Original publication on Petrolicious.
Unless you know someone who attends or lives nearby, you probably haven’t heard of the Algarve Classic Festival, but if you follow modern motorsport the three-miles of asphalt it takes place on may be more familiar. The Algarve International Circuit in Portimão, Portugal is a potential future Formula 1 venue and has played host to everything from superbikes to LMP1 prototypes since its completion in 2008, and it is regarded as a highly challenging and highly rewarding “drivers’ circuit.”
Algarve Classic Festival from 19.-21. October 2018
The three-day Algarve Classic Festival offers its competitors a ton of track time on this wonderful ribbon on Portgual, and even if you aren’t the one driving, being part of a team here is a weekend well spent. And what’s a better way to explore the festival than joining a great group of people celebrating the glory of Alfa Romeo GTAs? Not much in my book, and that’s why I was beyond happy to have the opportunity from Fernandes Oldtimertechnik to accompany their race weekend.
Taking place in one of Europe’s warmest countries (and close to several beautiful beaches on top of that), the Algarve Classic Festival is, naturally, a pleasant event for everyone involved coming from colder parts of the world. It is also the largest historic car event on the Iberian Peninsula, gathering in each of previous editions more than 300 cars and 500 drivers coming from 23 different countries.
Stirling Moss and Walter Röhrl are just two from a group of great drivers that consider Portimao Circuit as one of the most beautiful and challenging circuits of all time, and I’d say they’ve seen their fair share through the windshield.
I am sitting in box #9 in the pits, listening to engines warming up in the foreground and engines racing in the background, smelling petrol and oil, and watching the team from Fernandes Oldtimertechnik finishing the last of their prep work on their Alfas: a bright yellow GTA, and a grey and red GTAm. I am living the dream this weekend, and could not ask for a better office for the weekend!
Last year I had the opportunity to interview Pedro Fernandes, the founder and owner, and an old friend of mine. He delivered insights into the family-owned business, which he runs together with his wife and two of his three sons. They also have two more mechanics helping out, the small team coping with a huge workload. Today, I would like to take you with me to show a little of the “behind the scenes” of a small vintage race team and preparation shop, along with some insights from the team about what it takes to run GTAs in historic competition.
When I arrived in the morning, the team was almost done setting up the cars when a little curveball was thrown on Thursday afternoon after the last training sessions. The team wasn’t allowed to race their usual Goodyear they’d been practicing on all week. Pedro isn’t phased though. “It is a real shame and puts us back in our progress, but this is racing life, new or old, and we will just have to adjust, we hope the car will not start behaving completely different by the end, you never know.” A Dunlop replacement is sourced and fitted to the cars, but it turns out not to be an easy transition for the grey GTAm in particular, as the car had become too skittish in the rear, making it nearly impossible to corner without some counter-steering. The team quickly sets about modifying the car, lowering it down on the rear to start with.
Before going into the race weekend itself, what follows is a quick background on the cars pictured.
The yellow 1965 Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA was prepared by Antoine Rotondi at Conrero, and it has been in Fernandes’ workshop since 2017. Mr. Antoine Rotondi owned the car himself until 1997. Today it’s one of the team’s favorites, and a real heartbreaker to look at on track or off it.
Autodelta, more or less the racing division of Alfa, originally developed the car for competition from the series-105 GT coupes, and named theirs the GTA, with the “A” standing for alleggerita, Italian for “lightweight.” The GTA has aluminum outer body panels instead of steel (the inner steel panels were also of a thinner gauge, and the inner and outer panels were bonded and pop-riveted together), magnesium alloy wheels, clear plastic side windows, aluminum rear upper control arms, and lightweight interior trim (or the outright removal of interior trim). The engine has a dual-ignition cylinder head with a Marelli distributor borrowed from the Ferrari Dino.
Now a little background information on Antoine Rotondi, who prepared this particular GTA, might be in order. Rotondi had an Alfa Romeo garage in Villejuif, just south of Paris, and in the mid 1960s, he was asked by an owner of a GTA, which was prepared by Conrero, to have a look at its engine to see if he could sort out why it wasn’t running well. After removing the engine, Rotondi found a number of peculiar things, and subsequently got in touch with Virgilio Conrero, visiting him on several occasions and spending a lot of time with him (in fact several months’ worth) learning how to prepare these racing Alfas. They became very good friends and Garage Rotondi soon became the official Conrero importer for France. Rotondi, who is still alive, is a complex character and sometimes challenging to deal with. If he is in a good mood, everything is straightforward, but if he is not in good spirits things can turn to hard work rather quickly!
The grey & red Alfa Romeo GTV 1750 (Europa) Typ 105.44 pictured above is known as a GTAm. It builds quite a contrast to the GTA, equipped with a Testastretta motor and a sliding knuckle rear axle. With this kind of equipment, a lot depends on whether the car was prepared as an original Autodelta works vehicle or one for customers. The private teams, as well as Balduzzi, bought spare parts from Autodelta and turned normal street versions of the GTV into the GTAm, mostly starting with the European type 105.44—this car is one of these.
The Race Weekend
Ok, back to the weekend at hand. The yellow GTA is the first one to go out for qualifying on Friday in the early afternoon. It will be competing in the U2TC race against Cortinas, Minis, and many others. It’s a competition in which the GTA will be considered a guest, as it is the only event it is racing in, and therefore doesn’t get counted in the overall results.
Christian Oldendorff, the owner of the beautiful all original GTA, will be racing it for the first time, both for him and the car. Professional racer José Monroy has spent the entire week with the team, coaching Christian on the track, and building up his own connection to the two historic Alfas; driving them will be his premiere racing historic cars. The two cars are handling completely different, as Christian tells me: “I prefer driving the GTAm in its current stage as it is a forgiving car, while the GTA is hard work, it needs strength to race this one.”
There are 11 races in total, but the Alfas will be in just two of them: the Iberian Historic Endurance and the U2TC.
The Iberian Historic Endurance is an organization of gentleman drivers for gentleman drivers, and both races are ruled by FIA’s Appendix K, following the “3 Cs” of sportsmanship: No Crashing. No Cheating. No Complaining. In the mind of the organization and participants, the primary goal is not the fight for victory. The goal of the Historic Endurance is to provide all the participants with a special experience of conviviality, emotion, and nostalgia. This competition gives meaning to the acquisition and possession of a historic racing car, regardless of its class or its power.
The U2TC is something else. A renowned series for pre-1966 sub-2.0L touring cars is considered by many to be the best vintage touring car series in Europe in regards to car preparation and driving standards. U2TC has four events this year, two of which offer two races over the weekend. This race is always one of the most popular among the public, with dozens of Lotus Cortinas, Alfa Romeo Giulias and GTAs, BMW 1800s, and the always restless Mini Cooper S, among others filling up seemingly every inch of track. At the wheels of these cars are some great drivers from the past and present, who perform miracles driving these cars on narrow radial tires.
To be continued…