Formula One
No Sign of Life: The Worst Formula 1 Team of All Time

Life were a team that redefined the idea of failure. Indeed, if you look at most of the minnows of Grand Prix racing, they all had, on their own terms, the odd brush with success, even if it was just a good qualifying performance or a dogged run to a top 10 finish. Some, like Andrea Moda, were at least quite funny. At least in most of these cases, you could see what they were trying to do.

For Life, it’s a lot more unclear what exactly the team were trying to achieve, and why they thought it was possible. To set the scene a bit, the turbocharged engines which had created so much fine racing in the 1980s were to be outlawed in 1989 after two years of being steadily restricted, as F1 made an effort to cut costs and get big manufacturers on side. From 1989, all cars would have to use 3.5l normally aspirated engines, and much speculation mounted about what form these were to take. The favourite was the ‘V’ layout which had established pedigree – Ferrari planned a V12, Honda and Renault began work on a V10, Judd, Cosworth (bankrolled by Ford) and Yamaha began looking at a V8.

Elsewhere, Carlo Chitti, the man behind the boxer Ferraris which had won titles for Niki Lauda (but more recently the Motori Moderni turbo which had basically made Minardi’s first three seasons in the sport a complete misery) unsurprisingly trumpeted flat 12 as the way to go, and managed to land Subaru’s backing. However, there was also something out there even weirder than an old Italian who couldn’t let the seventies go enlisting Subaru in Grand Prix racing.

The object of the exercise - the Life W12 engineWankel (pronounced Vankel, so stop sniggering at the back) engines had been used by Mazda to good effect over the previous decade, most notably in the classic RX-7 road car, while the ultimate evolution of this would be realised in 1991, when Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler took the Mazda 787B to an overall win in the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours. However, Mazda were happy enough in Sportscars, and so pushing the Wankel engine for Formula 1 was left up to French unit MGN, and Italian engineer Franco Rochi.

Rochi, an engineer from Modena, had devised a W12 engine in the 1970s, and had tinkered with it privately. His engine was then bought by business man Ernesto Vita, who named it the Life (the English translation of his name, possibly the smartest thing about the project) F35. He shipped the prototype around to various teams and manufacturers hoping to raise enough interest to secure some developmental funds. Nobody was particularly interested in something so radical, though, and when the F1 circus pitched up in 1989 for the first all-atmo race since the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix, the cars were all equipped with V12s, V10s or V8s.

However, the new regulations had at least made F1 cheaper, and the result was the entry list had really exploded by 1989 to a stupefying 39 cars. The cheap Cosworth DFR did the same job it had in the 1970s, meaning all sorts of teams grabbed a driver or two, a couple of dozen crew, a few sponsors, built a chassis, bought a DFR and set off to go Grand Prix racing. Or, more often, not, as pre-qualifying reached its’ zenith. The system had been used intermittently to keep the number of cars in official qualifying sessions down to a minimum, usually for entries of over 30 cars. It had only really been deployed before for races which attracted large numbers of local drivers from domestic series (such as the South African or British Grand Prix), or to keep the numbers down for the tight confines of Monaco. It had first been deployed full-time in 1988, to eliminate just one car from the entry, but for 1989 there were 13 cars trying their luck.

It would have been 14. Lower formulae outfits such as Onyx and Coloni had seen the cheaper regulations as their chance to move up to the highest level, and they would have been joined by First Racing. Ex-Surtees and Ensign driver Lamberto Leoni’s team had ran respectably in F3000 with the likes of Pierluigi Martini and Marco Apicella, and he commissioned Richard Divilia to design an F1 car to contest the 1989 series, with a Judd V8 in the back. Divilia went to work for Ligier before the March 88B-influenced design was finished, and was appalled to find out the thing was riddled with serious manufacturing errors. Gabriele Tarquini nevertheless signed on to drive the First, running at the Attilio Bettega Memorial event in Bologna. However, the car then unsurprisingly failed an FIA crash test pre-season, and was not entered for 1989.

Gabrielle Tarquini risks life and decapitation in the First-Judd at BolognaEnter our man Ernesto Vita. Unable to interest anyone in his Life W12, he reasoned (with a complete lack of common sense) the best thing to do was to put together his own team to run the engine. Obviously this was a recipe for complete success, and after the Life-Life had trounced the opposition people would be queuing up for the engine, right? Right. The way F1 bosses were happier paying for Cosworth motors than running Vita’s W12 for free perhaps should have been a clue, but never mind.

The big stumbling block here was that Life Racing Engines was basically a garage in Modena with an engine and Ernesto Vita in it, and thus lacked the resources to actually make an F1 car. Instead, he bought the surviving First chassis and claimed it was now the Life L190. Another ex-Ferrari engineer, Gianni Marelli, reworked the chassis to take the W12, which was the same length as a V8, but a little taller, and made a few other changes.

A very arty shot, totally wasted on bits of a Life L190Presumably these were enough to get it past the crash tests, which can’t have all that strenuous as the cockpit was low and wide, giving lots of arm space but also leaving the driver very exposed by contemporary standards. Life Racing Engines were in the 1990 World Championship, with the entry number 39 for the single car.

Next they needed a driver. Enter Gary Brabham, second son of triple World Champion Sir Jack. Gary was a decent driver with good results in lower formulae where he’d had the budget, but seemed to hit a bit of a glass ceiling. He’d tested for Benetton, Brabham (hmm, wonder how he swung that?) and Leyton House, but was in the category of not being quite fast enough to interest the bigger teams, and not being able to attract the sponsorship to buy a seat at a smaller team. Brabham was basically desperate to get into F1 before he was swamped by the next wave of young Turks coming up through the ranks, and when Vita offered him a drive in the Life he jumped at the chance, despite Divilia’s warnings that the car basically wasn’t safe.

God only knows what Vita told him to persuade him. Life had a fistful of employees, a single chassis and two W12 engines. They didn’t even test before flying out to Phoenix, Arizona for the opening round of the 1990 championship. The L190 didn’t even look right, with its’ tightly pinched nose only emphasising the barrel-like engine cover and low sidepods. The all-red scheme had a certain simplicity to it, mainly down to the tiny amount of sponsors, including Nardi Borelli, furniture label Fontanot and pre-packaged fruit company Noberasco, as well as fuel suppliers Agip and tyre suppliers Goodyear. I’d love to hear what exactly Brabham was being paid for his part in this – would he have had a retainer? A case of whatever it was Nardi Borelli made? Or did he consent to drive this beast for free just to get an F1 ride?

Regardless, he turned up in Phoenix for the hour-long Friday morning pre-qualifying session to battle with the Larrousse-Lamborghinis of Eric Bernard and Aguri Suzuki, the Osella of Olivier Grouillard, the AGS-Cosworths of Gabriele Tarquini and Yannick Dalmas, the EuroBrun-Judds of Roberto Moreno and Claudio Langes and finally the Coloni-Subaru of Bertrand Gachot for one of the four places in qualifying proper. As expected by most, this went less than well.

Gary Brabham judders around Phoenix in the LifeThe Life was deathly slow, with Brabham able to lap the Phoenix circuit in 2:07.147, nearly 30 seconds slower than Ayrton Senna’s 1989 pole time, before the engine blew after a paltry four laps. It was even 27 seconds off Suzuki’s time and the final pre-qualifying slot. With no time for the tiny team to retrieve the car and change the engine, that was that. Still, at least Life could thumb their nose at Coloni, Gachot having posted an astonishing 5:15.010 when their car fell apart even quicker.

That was it, though, the apex of Life’s success. It would be the only time that the Life beat another car in a timed session. The little team pottered along to Brazil for the second race of the year. Brabham strapped himself in the L190 and set off for his first lap of pre-qualifying at Interlagos, advanced 400 yards down the track and the engine failed due to a broken conrod. The mechanics were on strike (presumably their lovely Noberasco dried prunes hadn’t turned up) and didn’t put any oil in the engine, so that was that. It was certainly enough for Brabham, who walked away from the team, bemoaning their poor organisation and lack of professionalism. A sad end to a handy driver’s F1 career, but you have to wonder why exactly he’d thought it would turn out any other way.

It’s worth taking stock at this point and wondering what the point of all this was. It costs money to do this sort of stuff. The cost of freighting even a single chassis, a pair of engines and Life’s scant range of equipment and spares around the world is not insubstantial. Even Life’s small staff would need accommodation, if only for one night. Big-name companies like Agip and Goodyear were wasting resources on this.

Brabham at Interlagos, about three seconds from the oil-deprived W12 breaking downThe package had shown as close to no potential as was possible – roll those speed differentials from Phoenix around your head for a moment. The W12 engine put out about 450bhp, compared to ~600bhp from the customer DFR – so the motor could summon up three-quarters of the power of the most basic F1 engine, and weighed more to boot. The car had been 30 seconds slower per lap than just about everyone else, averaging ~69mph. The slowest drivers in race trim averaged about 86mph the following Sunday, and if the Life had somehow made it through to the race due to all the other pre-qualifiers having massive accidents, it would have been lapped by the front runners something like once every four or five laps.

Okay, so it’s harsh to compare Ernesto’s barmy army (well, platoon…) to a proper racing team, Brabham was probably still very much feeling his way around when he posted his best lap, and given a full hour’s running, who knows, it might have broken the two minute barrier. But the big problem was the engine never ran for long enough to do much more than basic exploration. Plus engineers striking and not oiling the thing, and also not mentioning this until the driver’s just blown the motor, is not a good sign.

The PandaAll of which pointed to it maybe being a good idea for all concerned to just leave it be. But Life went out and got a new driver, and it was a pretty bizarre choice too. Presumably the drivers who hadn’t been scared off by Divilia’s warnings were put off by the mockery it had made of Brabham, and so the man Life turned up was Bruno Giacomelli. The cuddly Italian, nicknamed the Panda, had raced works Alfa Romeos in the early 1980s - even taking a pole position in the 1980 US East Grand Prix and dominating the race before retirement - but had basically achieved little, developing a problem with overdriving despite popularity with fans, and a troubled 1983 season with Toleman had seen F1 leave him behind. Since then he’d driven occasionally in sportscars and Indycars, and had been the Leyton House team’s official test driver since 1989.

The Bicester outfit were happy enough for Bruno to drive the Life on weekends anyway (presumably guessing that the car would never reach the sort of speed where their test driver would be likely to injure himself), so Giacomelli arrived at Imola with the Life team for his first grand prix weekend in seven years. At the end of the hour session he must have wondered why he bothered. The Italian seemed more than a little shaken, having spent most of his track time seriously worried about being struck from behind by another car and just trying to keep the thing running. The best time he posted was a gob-smacking 7:16.212, average speed ~24mph. Next-slowest man Claudio Langes could have managed five laps in the same time, and he was six seconds from the cut.

Obviously mechanical problems contributed to the gargantuan time, but you have to wonder why the FIA didn’t intercede on safety grounds – the L190 was no faster than a very average F3000 car, and the speed differential was downright dangerous – the speed at which even Larrousse’s Lola-Lamborghinis would have closed on the crate must have been terrifying. I guess that the car’s frequent breakdowns meant it was just never on the track long enough to get in anyone’s way.

Giacomelli hurtles around Monte Carlo. Look at that cockpit, does that look remotely safe?Nevertheless, both Giacomelli and Life were happy to carry on. Giacomelli was a popular chap in the paddock who probably then hung around the Leyton House garages for the rest of the weekend meeting old friends and checking out the girls after his hour’s work in the morning. Unlike Brabham his F1 career was already realistically over, so it was doing his reputation no harm and he probably enjoyed the whole experience.

It’s interesting to wonder what other teams made of Life, actually, and whether the likes of Ron Dennis or Frank Williams even knew of them. Pre-qualifying sessions weren’t broadcast on TV, and Life would be packed up and probably have gone home by the time the rest of the teams turned up for the first full Friday session. During the season it’s quite likely few beyond race organisers, the specialist press and serious fans had even heard of them.

Monaco even saw a relative upturn (emphasis on the word ‘relative’) in the team’s fortunes. Giacomelli had turned in a couple of good performances on the streets of Monte Carlo, and the W12’s complete lack of power was less of a problem. The Italian lapped within two seconds of Gachot’s Coloni, and a mere 17 seconds from final pre-qualifier Moreno, recording 8 laps in the process before the engine popped. Heady stuff. Canada saw another relatively sensible performance, 3.1s off the pace of Claudio Langes’ EuroBrun, and 21s off making the cut, Giacomelli putting together seven flying (well, sort-of) laps on the coarse surface. However, things took a turn for the worst at the Mexican GP, Giacomelli somehow posting a time of 4:07.475, a mere 2:27.061 slower than Langes and a further 12 seconds from pre-qualifying. It was the only flying lap the Life managed that weekend.

Bruno finishes for the weekend at Paul RicardThings got worse still in France, where the L190 expired midway round its’ out-lap and couldn’t be recovered before the end of the session. At Silverstone the gap returned to normal, 6.2s from Langes and 14s from slowest pre-qualifier Grouillard, though Giacomelli was forced to park the Life out on the circuit after another engine failure.

Hockenheim saw a further drop back, 20s from Langes, while at the Hungaroring Giacomelli was nearly 15s behind his equally hapless compatriot with just five laps under his belt, and 18s further back at Spa (where the car only ran for the last 20 minutes of the session after the engine refused to fire up).

Another mammoth 20s gap from Langes at the team’s home race seems to finally have got through to the team, as well as the engine only lasting for three laps on this occasion. With the figures above it has to be considered that Langes was frankly rubbish, and typically 6-10s from the pre-qualifying pace (he was given only minimal laps by EuroBrun, and was basically there for his sponsorship). Something had to happen.

Amazingly, that something wasn’t Life withdrawing and doing something more constructive. Instead, they bought, borrowed or stole a Judd V8 (apparently one of the units used by Lotus in 1989) and bolted it in the back of the L190, which sort of defeated the point of running the car. However, it was a fairly sensible move, having a serious tilt at pre-qualifying and put the W12 on the back burner for the time being.

Photographers had stopped wasting film on the L190 by the end of the year, so here's Bruno causing the yellow flags to come out at the Hungaroring.Of course, this was Life, so obviously something farcical had to happen. In this case, the remodelled engine cover didn’t actually fit over the Judd, something the team don’t seem to have checked before turning up at Estoril. Either that or they thought no-one would mind if they ran without the cover. Whichever, the car didn’t run for more than half its’ out-lap anyway.

The appropriate modifications were made for the Spanish Grand Prix, but the fitting of a reliable, sturdy power plant just exposed how awful the chassis was, and Giacomelli was once again 17s off making the cut, logging two laps before something broke. Finally Vita saw what everyone else had 13 races earlier and realised this was all pointless, and the team opted not to go to Japan or Australia. Whether there were any serious plans for the team to enter in 1991 is unknown, but it seems pretty unlikely. Nothing was really heard from the team since, though the L190 itself ended up in private hands and ran at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed, presumably as some sort of ironic thing.

It’s hard to think of a team more inept that Life in F1’s history. Andrea Moda got into a race, Maki at least looked like qualifying a couple of times, Kauhsen only hung around for a couple of meetings and the 1997 Lola effort had the dignity to collapse spectacularly after only a single failed attempt at qualification. None of these teams, or many of the other obscurities from the bottom of the pre-qualifying charts, displayed quite the same mixture of consistency and stupidity as Life, nor such a suicidal decision as running their own barely-tested engine in the back of their dreadful car. At the same time, it’s hard not to begrudgingly admire the persistence of a team who followed the F1 circus around the world from Phoenix to Jerez surely knowing they had no chance of even competing for a pre-qualifying spot. They set a benchmark for failure that’s unlikely to get broken, as the 1990s saw F1 grow ever more professional and expensive.