Erich Zakowski set up a tuning company in 1968 to prepare Ford Escorts and it was renamed Zakspeed in 1970, making a reputation for itself preparing Ford products in the 1970s, notably the mighty Zakspeed Capris. It later moved on to sportscar racing with Ford but in 1984 decided to enter F1 racing with its own turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The car was designed by former Chevron and Maurer designer Paul Brown and began racing in European events in 1985 with Jonathan Palmer driving the West-sponsored 841. Palmer started seven races but finished only once, coming home 11th at Monaco. After the Englishman was injured in a sportscar accident at Spa Christian Danner took over for two races but again failed to finish.
Palmer stayed with the team in 1986 with a modified version of the 841, which was designated the 861. The team expanded to two cars in the mid-season with Palmer being joined by Huub Rothengatter, but the team was not really big enough to cope.
Palmer took part in all the races and finished in the top 10 on several occasions, his best finish being eighth at Detroit. Rothengatter also scored an eighth place finish at the Austrian GP. For the 1987 car Brown was joined by fellow countryman Chris Murphy who had been working on sportscar designs at Zakspeed and the pair produced the 871. West remained the team's sponsor but Palmer departed for a drive at Tyrrell and Zakspeed hired Martin Brundle and Christian Danner.
The new car proved to be quite competitive and at the San Marino GP Brundle finished fifth to give the team its first points score. A lack of development led to the team fading as the year went on although the two drivers finished seventh on three separate occasions.
The restrictions on turbocharged engines in 1988 made the Zakspeed a lot less powerful and less reliable and the cars, which were simply reworked 871s, were not competitive. Piercarlo Ghinzani qualified for only eight of the 16 races and F1 new boy Bernd Schneider started only six times, his only finish being 12th at the German GP.
The new normally-aspirated formula in 1989 marked a new start for the team and Zakowski thought he had grabbed an advantage when he signed to use Yamaha V8 engines. The new Zakspeed 891 was designed by Gustav Brunner with the help of former Ferrari composite expert Nino Frisson. Schneider was joined by Yamaha nominee Aguri Suzuki. The lack of success in 1988 meant that with more cars trying to qualify for GPs, Zakspeed had to pre-qualify. Schneider made it in the first race in Brazil but retired. He did not get through again until the penultimate GP in Japan. Suzuki failed to pre-qualify at all 16 events.
In August that year Reemtsma, the owner of West, announced that it would not be continuing after five seasons with the team that August and soon afterwards Brunner left to work at Leyton House Racing.
The team did not reappear in 1990 although it went on to run touring cars with great success in the 1990s when Erich Zakowski's son Peter took over the team. The team attempted to buy a shareholding in the Arrows team at the end of 1998 but the deal did not materialize.