A visit to the Alfa Romeo Test facility in Balocco.

The Balocco track is the Alfa test or proving facility where new cars and prototypes are put through their paces and developed.

I was extremely fortunate to be able to visit this facility as usually it is totally off limits and inaccessible to the general public, with stern-looking guards in place to enforce this rule. It is only that I have known Giancarlo for several years that he was able to arrange for an exception to this rule so we could get a brief glimpse of the test facility.

Giancarlo told me I'd need to rent a car to drive to Balocco which was an excellent turn of events as we had used public transport excessively until then and I was keen to try out the Italian roads and cars!

I had pictured the track as being rather close to the Arese plant - perhaps bordering it but, it turned out to be some 70 KM away on the Autostrada which links Milano with Torino. Giancarlo had scheduled some time for us on Friday afternoon - and that particular Friday happened to be a just this side of a long weekend in Italy. This meant that everyone in Milano was trying to rent a car to drive out of the city that day. After trying a few rental places, we were able to reserve a car for pickup at the Malpensa airport early on Friday morning. In view of the demand, I felt lucky just to get any car, I did not want to push my luck and insist on an Alfa.

When we arrived at the airport the next day however, Avis was able to secure an Alfa for me. This gray 147 1.6 Twinspark with only a few hundred kilometers on the clock would be ours for the day. The Alfa 147 was nice to drive, good power, great brakes and suspension - I'm certain they would sell like hot cakes in the USA!. I'd have liked the V6 3.2 liter engine that is also fitted to some rentals, but they are rather rare and expensive.

Driving in Italy is interesting. The drivers are good and they really hustle. The best illustration of this is when we saw an elderly lady hooting (honking) at a distracted motorist who was not proceeding at the maximum speed his vehicle was capable of. The freeways (Autostrada) were rather different to what I was used to. When you enter the Autostrada, you have to stop at a toll booth type device and pick up a ticket. When you exit the freeway (at every off-ramp), a toll booth is set up where the distance traveled is computed and you pay a toll accordingly. I anticipate that riots would break out in Seattle if this were implemented here. The sign posting was somewhat ... scant ... but once on the Autostrada navigation was easy. On the autostrada, the speed limit is 130 km/hr (about 78 mph), though most motorists did about 140 km/h and even then, many cars were going much much faster. I spotted a couple of Alfa 147 GTA's in convoy & decided they must have been on their way to the track - given the speed and the yellow sticker in the back window.





Alfa Romeo 147 1.6 Twin Spark.

Back to Balocco. The town itself appears to derive much of its income from rice farming as there were rice paddies seemingly on every bit of arable land. I contemplated asking the owner of the local Tratoria about this, but soon realized this would be entirely futile given the comedy which ensued merely in the process of ordering bottled water - him misunderstanding my non existent Italian and my incomprehension of his equally limited English :)

We arrived at the gate at the appointed hour to security similar to what we had seen at the Arese plant. No camera's are allowed in the track area as various prototype cars (without camouflage) were plainly visible and Alfa Romeo requires written authorization to publish photographs of the track itself. Fortunately, I can show you these two photo's here:


This is the 147 GTA which Giancarlo currently tests and develops. It has the famous Alfa V6 3.2 liter, 24 valve, quad cam engine, producing 184 kW (247 Hp). It is quite simply an incredible machine and certainly worthy of the "GTA" moniker in that you can drive it to work on Friday, race (and probably win) on Saturday. I'd like to own one someday!

Once inside the complex, Giancarlo explained that the old Balocco track is still intact, but 2 new tracks had been built after Fiat acquired Alfa Romeo. One of them is a high speed oval (mainly used for top speed & endurance testing) and the other is a new, incredibly tortuous road course. Many of the seemingly hundreds of corners are modeled after the corners of famous racing tracks which allows Alfa engineers to tune their racing car suspensions to suit a given track prior to even arriving there. It was this track that we entered first, without ceremony whatsoever.. All I can say is that the performance of the GTA is spectacular! Because we were visitors (and so lacked some sort of insurance coverage), Giancarlo held the speed to about 60% to 70% of the maximum potential of the car. Even so, I do not think I have ever experienced a race track at such high speed and with such tremendous cornering force. The first track had a barrier (Armco) literally at the edge of the road so any error in judgment would send the car into the Armco. Even so, I saw not one blemish on the Armco which illustrates just how well a professional like Giancarlo, can drive! The handling was so good that I was convinced it was a 4WD, which it is not.

We then entered the High Speed, banked oval. After a couple of laps at over 250 Km/h, we exited because, as Giancarlo explained, "it was not very interesting".

The old Alfa track is a much more conventional in that it has generous run-off areas. Because of this, members of the press are occasionally permitted to test certain Alfa's there, and indeed, the track is even used by some European car clubs for track events. I could tell that this was the case since, in contrast to the new track, dark skid marks stood testament to many cars having left the track in an unanticipated manner. Clearly the work of rank amateurs :)
Anyway, the old track was exhilarating, and from an aesthetic and historic perspective, definitely my favorite.

All in all, it was a very memorable day. My thanks again to Giancarlo for the time he spent showing us this Alfa wonderland - as I told him several times that day, he does have "the best job on earth"!

-Michael

Photo credits: Miss Jessica Johnson.