Photo: Alfa Romeo, the FIA

I spent a great deal of last week reading about wonderful, er, liberal interpretations of the rules in motorsports, but by chance I happened upon one of my favorites that I’d completely forgotten about. And it involves parts getting shoved in the trunk.

This one comes from a famous Italian team causing a bit of a stir in the United Kingdom.

It’s funny that I forgot this one, because I was just reading about how Volvo toyed around with the rules for the British Touring Car Championship in its 1990s glory days:

This sent me on a tear of watching old BTCC videos and reviews, but none of them took me to this ingenious cheat-then-not-a-cheat from Alfa Romeo.

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I was reading about, of course, the end of Lancia’s all-conquering World Rally Championship team. I had sort of wondered what happened to the team members, until I bumped into this old article from MotorSport Magazine about Ninni Russo, who ran Lancia’s works rally efforts in their Delta Integrale glory days. Lancia won six titles in a row in the WRC, but then pulled out at the top.

What happened to the team afterwards? Fiat decided that its racing efforts would be switched over from Lancia to Alfa Romeo, and from rallying to touring car racing. One team ran a successful operation in Germany’s DTM, and the old Lancia rally staff went to run Italy’s Campionato Italiano Superturismo. They finished third in 1993, then were relocated to the much more interesting British Touring Car Championship, the hottest touring car series at the time.

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And that’s where they got themselves into some very entertaining trouble:

The team was an instant success, with Tarquini winning the first five races, but the Alfa also became the target for a certain amount of politics. The 155 Silverstone had a homologated front spoiler with an adjustable splitter. A typical bit of Italian ingenuity had this supplied in the boot of the standard car as ‘optional equipment’. At Oulton Park the Alfas were instructed to run with the splitters retracted and their points from earlier races were annulled: “Of course we could not allow this, so I made the decision to pack up and leave the circuit with our cars and people. We immediately made an appeal, went to the court in London where the letter came from FISA and that stopped everything.” The points were reinstated, a compromise reached on splitter position and Tarquini went on to win the championship by a country mile. It was an amazing achievement, and one of which Ninni was rightly proud. To have taken on and beaten much more experienced racing teams operating for Renault, Volvo, Nissan, Ford, Vauxhall, BMW, Toyota and Peugeot was very satisfying.

This is a slight exaggeration of what Alfa Romeo did. Alfa didn’t stick an entire extra rear wing into the 155's trunk, Alfa only left in extensions, as The Independent reported at the time, describing the extras you’d get with the Silverstone homologation special (also sold as the Formula in the rest of Europe):

You find all the usual things in the boot of an Alfa Romeo 155 Silverstone: spare wheel, jack, wheelbrace, a few tools. But you find other things, too, included in the price of pounds 13,990. There are four black steel plates, about 8in long, bent into a U-section 2.5in deep, accompanied by two smaller plates and some nuts and bolts. The handbook tells you neither what they are for, nor where to fit them.

The car’s bodywork also offers some unusual extras. Otherwise identical to the basic 1.8-litre 155, the Silverstone has a little black tongue sticking out underneath the front bumper and a wing sitting 4in above the back of the boot lid.

These add-ons are not fitted to save people who like to adorn their cars with ‘go-faster’ bits the trouble of doing the work themselves. And they certainly do not make the car go faster: in fact, they make the Silverstone marginally the slowest Alfa Romeo 155 you can buy. But they were not fitted for the benefit of the customer. The adjustable black tongue, the rear wing and the metal plates in the boot (which fit on to the wing and push it an extra 4in up in the airflow) are there to help Alfa Romeo win the British Touring Car Championship. Or at least, they were.

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Alfa Romeo knew what it was doing was ultra sneaky, too. The final day that Alfa Romeo could send its car to the FIA for complete approval was April 1, and in that form, all of its trickery would be revealed. So that’s exactly when Alfa submitted its form, and up until that April 1 date, Alfa only showed its car with the wings as low as possible. April 2 was the first day of practice for the BTCC, and that’s when Alfa sprung its wings for the first time. It took the rest of the BTCC five races to get the system banned.

You can actually see how all of that looked because, amazingly, the FIA puts all of its old homologation documents online in an archive. So here’s that April 1, 1994 review from the FIA, detailing exactly what this all looked like.

Here’s how Alfa submitted the car to the FIA, looking very much stock at first:

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But deeper into the document you can see they had to raise the wing in full:

And detail exactly how it worked:

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There’s no way Alfa didn’t know what they were doing was going to get them shit.

Of course, the wings trick wasn’t the only thing that Alfa got up to when making the racing car subtly better than the road car, as Touring Car Times explained:

But it was not only the wings that were special with the Alfa Romeo 155 Silverstone.

The cars were build by Alfa Corse in Turin where the chassis was specially prepared to be as light and strong as possible. Unnecessary brackets and mountings were removed and special welding was made. The end result was a chassis that was twice as stiff as the road car and 40 kilos lighter than the minimum weight limit.

[...]

The race engine was different. It was based on another inline four cylinder engine that had been used by Fiat in rallying.

The head of the engine was taken from the 155 Q4 turbo-model, but rotated 180 degrees. The rotation of the head allowed for better cooling of the engine and a lower base of weight.

As with all Super Touring specification engines the re build intervals were small. The engines had to be rebuild every 700 km, a process taking a total of 80 hours to complete.

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Again, the harder a racing series tries to keep cars as standard as possible, the more innovative race teams get to modify them for competition.

Alfa had at least some firm ground to stand on. BMW had done this trick back in the 1970s, when its fledgling M team had to store the giant rear wing for the “Batmobile” 3.0 CS homologation special in the trunk, as it wasn’t type-approved for road use.

What’s also interesting is this was not a cheap cheat for Alfa to go after. The BTCC was a homologation series, so Alfa had to make no fewer than 2,500 examples of their cars with their cheaty wing extensions, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they knew it was a sneaky move.

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All this ended up with was for 1995, teams were allowed to run whatever modified wings and bumpers they wanted, giving up on these homologation special rules entirely.

Still, you know you’re doing well when you come up with a play on the rules so audacious that you get banned for it, then you have the clout to pull out of the championship until you get your way. Alfa basically flipped the board. Amazing.