Had Spirit not sold their tyre contract to Toleman ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, their withdrawal from the 1985 Formula 1 season would have gone largely unnoticed. It was a far cry from two years beforehand, when their Grand Prix debut was one of the most anticipated of recent years.
The outfit had only been formed in 1981 by John Wickham (a long-time BARC stalwart who had managed the successful works Surtees Formula 2 team after starting out as a marshal while a teenager) and ex-McLaren and March designer Gordon Coppuck (responsible for the McLaren M23 which had won titles for Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt) after the pair were both working at March. The team was set up after Wickham met with Japanese giant Honda while working with March. The car company were looking at expanding into Europe in a big way, and saw motorsport as an ideal way of promoting themselves.
They had devised a V6 Formula 2 engine but were unhappy with the results of current users Ralt (despite Geoff Lees taking one of the cars to the 1981 F2 title), and contracted Wickham to run a team with Coppuck using a new chassis, built in a disused Honda facility at Slough. Both team and car were named Spirit, and gained Marlboro backing on top of start-up money from Honda and tyres from Bridgestone. In their first season in 1982, Thierry Boutsen won three rounds, with Stefan Johansson in the other car also performing well. But for the Bridgestone tyres, they would have won much more often - the team scored 10 poles in 13 rounds. The problem was that Bridgestone produced far too many different tyres, complicating set-up, and were also prone to blow-outs.
Nevertheless, Formula 1 seemed the next logical choice - many had remarked the Spirit 201 looked more like a scaled-down Grand Prix car than its' rivals. Honda prepared their engine, and Spirit upgraded one of their F2 chassis to meet Formula 1 regulations. The bulk of the F2 cars were sold on and fitted with BMW engines, with Jo Gartner winning the 1983 edition of the Pau GP in a Spirit-BMW. For the winter and spring testing programmes Stefan Johansson was selected as driver to some surprise - Boutsen had been more successful in Formula 2, and had impressive F1 tests for Brabham and McLaren under his belt. It might have been that Boutsen was seen as a star of the future, whereas Johansson was still rebuilding a reputation tarnished in his disastrous 1979 drives for Shadow.
Low-key was the order of the day; Johansson's appointment mirrored the company's 1964 signing of unknown American sportscar driver Ronnie Bucknum for their first Grand Prix car. The F201 debuted at Silverstone in November 1982, and largely tested alone at British tracks rather than on the same test days as other teams, which made outside comparison difficult and kept the small team out of the spotlight. The ambitious Spirit outfit were only too happy to keep their Japanese partner sweet. The testing programme began at Silverstone in late 1982, before switching to the Willow Springs Speedway circuit in California. Testing at the latter was greatly disrupted by storms, while rain also ruined a session at Jacarepagua just after the 1983 Brazilian Grand Prix. At this stage, the testing hack didn't have the fuel capacity to last a Grand Prix anyway.
Even the car's competitive debut was quiet, coming at the 1983 Race of Champions in April. The event was poorly attended, with just 13 cars, and would transpire to be the last non-championship Grand Prix to date. Only the specialist press paid much attention, though the race was broadcast on the BBC's Grand Prix! programme. Television viewers didn't get to see much of the Spirit, however - after relatively trouble-free testing (including setting second-fastest time in free practice), the car suffered numerous engine problems in timed practice (leaving Johansson last on the grid) and then in the race retired early on after a brush with Roberto Guerrero's Theodore holed an oil radiator.
Somewhat chastised, Spirit Honda returned to their testing programme until August (passing the 9000-mile mark after sessions at Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington) before the team made its' world championship bow at Silverstone. This went much better, Johansson qualifying 14th (albeit on his only clear lap after more engine problems) and battling with Mansell before retiring early on with fuel pump problems. Wickham warned journalists that the first few races would be very much a water-testing exercise, but aimed to score a point in the final round at South Africa.
However, engine problems continued to blight the small car. Honda were beginning to get a little impatient, and were also receiving repeated overtures from Williams to form a partnership. The Japanese company was in an awkward position - they wanted to display loyalty to Spirit, but they also wanted results to justify their expenditure. In terms of the latter, Williams offered a record of success as well as star driver Keke Rosberg. For a while, Honda considered supplying both teams with engines, but the Italian Grand Prix saw so many technical problems with both of Spirit's 201C chassis prevented their new 101C Formula 1 chassis from being completed. They decided they couldn't provide engines for both Williams and Spirit, and dissolved their partnership with Wickham's team ahead of the penultimate round at Brands Hatch.
Honda's agreement with Spirit ran to the end of 1983, and despite the first Williams-Honda debuting at Kyalami, the Japanese manufacturer planned to honour the contract. However, Wickham demurred, needing as much time as possible to reassess his plans for 1984, especially when a $2m sponsor he had lined up for the team's second season pulled out. Wickham and Coppuck decided to carry on with Formula 1 without Honda's support (as a side note, the company did provide them with a small financial settlement for 1984, leading to the Honda name staying on the car's bodywork even after the engines had gone). Instead, they made an agreement with Brian Hart, the independent British engine maker, to run a car with his 4-cylinder turbocharged engine and the 101C was upgraded to take the new motor.
Now all the team needed was funding. Financial concerns meant Stefan Johansson had to be released, and instead drivers who could attract sponsorship were considered. The team's first idea was an ambitious one - taking inspiration from Arrows' signing of Alan Jones in 1983, they contacted two-times World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. The Brazilian, inspired by Jones and Niki Lauda, was considering coming out of retirement, and had a good relationship with Coppuck from his McLaren days. Spirit's plan was to run Fittipaldi in the hope he would attract sponsors' attention. Alongside him came Fulvio Ballabio, an Italian Formula 3 driver of no great talent whose main attraction was lucrative sponsorship from Mondadari, who published Disney material in Italy and were also ran by the Italian's family
The new combination was unveiled during January testing at Rio, the white car adorned with pictures of Mickey Mouse, advertising their sponsors' Topolino (the Italian name for the irritating rodent) comic. However, it soon all fell apart. While the installation of the Hart engine proved surprisingly smooth and the team got some decent mileage in, they were some way from the pace. Worse still, Fittipaldi hated the small car, and quickly realised he would be a midfielder at best for Spirit. Instead he switched his comeback plans to the American Indycar series. This did at least seem to secure Ballabio's services. Spirit's contract with Hart only provided them with engines for a single car, and the changes to the 101C had included provision for fitting a Cosworth DFY instead. While the drivers had shared a Hart car in testing, the Italian was getting cold feet about committing his sponsorship to run in a non-turbo car. With Fittipaldi out of the picture, he took further tests at Mugello, Monza and Silverstone, but another blow came when FISA refused him a superlicence. Apparently his father died upon hearing the news.
Once again, plans had to be redrawn. With a matter of days to go before the season opener, the team agreed a deal with Mauro Baldi, who had driven for Alfa Romeo in 1983. While Baldi wasn't exactly fast, he had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. He brought with him funds for the first two rounds, coming from the Australian tourist board, Burago and Nikon. The car actually went pretty well, certainly better than the better-funded RAM, and in the second race at Kyalami Baldi came home in 8th place.
Jo Schlesser had been expected to take over from the third round in Belgium, but the Frenchman encountered difficulty when RAM's John Macdonald made threatening noises about suing over money owed for his short tenure with the team in 1983. The whole business was rendered mute when Baldi was able to raise enough sponsorship to continue for the next few races anyway. However, more problems were on the horizon. Brian Hart's engine pool was beginning to run short of motors, and with Spirit behind Toleman and RAM in the small company's pecking order, it looked like they would have to run the North American rounds with a Cosworth.
Baldi's second batch of money ran out ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix, and the race clashed with his well-paid role as part of Lancia's Le Mans 24 Hours team to boot. His replacement was Huub Rothengatter, a lanky Dutchman with no single-seater experience since 1981 thanks to a road car accident, but did have a clutch of enthusiastic sponsors, including the Zandvoort circuit. Hart managed to spare them an engine for the race in Montreal, and Rothengatter impressed by being faster than both RAM cars. However, Mike Thackwell's turbocharger failure in the race meant there would be no Hart engines for Spirit at Detroit.
Undaunted, Wickham hired a Cosworth for the American race, and many admired their commitment even though Rothengatter failed to qualify. Better news came when Hart worked overtime and got them another engine for the Dallas Grand Prix. Rothengatter's performances were steady rather than spectacular, and at his home race technical problems put him last in qualifying. However, with the Tyrrell cars racing under appeal, the Zandvoort marshals took little time in allowing him to start from 27th - and the car was repainted in a patriotic orange for the occasion. Rothengatter would also garner an 8th place in the attrition at Monza - with 7th-place Ghinzani having ran out of fuel and 4th-placed Johansson limping around with a broken wheel-bearing, had the race gone on for a couple of laps more he might have scored a point.
The Italian race was Rothengatter's last for the team, as Baldi had found additional funds to compete in the last two rounds of the series. Spirit had hoped to run a second car for Rothengatter, Hart supplies having increased to the stage where both cars would be turbocharged, but missed the entry deadlines. Baldi provided some recompense by finishing both races, with another 8th place at the Nurburgring. Against all expectations, the team had survived the season. However, they really hadn't managed much else in the cold hard world of Formula 1. With money and a better engine, the 101C might have been a decent midfielder, and Baldi had impressed too in a quiet fashion and the team had the fourth-best reliability record, car for car, of all teams in 1984. But they couldn't attract any sponsors, and with turbocharged engines at a premium were once again stuck with Hart motors in 1985.
It was difficult to see what exactly the plan was at the start of the year, with the 101D - basically a 1983 car - updated slightly (the most obvious being conventional sidepods replacing the Brabham BT53-style ones on the 1984 101C), and Baldi's ragtag group of sponsors the only source of money. Spirit seemed to be continuing in the category for the lack of anything better to do, perhaps cradling dreams of being the next Frank Williams, whose early struggles had given many small teams a reason to keep plugging away. But there was to be now Saudi Arabian money for Spirit, and the car was only noticed when things went wrong - particularly a hapless run at Estoril, where Baldi gamely pressed on in the rain on totally inadequate Pirelli wet-weather tyres, and seemed to average a spin every couple of laps. Dave Amey, a former protege of Tony Southgate, had got as far as the model stage with designing a new car, but it was anyone's guess where the money was going to come from.
The third round of the 1985 season saw a new coat of paint on the thing, red, blue and white - a forlorn reminder of the brief period in late 1983 when Johansson's car had worn the near-identical official Honda livery. This time, however, it was just an attempt to catch a few more photographers' attentions than the drab white scheme had, as by this stage the Spirit was displaying fewer sponsors' decals than ever. Baldi qualified dead last, behind the Cosworth-powered Tyrrells, and ran dead last before the car's electrics forced him into the pits and then retirement.
The future was bleak. Baldi's funding was all but exhausted, while Rothengatter was still trying to raise funds in Holland and Allen Berg scheduled to take over in Canada. Shortly after the San Marino Grand Prix, the Benetton family made a substantial investment in the Toleman team, which had sat out the first three races due to not being able to agree a tyre contract. Soon after, an offer came through from the Italian concern, offering Spirit a sum of money if they withdrew and allowed Toleman to take over their Pirelli contract. After some though, Wickham agreed, seeing no other future for his team, and at least the Benetton money meant everyone could be paid.
He announced that Spirit would be back for 1986 with a new car, but after that nothing was heard of the team in Formula 1, a sad and nondescript end for an ambitious outfit which had entered Grand Prix racing with such lofty aims less than two years before. Wickham would turn up with the Spirit name during the 1988 Formula 3000 season running Bertrand Gachot, but left before the end of the year, the team going bust soon afterwards despite some promising results.