Driving an Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT12 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed

Published: 28 June 2016

► CAR drives 1975 Alfa 33 TT12
► At 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed
3.0-litre flat-12 engine with 500bhp! 

Funny what can come about from one email. A couple of weeks before the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a message popped into my inbox from a PR company on behalf of Alfa Romeo UK, inviting journalists to be a guest driver in one of the cars from Alfa’s museum tackling the festival hill climb. Surely there must have been some kind of misprint, because the list of cars available to drive included something called an Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT12 from 1975.

A quick Google confirmed that’s a flat-12, 500bhp monster from one of sportscar racing’s scarier periods, a car originally raced by heroes like Derek Bell, Arturo Merzario and Henri Pescarolo, and outright winner of the 1975 World Sportscar Championship. Surely Alfa Romeo wouldn’t be blasé enough to allow a priceless racing car from its collection to be driven by a feckless journo?

Turns out they are, which is why I find myself sat in a very real TT12 in Goodwood’s assembly area, being talked through the controls by the wonderful, passionate team of mechanics from Museo Storico Alfa Romeo. It’s a curious mix of the ancient and the modern; the slab-sided bodywork surrounding the cockpit is shaped ruthlessly by the drive for downforce, the driving position a full lay-down recline, yet the steering wheel is a leather-bound three-spoke circle that appears straight from the early ’60s, and positioned at an arms-ahead stretch. Said spokes are signed by the car’s original pilot, Arturo ‘Little Art’ Merzario. ‘Merzario feels a very special connection to this car,’ the car’s carer Giuseppe tells me. ‘If you damage it, he will find you.’ Noted. The centre mirror stands feet above the cockpit on a giraffe-like stalk (and is helpfully pointed at nothing in particular), and the instruments are tiny analogue gauges flanked by Bakelite toggle-switches. The tell-tale needle on the tacho reads a dizzy 10,500rpm, and the full 500bhp chimes in at around half that. I’m advised to keep the revs down. ‘Above 5000rpm it can become very dangerous.’ Bearing Merzario’s wrath in mind, I plan to follow this advice.

Surrounding us in the assembly area is an impossibly special array of machinery, proper pinch yourself stuff. Rumbling Can-Am machines, a pretty Ferrari Dino 206 racer, a ’98-spec Porsche 911 GT1 – directly in front of us is a Le Mans-winning Alpine prototype, a few cars behind Marino Franchitti in the very Ford GT that was racing in the 24 hours a few days ago, still plastered with La Sarthe grime. And to my right there’s a Gulf-liveried McLaren F1 GTR Longtail, driven by Emerson Fittipaldi – who smiles and gives me a thumbs up. Surely this can’t be real.

The marshals make that swirly finger in the air ‘start it up’ motion, and all around racing engines erupt. Flick the middle toggle switch to trigger the fuel pumps, feel the hum through the chassis, flick a further toggle switch, see the pressure gauge needle twitch and press the starter button. It’s hard to hear the idling flat-12 over the cacophony all around, but when I tread the throttle slightly a keening shriek soars above the other cars. It sounds like nothing else. The throttle pedal feels almost as heavy as a regular clutch pedal, and the clutch itself heavier still. One push forwards in the H-pattern shift for first gear. The lever’s to my right, a wooden-topped stub bracketed to a chassis side rail (the ‘TT’ bit in the TT12 name stands for Telaio Tubolare, or tubular chassis, the 12 for the 3.0-litre, 48-valve flat-12 bringing all the noise).

Alfa TT12 interior

As I’m waved off the start line, the engine’s struggling to idle and I give it plenty of revs for fear of stalling. Hope the marshalls have got decent ear defenders. I don’t. The sound of twelve horizontally opposed cylinders reverberates viciously inside the crash helmet, and I wonder if I’ll be able to hear anything above a shout again. But if you’re going to go deaf, what a way to do it – the shrieking sound as the Alfa hooks third gear past Goodwood House, the spectacular BMW sculpture on the left and a big screen showing the car on the right, isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.

The run is over almost as soon as it’s begun, leaving me with an enormous smile, low-grade tinnitus and blurry memories of weighty steering, a longer-throw gearchange than you’d imagine, and intense straight-line speed (I might have sneaked past 5,000rpm a couple of times – sorry Art…). I can’t imagine how it must feel to push the TT12 properly. Even on a smooth modern circuit it must feel deeply intimidating – pushing it to its limits and beyond on the bumpy, lethal circuits of the 1970s seems unthinkable. Above all, I’m relieved to return the car to its guardians at Alfa intact, and to watch Merzario himself blast the TT12 up the hill later in the afternoon. I’ll never neglect checking my emails again.

A big thank you to all at Museo Storico Alfa Romeo and Performance Comms

Read more about the incredible machinery inside Museo Storica Alfa Romeo with a guided tour from Giulia designer Lorenzo Ramaciotti in CAR+

Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 TT12

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer