Features - Historical
OCTOBER 20, 1999
Stranger than fiction: Strange Formula One team owners
BY JOE SAWARD
Formula 1 has always had people with strange histories. Long before the World Championship began in 1950 the Grand Prix world attracted unusual people. The 1920s were very colorful with the drivers including Amedee Ozanphant, a Cubist painter, Juan Zanelli, a diplomat from Chile and Mademoiselle Helle Nice, who was a stripper at the Casino de Paris. There were bankers and aristocrats and heirs to vast fortunes. In those days there were very few organized teams outside the factory operations and so the drivers used to run their own cars.
It was only in the late 1940s and early 1950s that non-factory teams began to be a regular part of the Formula 1 scene. This was helped in the 1960s by the fact that anyone could build a "kit car" using a Cosworth engine, a Hewland gearbox and one of several established chassis builders. The colorful Alejandro de Tomaso - who was rumoured to have fled his native Argentina after being involved in a plot to assassinate President Juan Peron - did just that with Frank Williams in 1969.
In the early 1970s it was still possible for a designer such as Peter Connewto build their own cars but by the mid-1970s prices began to rise and only the really wealthy or well-connected could afford to enter their own F1 teams. this was the era of the successful businessmen such as Walter Wolf, Roger Penske, Gunther Schmid and Guy Ligier. They were characters: Schmid and Ligier both being famous for their explosive tempers which could result in them quite literally jumping up and down on their own machinery. Others bought cars from established teams and ran them independently. Notable among these was Brett Lunger, an American war hero who was a member of the duPont family and so had access to a vast fortune from the chemical giant. The last such privateer was Mexican Hector Rebaque, who came from a wealthy background. Eventually, however, the rich kids began buying drives in the existing teams - a tradition which continues today with the likes of Pedro Diniz.
The mid-1980s was a period of a cost-explosion in F1 as the big car manufacturers began to get involved in the sport and so team bosses needed more and more money. This made it inevitable that some of them would be outside the law or just seriously unstable. It was a very curious time with an ever-increasing list of team bosses who went from F1 to jails, including Ligier's Cyril de Rouvre, who wasted his family sugar fortune on funding two F1 teams and a political career for himself; Brabham had two team bosses who ended up in jail: Swiss Joachim Luhti, who kept everyone amused by turning up on the pitwall with a "secretary" on each arm and a knotted handkerchief on his head; and Ted Ball, who poured other people's money into two different teams. There were many others who grabbed attention with their curious behavior. Gerard Larrousse had a habit of picking unstable partners. His first - Didier Calmels - shot and killed his wife after a domestic argument and ended up going to jail. Japan's Akira Akagi made a big splash in F1 but then got into trouble with the authorities.
Even in the modern era there have been some strange and unexplained happenings. Flavio Briatore, for example, had a bomb explode his house in London for no apparent reason. Everyone said it was an accident - but Briatore moved house quite quickly afterwards...
When asked about the people involved in Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone once replied with the famous phrase, "Well, they're all a bit mad really." He was quite right. Normal people do not generally end up running racing teams. It is not an easy thing to do and most sane people would settle for a quiet life and a sensible job instead.
Funnily enough, two men who might have won places in the top 10 strange team owners list are now President of the International Automobile Federal - Max Mosley, former boss of the March F1 team; and Ecclestone himself, who owned Brabham for 15 years. Neither one makes it although I am not sure this is a wise move for the author as NOT including them may be more upsetting for them than being included...
Sadly their stories were just not crazy enough - at least not the ones we could prove!
THE TOP 10 STRANGE TEAM OWNERS
The Old School Thai
Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh was a member of Siam's royal family and was a grandson of King Mongkut, who opened the country to Western influence in the late 19th century and was made famous by the musical comedy, "The King and I". As a result the Siamese royal family became closely linked with Britain and in 1927 - at the age of 13 - Prince Bira was sent from Siam to attend the most famous of all British public schools - Eton College. While he was there was a revolution in Siam and after considerable disruption including several coups d'etat and other conspiracies King Prajadhipok - the Prince's uncle - was forced to abdicate. Prince Bira decided to stay in England and went on to study at Cambridge University. Another Siamese Prince - Bira's cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, ran a racing team called White Mouse Racing and the 21-year-old Bira thought he might try his hand at motor racing. He became a very successful racer on the British club scene in the late 1930s. At the same time he met and married an Englishwoman. When war broke out Thailand (as Siam had become in 1939) was occupied by the Japanese army and so Bira decided to stay in Britain, living quietly in a cottage in Cornwall. When the war was over the 31-year-old Prince decided to re-establish White Mouse Racing. There was little motor racing in England in the immediate post-war years and the team closed down but Bira went to Europe and competed in major international events with Maseratis, Gordinis and OSCAs painted up in the yellow and blue racing livery of Siam. His most important victory was at Chimay in Belgium but he finished fourth in the French GP one year at Reims. He eventually retired from racing and thereafter lived a quiet life, splitting his time between Thailand and a villa in the south of France. Later he moved to Geneva in Switzerland and he died at the age of 74 in London.
Poor little rich kid
Money was never a problem for American racer Lance Reventlow but his family caused him a lot of heartache. His mother Barbara Hutton was the richest woman in the world, having inherited the huge fortune when her grandfather Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the Woolworth store chain, died. When she was 24 she married a Danish Count called Kurt Haugwitz-Reventlow (her second marriage). The relationship was shortlived but produced a son called Lance Reventlow. The two parents then spent years fighting for custody of the child. Hutton soon married film star Cary Grant and although they soon divorced Lance regarded Grant as a father figure and spent a lot of time in the unreal world of Hollywood. When he was 19 he became interested in motor racing and competed in club events in California. He was a pal of James Dean. On the day he died Dean met Reventlow while out driving around the hills of California. Reventlow eventually decided to go to Europe to race and spent a season racing Cooper Formula 2 cars. He then returned to the United States and set up his own team called Reventlow Automobile Inc to build sportscars which he called Scarabs. These were quite successful and he immediately decided to build Formula 1 cars. The Scarab was a front-engineered car but arrived just as the rear-engined revolution was hitting F1. Reventlow drove the Scarab in the first half of the 1960 season but the car was not competitive and he eventually borrowed a factory Cooper which he qualified for one single Grand Prix. He went back the US, lost interest in motor racing and spent the rest of his confused life in an out of gossip columns. He died in a plane crash while flying in an electrical storm in the Rocky Mountains. His family, which had fought over him in life fought over him in death as well, his mother wanting him buried in the Woolworth family plot and his wife wanting him in Colorado.
The spy who lost out to industrial espionage
Don Nichols spent most of the 1950s and 1960s living and working in Japan - earning money as a tyre dealer and mixing with the small motor racing community in Japan. Eventually he went back to the United States and established a company called Advanced Vehicle Systems Inc. in California and began building racing cars which he called Shadows. The team's logo was a cloaked man with broad hat hiding his face. The first Shadows were raced in CanAm sportscar events in the US but Nichols soon landed a big sponsorship deal from the UOP oil company and entered Formula 1 with cars designed by Tony Southgate, drivers Jackie Oliver and George Follmer and team manager Alan Rees. The team did well and in 1977 Alan Jones won the team's first - and only - victory at the Austrian GP. But by then UOP had withdrawn and at the end of 1977 Oliver (who had become the team's sponsor-hunter), Rees, Southgate, driver Riccardo Patrese and sponsor Franco Ambrosio decided to leave Shadow and form a new team. It was called Arrows. They built the first Arrows FA/1 car in just 53 days. Nichols immediately sued them claiming that the design was the same as the Shadow DN9 and that he was the victim of industrial espionage. The High Court in London ruled that Nichols was right and Arrows was banned from using the FA/1. The following day a new Arrows A1 appeared for the first time, the team having expected to lose the legal battle. Nichols rebuilt the Shadow team but money was short and not very competitive. In 1981 he sold the operation to Chinese businessman Teddy Yip.
It later emerged that Nichols had chosen the spy logo for a good reason. He had been a spy with America's Central Intelligence Agency during his years in Japan - using Tokyo as a base for activities in Korea and Vietnam.
Spending the family fortune
Lord Thomas Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, the third baron of Hesketh, was born in 1950 and succeeded to the title at the age of five. A wild youth, Hesketh ran away from school but at 21 he was finally allowed access to the family fortune. Egged on by a friend Anthony Horsley - who was known as "Bubbles" - Hesketh decided to set up a racing team and hired James Hunt, who had been fired that year from the March Formula 3 team for crashing too much. Hesketh bought "Hunt the Shunt" a couple of Surtees chassis - one for Formula 2 and the other for occasional F1 races. Hesketh set out to annoy the motor racing fraternity by dressing his team in gaudy uniforms and spending excessively. The cars were run in red, white and blue colours Hesketh refusing to run with sponsorship. The money-wasting reached absurd levels at Monaco where Hesketh used to send his helicopter to nearby Nice to bring back the morning papers and croissants for the guests on his yacht. After running a March in F1 in 1973 Hesketh decided to build his own cars for the 1974 season and gave Harvey Postlethwaite the chance to prove himself as a designer. The cars were built in converted stables behind the Hesketh family stately home at Easton Neston, near Silverstone. Hesketh even announced plans to build his own engines. The Hesketh 308 proved to be quite competitive and Hunt won the 1974 International Trophy F1 race at Silverstone.The car was developed for 1975 and Hunt won the Dutch GP that summer and finished fourth in the World Championship. Hesketh, however, was running short of money and after failing to find sponsorship announced that he was closing down the team. He sold the cars to oilman Walter Wolf. After his wild times in F1 Hesketh became more conventional and by the mid 1980s had become a member of the Conservative government and in 1990 a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. Until recently he was also the President of the British Racing Drivers Club. He remains an advisor to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in his role as Privy Councellor, a job he has held since 1991.
A real taste for danger
Refrigerators were big business in the 1960s and the Lec company grew to be the most successful in Britain. The son of the owner of the company was David Purley and after leaving school he joined the British Army and became an officer in the elite Parachute Regiment, seeing action during the civil war between South Yemen and the Communist-backed National Liberation Front for control of the country. He also survived a partial failure of his parachute during a training jump which left him feeling that he was lucky to be alive. After leaving the army he was encouraged by Derek Bell - a family friend - to try motor racing and he began competing in sportscar events in 1968 with an AC Cobra. In 1970 he switched to single-seaters and ran a team called Lec Refrigeration Racing in Formula 3. He won a variety of races in F3 and moved to F2 in 1972 and into Formula 1 with a Lec March 731 in 1973. That year he won a George Medal - one of the highest awards for bravery in Britain - for his efforts to save Roger Williamson from his burning car at the Dutch Grand Prix. In the winter of 1976-77 - after a period in Formula 5000 - Purley commissioned designer Mike Pilbeam to build a Lec F1 car and this was ready to race in 1977. He qualified for several Grands Prix that summer but in qualifying for the British GP suffered a stuck throttle and crashed head-on into a wall at 108mph. His life was saved by rescue crews at the scene of the crash but it took many months for him to recover from multiple fractures to his legs, pelvis and ribs. He did eventually have a second Lec F1 car built and did one or two events. In 1979 he raced in the British F1 series with a Shadow but then he quit racing and turned instead to running the family business and a new passion - stunt flying. In the summer of 1985 he crashed into the sea while doing some stunt flying off the south coast of England in his Pitts Special stunt plane. Not even David Purley could survive that accident...
The team that never was
In the autumn of 1989 a young and well-connected Mexican businessman called Fernando Gonzalez Luna announced that he intended to create a Mexican racing team in Formula 1. He established a company called GLAS - Gonzalez Luna Associates - and began raising sponsorship from Mexican companies and investors. The project looked to be going well when it was announced in early 1990 that he had persuaded Lamborghini Engineering in Italy not only to supply him with the new Lamborghini V12 engine, but also to expand their operations and build Formula 1 chassis for him as well. Everything was to be ready in time for the 1991 season. The Italians hired a team of designers and work on a chassis began while the Mexicans made preparations, including naming Mexican driver Giovanni Aloi as the team's test driver. GLAS raised $20m to pay for the exciting project.
Suddenly in June 1990 Gonzalez Luna disappeared without trace. The money raised disappeared with him and the plans for the team collapsed. It was clear that Gonzalez Luna had pulled off a successful confidence trick.
Lamborghini Engineering decided that rather than throw away the money that it had invested in the chassis department that it would try to find someone else to run a team using the same package and eventually Italian financier Carlo Patrucco was convinced to start an organization called Modena Team. The team signed up drivers Nicola Larini and Eric Van de Poele and despite having to pre-qualify the team got off to a good start when Larini finished seventh in the opening race of 1991 in Phoenix, Arizona. At the San Marino Van de Poele was running fourth when his car broke down in the final laps of the race. After that the team ran out of money and was closed down at the end of the 1991 season.
The police are still looking for Gonzalez Luna...
Father Christmas the fraudster
Formula 1 team owners tend to be fairly conventional in their appearance as they do not wish to upset their sponsors. They believe that they should always look neat and tidy and wear uniforms as a sign of their professionalism. Belgian millionaire Jean-Pierre Van Rossem did not worry about such things. He had made a lot of money with his company Moneytron and he did not care what people thought of the way he looked. He had long white hair and a beard down to his waist and looked a little like a rather sweaty Father Christmas. The eccentric Belgian Ferrari fan made around $150m with his Moneytron investment scheme and began to spend it all on motor racing. He started out as a sponsor of the Onyx F1 team in 1989 - insisting that the cars be painted pink and blue. By the midseason he had bought a majority shareholding in the team. He came close to securing the factory Porsche engine deal at the end of the year and when Porsche decided to join Arrows instead, Van Rossem sold the team to Swiss millionaire Peter Monteverdi at the beginning of 1990. A year later he was charged with fraud after Moneytron collapsed and was sentenced to five years in prison. He managed to stay out of jail by appealing the sentence on a variety of different counts and somehow managed to get himself elected to parliament to gain immunity from prosecution. He shocked the Belgians by writing a guide to the country's brothels and by making loud republican statements while parliamentarians were taking their oaths of allegiance to Belgium's King Albert II. Eventually his immunity was lifted and he was sent to jail - and ordered to pay $30m to his former clients. He has since served his sentence and has been released.
Van Rossem, incidentally, has his wife's body in a deep freeze in the hope that one day medical science will one day revive her.
Modern museum pieces
In the early 1960s Peter Monteverdi set out to become Switzerland's most successful racing driver. He built his own Formula Junior cars - called MBMs - and later built his own MBM Formula 1 car. This suffered a suspension failure at Hockenheim and Monteverdi was fortunate to survive an accident similar to the one which later killed the great Jim Clark as the car went into the forest beside the track. He suffered multiple injuries but gradually recovered. He decided to give up racing and buried the remains of the MBM F1 in the foundations of a car showroom he built in his home town of Binningen. He began building his own road cars and when this was not a success he turned the show room into his own car museum. The eccentric Monteverdi became known as Switzerland's most overt homosexual, not caring what anyone thought. In 1990 he bought the Onyx team from Jean-Pierre Van Rossem and renamed it Monteverdi. At first F1 was amused by him and by the old London double decker bus which served as his motorhome but when he began to talk about designing the 1991 car himself, most of the original team members left. The rest departed when he moved the team to Switzerland in the midseason.Unperturbed, Monteverdi hired a crew of Swiss mechanics. The standards of preparation fell dramatically and drivers reported that Monteverdi was replacing old parts on the cars from the machines in his museum. After a high-speed accident in Hungary Gregor Foitek decided to quit the team. The cars failed to turn up at the Belgian GP after Goodyear refused to supply tyres until they were paid. Monteverdi never returned. He died in Binningen in July 1998 at the age of 64.
Shoe magnate gets the boot
Andrea Sassetti was an Italian shoe manufacturer who ran a company called Andrea Moda. In the autumn of 1991 he decided to buy Enzo Coloni's unsuccessful Formula 1 team. In an effort to help Sassetti Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone put him in contact with Simtek Research, which had designed a Formula 1 car in secret in 1990 in the hope that BMW would decide to return to Formula 1. It was agreed that Simtek would supply Sassetti with chassis. Ecclestone also convinced a number of experienced F1 people to join the team. Sassetti started off badly by refusing to pay the $100,000 deposit necessary for a new team in F1 and drivers Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia were not allowed to take part in the first race with the old Coloni machinery. Sassetti argued that he should not be made to pay the deposit because AMF was not a new team. In Mexico the team arrived with the new cars in pieces and could not run. At Imola Roberto Moreno and Perry McCarthy were nominated as the drivers but McCarthy was refused a Superlicence and Moreno failed to qualify so it was not until Monaco that Moreno was able to qualify for a race. Sassetti failed to pay his engine bills and so the team had no engines in Canada and after that most of the good staff left. The team then missed the French Grand Prix because its truck was stuck in a blockade by striking French lorry drivers. Moreno and McCarthy battled on but failed to pre-qualify for the races that summer and in August the team was warned by the FIA that it could be excluded from the World Championship if it did not improve. There were rumours from Italy that Sassetti had narrowly avoided being shot outside his factory in Italy and then he arrived at the Belgian GP and was arrested by local police for allegedly forging invoices. The following week the FIA decided that the team should be thrown out of the World Championship for bringing the sport into disrepute and when the Andrea Moda Formula truck arrived at the gates of the F1 paddock at Monza it was turned away...
Hand grenades and guns...
In 1992 Gerard Larrousse found himself with a new partner. The Venturi car company which owned half of his team sold it to a Cannes-based company called the Comstock Group and it was announced that the team would be funded through an investment scheme which would produce enough income to run the team and ensure that investors made a profit. It sounded rather unlikely but no-one in F1 really cared. Comstock was owned by a German "businessman" called Rainer Walldorf. In fact the 50-year-old German was actually called Klaus Walz and was wanted by police in several countries in connection with four different murders. The Grand Prix circus found this out when French police raided Walldorf's home at Valbonne, in the hills behind Nice, early one morning a few weeks later. He was arrested but asked if he could collect some documents from his desk and while he was doing so he pulled out a hand grenade and threatened to blow it up unless the policemen did as he ordered. They agreed and all but one of them were handcuffed to the furniture. Walldorf ordered the police inspector to drive him into the hills where a rendez-vous was arranged with an accomplice. The police inspector was left handcuffed to the car and the grenade was thrown away to explode harmlessly and Walldorf disappeared. A month later he was found by German police in a hotel. After a nine hour seige the police stormed Walldorf's room and he was killed during a gun battle, ending the shortest - and possibly the most colorful - career as a Formula 1 team owner.