosing the components from all the brand’s models, the Class D2 rules meant that the drivetrain had to be that of the standard model, which was front-wheel drive.”

A handicap compared to the BMW M3?

“At the end of the day no, although, even if they were a bit heavier, the rear-wheel drive M3s were faster in tight bends. But we had a great engine, with the crankcase of the Fiat Croma Turbo and the head of the Lancia Delta Integrale. And we were also better on fast bends, even though at the start the nose of the car had a rather worrying tendency to rise. I had to think hard and come up with a front air intake that could increase the downforce of the front end, and in the end I found a way of keeping it flat on the ground.”

Foto © Alessandro Barteletti

And so we come to 1997: from then on, the DTM admitted only rear-wheel drive cars. And in the meantime, the Alfa Romeo 155 made way for the 156. “In fact, I still have a model with the Alfa Romeo 156 body and rear-wheel drive. But nothing came of it. The escalating costs of the championship were far greater than the benefits in terms of image, and we decided not to participate. These were the first warning signs of what the epilogue was to be: our official participation in touring races, and indeed Alfa’s racing history, came to an end due to the lack of interest of the public, and consequently the manufacturers, in this kind of race. It was a shame, because they were thrilling, macho, with real contacts and knocks. But before throwing in the towel, we still had another ace up our sleeve.”

Foto © Alessandro Barteletti
Foto © Alessandro Barteletti

Indeed, the 156's appointment with the track had only been postponed. That gap year was used to prepare another season of wins.

“Meanwhile, the sports management had been transferred to the Nordauto dealer in Cremona. At first, we worked on a Superturismo version with a 2-litre engine, winning the début race at the 1998 Italian Superturismo Championship with Fabrizio Giovanardi. And the development continued in 2002 with the Super2000. This was a far simpler car than the previous D2, because the engine and the gearbox had to be those of the standard model. In the BTCC, we took BMW by surprise for two years in a row, winning in 2003 too. But then, for the reasons already explained, that was the end of that.”

In technical terms, what was the greatest step forward compared to the 155? “We were able to make the car easier to handle, easier to drive, because when we were finally able to do so, we moved the engine to a better position. We set it as far back as possible, between the front axle and the bulkhead, reducing the inertia deriving from an overhang powertrain on the front end. It was nothing outstanding, in fact: the powerful Volvo 850 station wagons racing in the BTCC, that were great to drive, were already built like that.”

So, to win, you decided to study the competition.

“Yes, that’s the way it should be. As I always say, you never have a monopoly on good ideas.”


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