Formula One
AGS: Grand Prix Cottage Industry

Formula 1 teams now tend to operate out of state-of-the-art complexes, usually on an industrial estate, and quite often within easy driving distance of a well-known F1 track. It’s been this way for decades now, but in the late 1980s a team appeared with a rather unconventional location. Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives, or AGS, were located in Gonfaron, a small French village – its’ other claim to fame is the local tortoise rescue centre. Founder Henri Julien was the former village petrol station (named Garage de l'Avenir) who dabbled in national events before realising his main strength laid in engineering rather than driving.

From 1969 onwards, Julien worked with Belgian designer Christopher Vanderpleyn (who began as his apprentice at the village garage) designed a number of machines for the junior formulae. Their F3 cars developed a reputation for being well-made and for performing well for AGS’ tiny budgets, but made no serious impression results-wise. , Still, steady progress was made when the team stepped up to Formula 2, culminating in Philippe Streiff winning the final round of the 1984 series in the JH19C chassis.

It was the final race of the F2 series before it was relaunched as Formula 3000 for 1985. Julien didn’t agree with the regulations of the new series, and decided to build a Formula 1 car instead. Work began at the Gonfaron factory on the first AGS Grand Prix car, built around a Renault RE60 monocoque with a reworked fuel tank and remodelled engine cover. The JH21C was topped off with F2 AGS parts. Julien was primarily attracted to the reintroduction of cheap atmospheric engines for the 1987 season, and so only a token attempt was made at contesting the 1986 F1 season.

AGS personnel swelled to a grand total of seven. Italian company Jolly Club came onboard as title sponsor and a Motori Moderni turbo engine was rented from Minardi. For a short while it looked like Didier Pironi, the ex-Tyrrell, Ligier and Ferrari driver who had last driven a Grand Prix in 1982 before breaking both his legs when on track for that year’s championship. However, Pironi elected to stick to powerboat racing, and instead AGS hired Ivan Capelli, on track for the F3000 title, to drive the car for the Italian Grand Prix. The Pirelli-shod car qualified 25th (ahead of both Osellas) and ran near the tail of the field for 31 laps before being tipped off by a puncture. The little team then went to Estoril for the Portuguese Grand Prix, where Capelli again started from 25th, ahead of Huub Rothengatter’s Zakspeed and Allen Berg’s Osella, only to retire almost immediately with a gearbox defect.

The team then skipped the flyaway races (being able to avoid a fine for this as they were not a full entrant for 1986) to begin work towards a full season in 1987. The two brief outings had served to give AGS experience of a Grand Prix weekend, and the team hadn’t embarrassed themselves, being on the pace of relatively well-funded and experienced outfits such as Zakspeed and Osella.

Despite continuing sponsorship from El Charro for 1987, there wasn’t the money to build a new car, Vanderpleyn instead simply modifying the JH21C to take a Cosworth DFZ normally-aspirated V8 as the JH22, while Julien took out a tyre contract with Goodyear. With Capelli following his F3000 Genoa team to running the new works March F1 effort, a new driver was needed. The team turned to Pascal Fabre, a respectable if unspectacular F3000 driver who had turned out for the works AGS F2 with little success in 1982.

1987 would, uniquely, see two classes operate within the whole championship. As well as the standard overall results, teams running normally-aspirated engines would be eligible for the Colin Chapman Trophy, with the best-placed six finishers scoring the usual 9-6-4-3-2-1 points in this category; there was also a driver’s equivalent, the Jim Clark Cup. The atmo cars would also be eligible for full championship points should they finish in the overall top six.

Also contesting the category would be Fabre, the Tyrrells of Philippe Streiff and Jonathan Palmer, Capelli’s March, and Philippe Alliot’s Larrouse-entered Lola. So, with a grand total of five entrants, and with the Lola and March cars not even expected for the first race, reliability would be the key to success in the second class. AGS, with their chassis made up of 2-3 year old parts and already tested in two Grand Prix, would find this an easy objective to achieve. Tyrrell’s experience, relatively large budget and pair of experienced drivers allowed them to dominate the class (and even score a respectable 11 points and 6th overall placing in the full constructors’ championship). The similarly well-funded Larrousse and March cars also ran well, often challenging the Tyrrells, but due to being brand new regularly failed to last the distance. This left Fabre to totter home and pick up some big points scores in the class.

However, the truth was that the Frenchman was deathly slow, even compared to the other Colin Chapman Trophy cars. With only two chassis and such a tiny staff, Fabre was instructed to go for safety first and bring the car home. He never qualified off the back row (his best grid position was 22nd out of 23 at the opening round; the 23rd man, Capelli, was withdrawn after a regulation-pleasing doomed attempt at qualifying in a F3000 March) and only escaped the last position on five occasions – usually when one of the Osellas, using antiquated Alfa Romeo turbo engines, had major mechanical difficulties in practice.

Nevertheless he was bringing the car home. Indeed, Fabre was classified for the first seven events of the season – albeit in last place in every single one. The best this translated to overall was a pair of 9th places at Paul Ricard and Silverstone; it was perhaps best to think of it in terms of the Jim Clark Cup, where he took second place at Detroit and Silverstone, and five third places. However, things took a turn for the worse from then on. His finishing streak ended 10 laps into the German Grand Prix with an over-revved engine; Fabre finished at Hungary having been bog last on every chart, taking 13th and 4th in his class, before getting involved in both start-line accidents in Austria, and ending up unclassified in the spare after being lapped by race-winner Nigel Mansell seven times.

Worse was to come. Lola entered a second car for Yannick Dalmas for the rest of the season, and this was enough to bump Fabre from the grid for both events. AGS booked Paul Ricard and Roberto Moreno for a testing session to improve the car for the Spanish Grand Prix, and Fabre outqualified both Osellas to make it onto the grid, only for the clutch to fail when he was running last after 11 laps.

In need of results to avoid prequalifying sessions in 1988, Julien decided to change drivers. He had been impressed with Moreno’s performance and feedback during the Ricard test, and hired the Brazilian to take over from Fabre for the last two races of the year. Moreno had previously failed to qualify a Lotus for the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix, a fiasco from which his reputation had yet to recover, and at 28 years old he was desperate to land a second chance at F1. His first attempt to qualify at Suzuka looked like coming to naught as he was only 27th fastest – however. Williams withdrew Nigel Mansell’s car after his practice accident, and Moreno made the cut. By a strange coincidence, his doomed 1982 attempt had come up through subbing for an injured Mansell. He ran closer to the other cars than Fabre had, but retired after 39 laps with a broken engine.

However, the season finale would take place in Adelaide – where Moreno had won twice when the Grand Prix was a Formula Pacific race. He qualified a respectable 25th, ahead of Adrian Campos’ Minardi and Alex Caffi’s Osella. Moreno then passed Christian Danner’s Zakspeed near the start and plugged away in the slow car, hanging on when many others didn’t to finish 7th. Then Ayrton Senna’s Lotus was disqualified for having illegal brake ducts, and he AGS was bumped up to sixth for the team’s first ever point.

It wasn’t enough to keep El Charro interested, though, and they withdrew their sponsorship for 1988. In their place, however, came money from the regional government and the Bouygues Group (who were involved in the construction of the Channel Tunnel), not to mention reduced transportation costs thanks to Moreno’s point. With the increased funding, the team expanded to a staff of 15 and junked the Renault-based cars and began work on their first all-new F1 car, the JH23. Meanwhile the Bouygues Group would fund the building of a dedicated factory for the team near Gonfaron. Moreno headed off to drive in F3000, and in his place came Philippe Streiff. Since his F2 victory for the team, Streiff had enjoyed an eventful career with Tyrrell and Ligier, mixing a respectable turn of speed with a habit of destroying cars in a spectacular fashion. Most believed he had summoned up the best possible combination at the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, where he managed to wipe a corner off his Ligier while trying to pass his own team-mate Jacques Laffite on the final lap and still finished third. Nevertheless, the signing

For his part, Streiff needed the seat, and was happy to be reunited with Julien. The neat, compact JH23 drew positive notes from onlookers, and Streiff put it 19th on the grid for the season opener in Brazil. He would retire when brake troubles caused the car to spin off, but AGS were already looking like they were heading in the right direction. Things got better in the next race at Imola, where he qualified 13th. The DFZ kept cutting out in the race, limiting Streiff to tenth place, but the omens were good. The JH23 was nimble and light, something which boded well for the next race, on the tight streets of Monte Carlo. Streiff delivered, placing 12th on the grid, only for a faulty alternator to put him out on the formation lap.

The sparse atmosphere in Mexico was expected to work against the DFZ, but Streiff qualified 19th and charged up to 11th before being delayed by a faulty ECU. The Gilles Villeneuve Circuit suited the car better, though, and Streiff started an excellent 10th. The race was even better, attrition and aggressive driving seeing the AGS move up to fifth. By mid-distance Streiff was pressing Nelson Piquet’s Lotus for fourth, only to spin and damage the car’s suspension, ending his race. A similar problem finished another promising run in Detroit; Streiff charging up from 11th to 7th in the first fifteen laps, only to retire with suspension damage incurred squeezing past Piquet.

AGS found the funds to pay Swiss engineer Heini Mader to tune their engines and were given ELF qualifying fuel from the French Grand Prix onwards, However, the team began to fall back on development as better-funded teams began to overtake them, and while Streiff still usually qualified in lower midfield, he kept getting involved in scuffles and didn’t come close to the points again. The Frenchman didn’t finish again until the Belgian Grand Prix in 12th place.

Things got worse when Bouygues withdrew their sponsorship, halting work on the factory, and Vanderpleyn decided to move to Coloni for the 1989 season. At Estoril he hung on for 9th place, the team’s best result of the season at that point, but this was more a case of hanging on than upsetting bigger teams. At Jerez there was a glimpse of the early-season form when Streiff qualified 13th, only for the engine to blow after seventeen laps. Streiff then took 8th in Japan, and was running 7th in Australia until a late mechanical problem dropped him to 11th.

A short summary of the season would be that AGS had found some speed, but lost the metronomic reliability of their debut season. Streiff had only been classified in six out of sixteen races for one reason or another and had slipped back down the grid a little as the season went on, but it was a big improvement on 1987. Streiff had gelled well with the team, who eagerly arranged to run him again in 1989.

The big problem was finance, but this was solved when entrepreneur Cyril de Rouvre bought the team from Julien. Work resumed on the factory, while AGS planned to run a second car alongside Streiff. 1988 German F3 champion Joachim Winkelhock (brother of the late Manfred, who had driven for Arrows, ATS, Brabham and RAM in the early 1980s) got the seat, helped by money from Camel’s German division. The team would start the season with the modified JH23B car, while Streiff’s car would avoid the now-bloated prequalifying sessions for the first half of the season.

The preseason was difficult, with the factory in limbo and the new management structure being worked out while work continued on Claude Galopin’s new JH24. Things got worse at the final round of Jacarepaguá tests ahead of the season, though, when Streiff’s car left the circuit at high speed, got airborne, rolled and crashed upside-down on top of a barrier. The impact shattered the car’s roll-bar and left Streiff a quadriplegic. The shaken AGS team withdrew his entry from the Brazilian Grand Prix, while Winkelhock failed to prequalify.

With the San Marino Grand Prix approaching, the team cast around for a driver. They came up with Gabriele Tarquini, who had debuted in an Osella in 1987, then impressed insiders in the rubbish 1988 Coloni. The Italian had planned to drive for First in 1989, but the new team had failed the FIA’s mandatory crash tests, at which point they promptly disappeared. He got on with Julien from the off and promptly landed the drive in the first AGS for the rest of the season.

His initial impact was simply electric. At Imola, with only minimal testing at the team’s local Le Luc circuit, he qualified 18th and finished 8th. Then in scrutinising, Thierry Boutsen’s Williams and Alex Caffi’s Scuderia Italia Dallara were excluded for changing tyres after the aborted first start, and Tarquini was classified an excellent sixth. Then at Monaco he was one of the stars of the meeting. On the first day of qualifying he was an astonishing 5th fastest. However, he couldn’t find any more speed on Saturday and dropped to 13th when others improved. The power band of the DFZ suited the circuit, while the JH23B and Tarquini’s reflexes worked in perfect harmony. He moved up to tenth at the start, and was in the points by lap 31 when Nigel Mansell retired. Tarquini was running ahead of Caffi, who would place 4th, when the electrics failed and ended his race. Nevertheless he was still on song in Mexico, starting 18th and moving through the field while battling with Derek Warwick’s Arrows on his way to another 6th place.

However, AGS lost their point from Imola due to successful appeals from Williams and Scuderia Italia, leaving them where they were. Tarquini put in another fine shift in Phoenix for the US Grand Prix, despite qualifying a lowly 24th. An electrical problem caused the engine to intermittently cut out from the second lap onwards, but the determined Italian kept at the task and began the last lap in sixth place once more, only to be caught and passed by Boutsen at the final corner.

He qualified poorly in Canada too, but in the wet conditions zapped up to an excellent 8th within six laps, only to collide with Rene Arnoux and retire – the Frenchman would go on to finish 5th.

It was really a case of what might have been – AGS could have potentially scored as many as 8 points, but had only one. Their home race was a relative let-down, Tarquini retiring from the midfield, though the new JH24 had been ran in the practice sessions. Bad news came when Stefan Johansson took his Onyx to 5th place, bumping AGS down the standings and putting them at risk of losing their automatic place in the main qualifying sessions. AGS needed at least a 5th place from the British Grand Prix. Instead, they had their worst performance of the year thus far, Tarquini failing to even qualify, and Minardi scored three points to bump them even further down the order.

By now Winkelhock had had enough. He had been getting second-best of everything since joining, the team being happy to take his Camel backing but giving most of the resources to Tarquini. To be fair Tarquini’s form had meant AGS would have been mad not to favour him, and Winkelhock seemed out of his depth anyway, never rating higher than 9th in prequalifying (when only the top four went through to the main qualifying session). However, the German understandably tired of being treated as basically a sponsor, and with sciatica also playing him up quit after the Canadian Grand Prix. Yannick Dalmas, fired by Larrousse, took over the second car but fared little better.

So, from the German Grand Prix onwards both AGS cars had to take place in prequalifying. The sessions were insanely competitive – an hour long Friday morning session with the fastest four going through. Up against the AGS drivers were Larrousse, who had a works V12 Lamborghini engine as well as the experienced driver line-up of Philippe Alliot and Michele Alboreto but had suffered from unreliability; Onyx, new and ambitious, well backed by Moneytron and fielding Stefan Johansson and Bertrand Gachot; Osella, who like AGS could have had half-a-dozen points with Nicola Larini’s deft handling of their neat chassis but for bad luck and unreliability, and who also had the wild card of Pirelli qualifying tyres; and Roberto Moreno in a Coloni. Rounding out the group were Piercarlo Ghinzani in another Osella, the second Coloni (driven initially by Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and then Enrico Bertaggia), the single EuroBrun and the pair of hapless Zakspeed-Yamahas (a combination every bit as silly as it sounds).

So there were eight or nine drivers realistically competing for the four places. The hour was typically manic as all the drivers were trying to learn the tracks, find a set-up (there were no preparation sessions) and post as many hot-laps as possible, all on a green circuit. Spins and accidents were commonplace (Raphanel totalled his Coloni at Hockenheim on his last flying lap, as if he’d lifted his foot he would have definitely not made the cut, whereas if he kept it floored there was always a chance…), and success was down to a magic formula of experience, organisation, timing and pure luck. A minor mechanical problem or spinning off on the other side of the circuit from the pits could end a race weekend.

While the sessions were untelevised, their frantic pace made them compulsive viewing for many insiders. Drivers who failed to make the cut often posted times that would have put them in the lower midfield of the grid the following day as times tumbled. AGS were lost in the maelstrom, neither Tarquini nor Dalmas making it through to the full qualifying sessions once. The latter managed third best time in Hungary, but was disqualified for using tyres marked for the Italian Grand Prix. The team tried to break in the JH24 at several sessions at Le Luc, but adapting it for a different circuit every fortnight was too much for the small staff, even if the design showed commendable reliability.

1989 had been a rollercoaster – after the depressing start, Tarquini had shown some real form. However, the promise didn’t translate into enough in the way of results, and the upshot of it was the second half of the season was a write-off. Unbowed, AGS resolved to stay a two-team outfit, and sealed a sponsorship deal with French fashion house Lapidus. The Le Luc factory was finally ready, and the team expanded to a staff of nearly sixty. Both Tarquini and Dalmas were retained, while Michel Costa began work on the JH25.

For 1990 the cars, looking stunning in black with yellow Lapidus branding (which just goes to show that generally poorer cars look neater…) would both have to prequalify for at least the first half of the season. The competition was slightly less frantic than the previous season due to a contracting entry list, but included the Larrousse cars (now driven by Eric Bernard and Aguri Suzuki), a single Osella driven by Olivier Grouillard, Roberto Moreno (now in a EuroBrun as he continued his tour of the most rubbish teams in F1 history) and a few makeweights. The problem was that Larrousse still had the Lamborghini V12 and two fine drivers, not to mention the resources to really prepare for the sessions, and had two of the four slots sewn up. On top of this, Pirelli (who supplied Osella and EuroBrun) initially had the better qualifying tyres – with DFRs and Goodyears, AGS would be up against it.

Neither car made the cut in the season opener at Phoenix, but at Interlagos Dalmas took advantage of Moreno having mechanical problems to squeeze in at 4th fastest, then got on the grid in last place too to make his first start for AGS (and the team’s first participation in a race since Tarquini had bounced off Arnoux at the previous year’s Canadian Grand Prix, and the only start for the JH24). However, he retired after 29 laps with suspension damage caused by an early brush with Suzuki. The next round at San Marino, the new JH25 was ready, but Dalmas had to withdraw with a hand injury, and new car problems prevented Tarquini from pre-qualifying. It started a run of four races where neither pre-qualified, before Goodyear caught up in the tyre war in time for AGS’ home race.

There both cars made the prequalifying cut, only for Tarquini to then fail to make the grid. Dalmas started last, and in a race of low attrition stayed there to finish 18th, five laps down, at least getting some mileage in the new car. The following race at Silverstone saw AGS’ last chance to escape prequalifying for the second half of the year, but Dalmas failed to get past the Friday morning. Tarquini did, however, and then got onto the grid at 25th, before retiring from 19th and last after 42 laps. Michel Costa resigned after the race, though an aerodynamic imbalance in the nose causing excessive understeer was discovered and corrected to some extent, meaning the car was easier to handle and not so tough on its’ tyres.

Also the prequalifying sessions would get a little easier for the second half of the year. Larrousse had been promoted with five points on the board, their replacements being the DFR-toting Ligiers, while EuroBrun were starting to stagnate. On the long straights of Hockenheim, however, Tarquini failed to prequalify and Dalmas to qualify. The Hunagoring brought better results, both getting through prequalifying, with Tarquini then taking 24th on the grid (Dalmas just missing out on last place). The Italian then drove to 13th, though he made a pretty bad impression by holding up leader Boutsen and the pursing Ayrton Senna in the closing stages – perhaps a belated attempt at revenge for Boutsen’s part in costing Tarquini a couple of points in 1989… but probably not, considering Tarquini is a true gentleman.

The team were having off-track problems, however, as Ted Lapidus’ business dealings took a turn for the worse and he started to default on sponsorship payments. AGS continued to wear the colours and took the company to court, eventually securing their rightfully owed funds when Lapidus were taken over by new management, but the disruption hindered development of the JH25. The season did get better as it went on – Dalmas making the race three times in succession from Monza to Jerez; while a gear selector problem saw him unclassified in Italy and an early driveshaft failure saw him retire in Portugal, he slogged away to a creditable 9th place in Spain, ahead of Alboreto’s Arrows. The latter also saw Tarquini make the cut, with both AGS cars on the grid for the first (and as it would turn out, only) time, but he retied early with electrics having started 23rd. Neither qualified at Suzuka, but Tarquini made it in at the closing Australian Grand Prix, running at the tail of the field until the engine blew.

And that was the year over. It had pretty much been a disaster for AGS. With Formula 1 becoming more professional they found that they had been left behind by the midfield they had mixed with in the first half of 1988 and 1989. The ambitious JH25 had largely disappointed, and there had been no heroic qualifying performances or early race charges to soften the blow. While the factory at Le Luc had seen them move away from their village team origins and become more professional, the truth was the gulf to most of their rivals was getting bigger rather than smaller.

Nevertheless, the team regrouped for another crack in 1991. Dalmas left for a lucrative contract with the Peugeot sports prototype program, a loss for the team considering he’d largely outperformed Tarquini in 1990, but the team pulled off a minor coup with his replacement. They signed Stefan Johansson, a front-runner in the mid-1980s with Ferrari and McLaren. The popular Swede had since endured a largely difficult time with Ligier and then Onyx, but was still highly regarded, and he would line up alongside Tarquini.

However, money was now getting tight. Lapidus’ new owners had seen out their obligations for 1990 but had no desire to stay onboard for another year, and the team was only able to get together a patchwork of minor sponsors. They would be continuing with the updated JH25B for the season, with slow progress being made on the new JH27 as resources allowed. On the plus side, Dalmas’ 9th place at Jerez freed them from the need to prequalify for the first half of the year at least.

The season opener in Phoenix went better than the team expected. Johansson, out of practice having not appeared at a qualifying session since the previous year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, failed to make the cut, but Tarquini qualified a very respectable 22nd (better than anything the team had managed in 1990) and then driving sensibly to finish 8th. He made it through in Brazil as well, starting 24th only to hit a barrier on the first lap. Johansson, unable to deal with the car’s understeer, failed to qualify again.

By now, though, money was really tight. The team nearly collapsed, but were saved by new Italian owners Patrizio Cantù and Gabriele Raffanelli. They promptly fired Johansson (who wasn’t that fussed anyway and replaced him with the moneyed Fabrizio Barbazza. While the Italians brought funds he was capable behind the wheel as well (with IndyCar experience), but neither car qualified for the San Marino Grand Prix. Tarquini then performed another minor miracle at Monaco, putting the aging car 20th on the grid, only to retire after 10 laps when the worn gearbox failed. It was to be the last time an AGS took part in a Grand Prix.

At the following Canadian Grand Prix Tarquini and Barbazza were only 0.4s and 0.3s respectively away from qualification, but after that would drop away. A garish new colour scheme as slapped on the cars for the French Grand Prix, presumably to make them stand out a bit more, but performances stayed drab, and after the British Grand Prix the team dropped back into pre-qualification. Tarquini hauled the car through in Germany only to fail to make the grid, and then wrote off a car trying unsuccessfully to get through in Spa.

The new JH27 was introduced at Monza, but the engine blew after only a single lap. Tarquini then got the new car through pre-qualifying at Estoril, but failed to make the grid, and by now the new owners were low on money too. Tarquini’s contract, one of their few remaining assets, was sold to the Fondmetal team ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, with the man he replaced – Olivier Grouillard – taking the AGS seat on a one-off basis, but neither he nor Barbazza prequalified. The team then withdrew, unable to afford the fly-away races in Japan and Australia. Their plans for 1992 were initially unclear, and various options – including a merger with Larrousse – were rumoured, but the team quietly withdrew and seems to have given little serious thought to competing any further.

Julien reacquired what was left of AGS’ assets at some point afterwards, and now runs a Formula 1 driving school at Le Luc, operating out of the old factory. The team are still regarded with a certain fondness by those who can remember them – while their results were eventually unspectacular, they weren’t as witless as many of their contemporaries, and they generally tried to run good drivers – when they did turn to pay drivers they were of the pedigree of Winkelhock and Barbazza (who would subsequently prove themselves in touring cars and for Minardi, respectively) rather than Langes and Bertaggia.

Their five-year history was refreshingly free of farce too – they never tried to build their own preposterous engine, never squandered a big budget, never tried to relocate to a Swiss car museum, never fitted a driveshaft backwards and never whored out a seat to any passing idiot. And for 18 months they operated from a garage in a French village and seriously embarrassed teams with cutting edge facilities and massive budgets, and that’s something you just have to admire.