Alfa Romeo has written chapters in the books of automotive history by building cars with character. Modern Alfa Romeos may not get the same headlines as neighbors from Maranello, Modena or Sant’Agata Bolognese, but true enthusiasts know there is nothing quite like an Alfa Romeo.
Alfa Romeo’s roots stretch back to 1910, when Italian Cavalier Ugo Stella set up a car company from the remnants of an Italian arm of Darracq, a French car manufacturer. Located in Milan, the company was known as A.L.F.A. – short for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili (meaning “Lombardian Car Factory”). World War I intervened and ALFA ran into economic trouble and failure. In 1918, entrepreneur Nicola Romeo took control of the company. Car production resumed in 1919 after the war ended and the Alfa Romeo name emerged.
Racing was in the company’s blood from its inception. A young Enzo Ferrari drove Alfa Romeos in legendary events like the Targa Florio and rose to fame. Ferrari eventually stepped out of the cockpit to run Alfa Romeo’s racing department and support famed drivers like Tazio Nuvolari. Alfa Romeo machinery prowled across Europe, racing at the pinnacle of Grand Prix and sportscar competition. Alfa Romeos helped build the profile of events like the 24 Hours of LeMans and Mille Miglia. Depending on the decade, the plucky marque found its way to Indycar, Formula One, sportscars, rallying, and touring cars. Visit any historic race weekend and you’re likely to find vintage Alfa Romeos still mixing it up in capable hands.
With a background rich with Italian character and forged by competition, the only thing better than driving an Alfa Romeo in Italy is driving an Alfa Romeo on an Italian racetrack. The only thing better than that? Spending a day in the company with a line-up of current Alfa Romeo offerings at an Italian race track with a long-standing factory supported driving program.
Varano de’ Melegari is a small town situated in Italy’s Motor Valley, a 35 minute drive from Parma. All the big Italian motoring names and many unknown boutiques call the region home. The local racetrack was born in 1969 by a group of local enthusiasts – Dallara founder Gianpaolo Dallara among them. After updates and upgrades over the years, the track is FIA certified. Autodromo Varano Riccardo Paletti is named in memory after the former Formula One driver who was killed in the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix.
The perfect program for driving Alfa Romeos in Varano is formally known as Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura. The performance driving program was started in 1991 by Andre de Adamich with backing from Alfa Romeo. Andre raced at the top tiers of motorsport in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including sportscar and Formula One. His time at the wheel of Alfa Romeo sportscars and Alfa Romeo powered open-wheel racers established the connection that led to the driving program.
Alfa Romeo road cars have been exclusively featured for the entire history of the program. His son Gordon picked up the mantle and runs the program today. Andre still lives in the beautiful foothills nearby the circuit and remains involved. A driving experience with such a pedigree made a day in Varano a mandatory stop for Speed Journal Principal Jeff Francis during a recent tour through Italy.
As the morning began, guests gathered and met each other and their hosts. Instruction was provided in Italian, but the hosts helpfully provided an individual English presentation to prepare Francis for the day’s events. An introductory briefing set the stage for the day to ensure everyone had a good baseline of fundamentals before getting on track.
The briefing started with driving position, sight lines down the course and through corner apex, hand placement on the wheel and paddle shifters. Getting well situated in the car allows the driver to best control the car and concentrate on the task at hand.
Vehicle dynamics came next with a physics lesson in weight distribution. A car has different behavior when accelerating or braking. Weight shifts to the rear on heavy acceleration and to the front on heavy braking. Moving weight to the front means less weight pushing down on the rear tires and less rear grip turning into a corner. Moving weight to the rear means less weight pushing down on the front tires and less front grip accelerating out of a corner. Quick changes of direction also shift weight laterally. A tight turn or chicane can catch an unwary driver as the quick weight transfer creates a pendulum effect and a chance of spinning. Guests took these academic points to the track later in the day, so it was important to understand the car’s behavior and know how to adjust.
Driving lines, shift points, braking zones and acceleration points plotted on a circuit map helped flatten the learning curve. The 12 turn, 1.466 mile Varano circuit utilized third gear in the corners and fourth and fifth gears on the straights.
Briefing complete, the group split into multiple groups of five. The Speed Journal’s group started with the Stelvio Quadrifoglio Q4 crossover. Initially the instructors took the driver’s seat of the Q4 to show their guests the circuit and the driving line, then swapped positions and the guests took the wheel. It was easy to forget that the exercise involved a crossover. Alfa Romeo’s engineers figured out a way to give the crossover 510 horsepower and make it handle like a performance sedan. The paddle shift was appropriate for this type of performance and accommodated spirited driving. The Stelvio Quadrifoglio Q4 impressively danced through the tight twists, rotating predictably without dramatic body roll.
The second time out in the Q4 instructors focused the group on the technical sequence of turns 10, 11 and 12. Drivers approached turn 10, turned just off the apex, settled the car before applying throttle through turn 11 and keeping a steady wheel to guide the car to corner exit. Drivers learned that too much throttle pushes the car wide and too little puts the car too far to the inside. The approach to turn 12 required a well-timed throttle lift to settle the front tires and increase their hold on the asphalt through the corner. Guests worked on this challenging complex throughout the entire day, making improvements and smoothing it out with each lap. After several runs and patient instructor direction, the technical sequence was still challenging but rewarding when done well. An experienced racer who makes the corners flow would find lots of lap time compared to the amateur that struggles with the sequence.
The next exercise pitted a manual shift GTA 147 against a figure eight laid out with cones and wet spray at one end to reduce grip. The dichotomy of a bone dry and drenched hairpins back-to-back was fun – and illuminating. Powering through the hairpins required smooth hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals. The slick hairpin accentuated mistakes that might have gone unnoticed on the dry hairpin. Oversteer and understeer are both enemies and a driver can’t make up time with brute force.
Lap monitors showed times as instructors encouraged drivers on the radio, seeking the best lap time for the award given at the end of the day. After five practice laps, each driver went directly into five timed laps for a friendly competition between the group and against other groups doing the same exercise. The GTA 147 was tossable and seemed to like a late apex that kept weight on the nose as long as possible until time to accelerate out of the hairpin.
The group then moved to the first of two sessions with the Giulia Quadrifoglio. The classic Alfa Romeo front fascia highlighted the aggressive styling. Approaching the Guila, there’s no mistaking that the drive will be filled with the nostalgic Alfa Romeo spirit. Alfa Romeo engineers incorporated various weight saving materials beneath the elegant bodywork. The benefits of the diet were apparent in the nimble handling characteristics of the stiff chassis and the connected feel from the steering and suspension.
When the sporty sedan was pushed, the front end stayed planted where pointed and the car’s tail followed nicely. All 510 horsepower roared to life under acceleration, winding the tachometer up through snappy paddle shifts from the 8-speed automatic gearbox. The exhaust note at high RPMs only added to the experience. Even though the turbocharged rear wheel drive Alfa was a track beast, it reverted to a docile luxury sedan when back on pit lane and trundling through the paddock. But Francis and his group wrung it out on the track and the Alfa pedigree did not disappoint.
Next the group looked forward to the sporty mid-engine 4C. The morning had been a natural progression through the Alfa Romeo product line. The 4C (named after its four-cylinder turbocharged engine) only has 240 horsepower, but it is light and nimble. Everything happened quickly as guests ran the 4C though the full circuit and applied lessons from earlier in the morning. The rear-wheel drive 4C gave a lively driving experience and begged to be pushed. It needed only a brush of the brake to glide through turns and a sensitive touch of the throttle upon exit.
By lunch, the morning fog completely gave way to bright blue skies, fluffy clouds and a cool breeze. A tasty multi-course Italian meal for lunch gave everyone a breather and allowed guests and instructors to visit and enjoy the beautiful valley landscape surrounding the Varano circuit.
The instructors were top notch. Andrea Crugnola had just won the Italian Rally Championship which obviously says something about his car control skills. Damiano Fioravanti races European F3, GT3 sportscars, and LMP3 in the European LeMans series.
The surprise of the day came in the form of the 210 hp Alfa Giulia diesel. Instructor Andrea said many guests enjoy driving it because it is comparable to what they drive on a daily basis at home. The entry level car had less power than other Alfas on hand but it proved to be a delight. With less power, driving the Guila required rolling into the accelerator sooner on turn exits and less top speed meant driving deeper into the braking zones. Without power to fall back on, maintaining momentum through the corner was mandatory. The automatic transmission intuitively provided the proper gear at the right time and matched the driving style. It was great to see Alfa character hadn’t been reserved for the top-of-the-line models and also injected into a modest sports sedan.
After a break, Instructor Andrea put the team back in the Giulia diesel for another session. He encouraged drivers to brake deeper and push the throttle harder. With more laps and more practice, the sheer fun of drifting the car to the track edge and anticipating when to mash the throttle made it easier to find the car’s full capabilities. Elite professionals typically are the only drivers that get to enjoy the feeling of mastery from driving high performance cars to their limits. However, the little Giulia and its modest horsepower put that kind of feeling closer to the reach of amateurs.
Armed with more experience and skill, the group returned to the 4C. Increased pace came with increased comfort with the car and the track. Running faster pushed braking points deeper than in the morning session and made cornering more challenging. The 4C was up for the challenge and tracked precisely through the twists and turns. Drivers started to find the limits. The tail got lighter with threshold braking but had good manners to politely stay in line. The agile 4C contrasted sharply with the Giulia diesel in the prior sessions. As expected with a pure sportscar, the 4C was less forgiving and made mistakes more noticeable but it communicated predictably and rewarded the driver with a wonderful feeling when they got it right.
The last session of the day featured an encore for the Giulia Quadrifoglio. The formula of powerful front-engine and rear wheel drive in a performance sedan was a fitting way to cap off the day. A telemetry system recorded the car’s vital signs – throttle, braking, steering inputs and more. With nowhere to hide, the instructors gave candid feedback based on hard data. Guests were instructed to apply maximum brake immediately after letting off the accelerator and then gradually release the brake pedal when hurtling towards and into a corner. It is common for newcomers to high performance driving to work the brake pedal in the opposite order – soft initially and increasing pressure approaching the turn. Telemetry showed how the group did on this technique compared to the instructors. The Giulia was a pleasing blend of performance and practicality, but an Alfa Romeo driving experience on the track is not about practicality.
Paddle shift on road cars often end up being more for decoration than function but the Giulia Quadrifoglio enjoyed being drove hard with full use of the paddles. The paddles helped to ensure the car was in the right gear at the right place on the track and quick shifts avoided a missed gear. Instructor Damiano had the group work on trail braking to the apex of turn nine and quickly transitioning from the brake to the accelerator, rolling on to the throttle through turn exit and to the edge of the track. The easily underestimated turn was capable of more speed than first apparent. These are the places where good drivers shave lap times that amateurs struggle to find.
Nerves from morning gave way to familiarity in the afternoon. Drivers became more relaxed and put together the bits and pieces learned throughout the day, finding a natural flow around the circuit. They were pushing harder and going faster, using improved skills and knowledge. The symbiotic rhythm of car and driver paid dividends.
The full group gathered at the end of the day at the start-finish line of the circuit for final comments, certificates of completion, and recognition of the fastest guest through the figure 8 competition. Like a big Italian family, the air was full of stories, laughter and smiles.
The value of Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura program is unmatched and in good hands with the de Adamich family. The passion shows in the caliber of instructors, the spirited Alfa Romeo machines, the generous time on a challenging FIA race circuit and a gorgeous Italian landscape. The extremely affordable price makes the day driving a line-up of Alfa Romeos on an Italian race track a bargain.
The Speed Journal would like to thank Gordon de Adamich and the staff and instructors of the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura for their hospitality.