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Tribute to Carlo Chiti and his Autodelta

In the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation of Alfa Romeo’s glorious “racing department”, Luigi Marmiroli remembers to return of the Milan-based car manufacturer to Formula 1 racing and the personality of the great Tuscan designer, a gruff and explosive character but at the same time ironic and modest man. And with a huge love for dogs

Pictures courtesy of Luigi Marmiroli Archive

A drawing of Carlo Chiti with Autodelta and Alfa Romeo Logos and famous Alfa Romeo Race Cars

As I already mentioned in previous articles, I met many people from the car world during my career, and particularly in the competition field. Carlo Chiti (1924-1994), aeronautic engineer, occupies an important place, not only because of his physical size but above all for his genius and his technical yet human personality.

This year is the 60th anniversary of Autodelta, which he founded in Udine in 1963. The company was soon bought out by Alfa Romeo and, once moved to Settimo Milanese, in practice became its racing department. The department that was unexpectedly closed in 1951.

Formula 1 Alfa Romeo Cars: 1951 Alfetta 159 vs a 1977 Alfa-Alfa 177

Many cars designed by Carlo Chiti left the newly-founded production site, and for over twenty years were protagonists in a number of championships. The main ones are shown on the cover page: from the first versions of the Alfa Romeo road cars to the 1977 Formula1.

Most famous Autodelta  Alfa Romeo engines

At the time, Alfa Romeo was a state-owned company, stuffed with bureaucracy, slow decision-making, personalism and intrusive trade unions. Chiti spent a long time defending himself from these issues, which somehow slowed down and hindered his work that, on the contrary, required fast, flexible decisions.

Many drivers raced with Chiti’s Autodelta cars: I counted over eighty, almost all famous, both Italian and foreign. The pictures here are only of the drivers who I assisted on the track. There are other interesting stories to be told of the others. One in particular concerns Niki Lauda.

Chiti and Autodelta joined the Formula 1 world supplying engines to Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo, the team for which Niki Lauda was the main driver. Then, the Alfa Romeo directors, who soon became unsatisfied with the partnership with Brabham, allowed Chiti to design an all-Italian Formula 1 car: the 177, AKA the Alfa-Alfa. But they asked Niki Lauda to assess the design.

Niki Lauda got on his soap box after testing the car at the Le Castellet circuit in France and immediately gave his peremptory opinion: “It’s like driving a tank!”.

Clearly surprised and annoyed, Chiti got his own back when, on the Zolder circuit in Belgium, his Alfa-Alfa 177, with Giacomelli on his début – it was 1979 – recorded practically the same time obtained during the test runs by the pouting world champion Niki Lauda.

Despite this great début, soon afterwards Chiti almost risked seeing his Formula 1 dream disappear. Only the great popular consensus expressed during the Monza G.P., literally submerged in thousands of flyers like the one in the photograph here, allowed him to continue with his adventure.

Sign ironically informing people about Alfa-Alfa retirement from F1 (reportedly dead)

Starting from 1977, I had the pleasure and the honour - along with my partner Giacomo Caliri at Fly-Studio in Modena - to become an external technical consultant for Chiti, until the end of 1984. I therefore had all the time in the world to get to know him well. This is why I would like to devote this article to him.

I remember that when we went to meet Chiti for the first time, during the journey to Settimo Milanese we had imagined we would be welcomed by an elegant secretary and accompanied into his grand executive office. Quite the opposite. Chiti was sitting behind a small black desk overflowing with folders containing his many projects “in progress”. He played nervously with the folders as he spoke.

The office was a small room where, in addition to two simple chairs, there was a glass cabinet and a coffee table with a telephone on it. A small window poorly lit the room, stuck between the Design office and the Workshop.

Ironic and gruff, like many Tuscans, we were immediately bowled over by his warmth and great modesty.

An unrepentant dog-lover, next to Autodelta he had set up a kennels for stray dogs, looked after by his veterinary friends. The left-overs from the employees’ canteen ended up directly in the kennels, and some of these dogs wandered freely around the site.

Often he would invite me for dinner at home, where his mother-in-law was a splendid cook. This was how I had the chance to appreciate his immense culture, that went beyond the technical. After dinner he would relax in an armchair with one of his two beloved dogs. With his permission, I took a photo - attached here - where you can see all his huge passion for these animals.

Carlo Chiti at home with his loved dog, both on a armchair

He was always hungry, and loved to eat with friends. During the lunch breaks at the grand prix, he would quickly wolf down what was in his own plate and then reach over with his fork to steal the food from the other people’s plates.

A free spirit, during his career Chiti came up against much criticism, which he always thought to be absolutely unfounded. His reaction to this was often immediate and explosive.

But he calmed down quickly, with a wonderful phrase that derived from his Tuscan origins. Although hard to translate, I hope the contents can be understood. Of his critics, he would say: “They’re so stupid that even in the stupid championships they’d come in second.”


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