Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler: BlackJack’sBriefs
As with my series on drivers, I started with the Wiki ‘List of Formula One Constructors’ and quickly reduced 136 to 43 eligible constructors by removing the Champions, and those hopefuls who failed to last beyond two or three seasons, and also those who only competed before 1958. [See Part-20 – Intro for details.]
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
I’m sure many readers will be surprised by this result – some readers might be thinking: ‘What… Who…?’ Before getting embroiled in a discussion of debateable merit let me remind you of my original attempt to be objective, even in a subjective world. Those of you who clearly remember the decade of flared trousers and platform shoes might recall that Walter Wolf Racing experienced just one magical, fairy-tale year in F1, followed by two seasons of increasing frustration.
One of my original criteria, in order to quickly sort the wheat from the chaff, was that a team needed to have existed in F1 GP racing for at least three years and, on this count, Wolf qualified. Secondly, as the team didn’t hang around long when the going got tough, as for example did Ligier, Wolf didn’t suffer the iniquities of many ‘point-less’ years to drag their score down…
So… although this result might be a surprise, if you accept the way I transparently handled the statistics, Wolf is a deserving victor…
Walter Wolf was born in 1939 in Graz (home also of Jochen Rindt), Austria, to a German bricklayer and Slovenian mother. Oddly (or perhaps not) his background and upbringing was not too dissimilar in style to Guy Ligier. From a poor, post-war beginning (his father was held in a Soviet prison camp until 1954), Walter emigrated to Canada in 1960 where, by dint of hard work, and a few useful contacts (for Mitterand, read Trudeau… and also Helmut Schmidt…), he established himself as a building contractor, oil-driller, and oil-dealer. In the energy crisis of 1973/74 he made a sizeable sum, and a number of useful friends in Saudia Arabia. By the 70’s he owned a string of Lamborghini Miuras, a personalised Countach, a Mercedes S-600, a Learjet, a couple of Jet Ranger helicopters, and a power-boat. Not a yacht, though, which he apparently considered ostentatious.
He also marketed the ‘WalterWolf’ aftershave, his own range of cigarettes, and sold motorbikes bearing his name.
By 1972, Walter left Canada and lived for many years in London, Cannes and Switzerland, mixing with presidents and politicians, and a touch of royalty, before returning to Canada to (later) involve himself in politics and he, or his associates, were implicated in the AirCanada Airbus scandal… and later by the collapse of the Slovenian government on corruption charges which led to the new government seeking the arrest of Walter Wolf for his alleged involvement in an arms-related bribery scandal.
Interpol issued his photo, with the caption:
Wanted by the judicial authorities of Slovenia for prosecution / to serve a sentence.
But, in his earlier days, where Ligier was a successful rugby player Wolf was a member of the Canadian down-hill team in the 1964 winter Olympics.
And both men had a love for fast cars, motor-sports, and F1, from a young age.
By 1975 Walter owned 51% of Lamborghini, apparently saving the company from total collapse… and, through Gianpaolo Dallara [see: 20th – Dallara], had also met Frank Williams who was then running Frank Williams Racing Cars.
To fill the gaps… Frank was another ‘poor boy’ (but not much of an athlete), with an equal desire to get into motor- racing. He was also a ‘wheeler-dealer’, with fingers in many pies, and a public phone box outside his private garage that he used as his ‘office-phone’. He gave up driving in the mid-60’s and formed his own team, buying an F1 Brabham, for Piers Courage in 1969, which much angered my hero because the car had been sold expressly for use in the Tasman Series, and then be converted for F5000. But it’s an imperfect world. Piers placed 2nd in both Monaco and the US GPs…
Frank was approached by De Tomaso who built a car designed by Dallara but a crash that killed Piers only hardened Frank’s demeanour, while De Tomaso pulled out. Frank soldiered on, in an apparently worse financial state than Caterham have recently suffered, but managed to acquire backing from Motul and Politoys to build their own car but, in the hands of Henri Pescarolo, the steering failed (!?) and the car was heavily damaged. Chris Amon later tried the car but refused to race it.
Frank mysteriously changed sponsors every year (his ability to get them didn’t seem to match his ability to keep them…) and after changing to Marlboro and Iso Rivolta, for just one year, now went without, having presumably saved a few pennies from previous years and Laffite, taking a sabbatical from Ligier, placed a magnificent 2nd to Reutemann’s Brabham in Germany.
But, in 1976, Frank sold 60% of his outfit to Walter Wolf, who had also just acquired the remnants of the Hesketh operation [see: 6th – Hesketh], and some of the assets of the Embassy Hill team, with Frank retained as Team Manager. To say it didn’t really work is perhaps an understatement and it seems to be under conjecture whether Frank was fired, or walked. Whatever, by the end of the year Frank went off (with Patrick Head and a few others) to form Williams GP Engineering… leaving Walter to pick up the pieces… and this he seemed to do with gay abandon – or, these days, perhaps I should say, with gusto…
Walter Wolf Racing was formed for 1977, Peter Warr was lured from Lotus as Team Manager (leaving Frank as ‘business manager’, to seek sponsorship, before he upped and left…), Harvey Postlethwaite had already joined (from Hesketh), assisted by Patrick Head (and even a fledgeling Ross Brawn was lurking somewhere in the workshop…), and Jody Scheckter arrived from Tyrrell (after four wins in three years).
It is probable that many fans and competitors, at the time, had enough reason to feel sure of a good year for Wolf. Harvey produced the WR1-Cosworth (with some assistance from a young Adrian Newey) and the team played safe with just one entry for Jody, and off they went to Argentina for the first race. Reigning Champion, James Hunt, took pole, with Watson and Depailler (in the 6-wheel Tyrrell) alongside. Jody was way back in 11th but he pushed hard in the race and kept his head, as others around him lost theirs – or rather, lost wheels, ran out of fuel, broke suspensions, transmissions, over-heated, or just spun off… and the jubilant Scheckter came home the victor, 43 secs. ahead of Carlos Pace’s Brabham and Reutemann’s Ferrari – the first time a new car from a new team had won first time out since 1954… and, even then, Mercedes was hardly a brand-new team…
After the US GP West Walter was apparently in conversation with Enzo who was so confident of winning a third Monaco GP they agreed: If Wolf won, Enzo would give him a Ferrari. But… if Ferrari won, Walter would have to buy two Ferrari road cars… A perhaps small point is that it isn’t recorded where this conversation took place… because Il Commendatore rarely attended race meetings at this time, and certainly not across the ‘pond’.
Well, Scheckter proved Argentina wasn’t a fluke by going on to win at Monaco (with fastest lap as well) and, true to his word, Enzo sent Walter a 512 Berlinetta Boxer—but there was a bill attached – allegedly Enzo retorted, ‘The car is free, but the tires are not.’ Later, Wolf allegedly asked his neighbour, Gilles Villeneuve to take the car to the factory for a service. Gilles apparently drove it so hard on his return, that it had to go back again – for new brakes and tyres.
Jody finished the year with a third victory at Wolf’s home GP at Mosport. He also took fastest lap in the final race in Japan, and had also taken pole position in Germany, and stood on the podium six more times, to place 2nd in the Championship. It was an amazing, and well-earned result. In the first sixteen races of the season Scheckter finished nine times, and every one of them on the podium…! Of the seven DNFs, he was invariably at the front when forced to retire. Only Japan was a bad race, where he finished 10th.
Although it was Lauda’s year, Mario Andretti won the most GP to take third behind Jody, with Reutemann and Hunt close behind. With only one car to score points Wolf had to be satisfied with 4th place in the Constructors’ Championsip, behind Ferrari, Lotus and McLaren, but well ahead of Brabham, Tyrrell, Shadow, Ligier, Fittipaldi, Ensign, Surtees, Penske and March.
It wasn’t only Wolf who surprised everyone this year. Shadow took their only victory [see: 10th – Shadow]; Gunnar Nilsson had his only win before cancer sadly ended his career; Renault arrived with a ‘new-fangled’ turbo car; and it was the last year a BRM qualified to race. It was also the year of the appallingly, tragically unnecessary death of Tom Pryce who crashed into a wayward marshall at a chaotically supervised S.African GP.
The team remained the same, but with a new car for the ‘ground-effects era’. However, other designers had jumped ahead of Harvey, especially Chapman’s team, and it was Lotus’ year. Although Jody stood on the podium four times, and came close to winning occasionally, it was a disappointing second season, as Jody dropped to 7th, and Wolf were pipped by Tyrrell and fell to 5th.
However, 3rd and 2nd places in the final two American races augured well for 1979.
Andretti was the last American to win the Championship, indeed the last to win a GP. His teammate, Ronnie Peterson was postumously awarded 2nd in the Championship following another tragic and, by today’s standards, unnecessary death.
Nothing lasts for ever, though perhaps for few of us does it only last one year. Jody was lured away to Ferrari, where he took the World Championship. He was replaced by Hunt whose heart, after retiring from seven of the first eight races, no longer seemed to be in it, perhaps hardly surprising… James retired from the sport before the end of the season, and was replaced by newcomer, Keke Rosberg… who retired from seven of the other eight races… Walter decided it wasn’t fun any more, and sold off the team to Emerson Fittipaldi, who merged the assets with his own team… the last of the driver/constructors in F1.
It was a short time in F1, and is probably almost forgotten, if not unheard of, by most F1 fans today but that one magical season (along with Walter’s ability to acknowledge it could be futile to persevere) was statistically sufficient to have this team take the number-one slot in this series… and that first season was real ‘Hollywood’.
Walter rarely bothered with sponsorship deals, claiming he wouldn’t put other companies’ stickers on the car and make it ugly, only relinquishing with Olympus Cameras for 1979.
In a rare interview for Motor Sport, Walter expressed his view of the 70’s v. the 10’s
“Today, motor racing is all very corporate. It is a business, not a sport any more. In the 1970s we would all stay at the same hotel, drivers and teams, we would have dinner together. We were friends. After the race we would hate each other for a day or two, then we would be friends again. Today people don’t talk to each other, you would never see people from different teams having dinner. And after the race, each driver rushes to the airport, or if a driver retires he is gone without waiting for the end.”
3 wins, 10 additional Podiums, 2 Fastest Laps, and 1 Pole Position, spread over just 54 GP race entries (just 35 in their two scoring years…), and one of the most beautiful cars, and paint-jobs (also in 1977, as the later models were pretty average looking), gives Wolf pride of place in this series.
I include this 21st.C. version of the WR1… because I like it…
There is a Wolf WR1 on display at the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame and a Wolf WR7 at the Cotswold Motor Museum.
Finally… what of Interpol…? First, the charges mentioned here are a year or so old, and I’ve been unable to find more up-to-date information.
Unsurprisingly Walter Wolf professes innocence and asserts he will return to Slovenia, when his health has improved, also claiming he only “sent gas masks from Poland to Yugoslavia”, and “introduced Croatian and Slovenian politicians to Israeli arms dealers”. There is a related court case in Austria, and a threat of a re-trial in Croatia, and a former colleague is still suffering bribery charges in Germany as well as being involved in the Airbus scandal.
The Slovenian prime-minister has been convicted of bribery in a €278m. defence deal with a Finnish company that resulted in a €3.6m. ‘kick back’ for both Walter and his Austrian ‘connector’, who has already been convicted. Walter has admitted that he did receive €2.3m. of this… for his “legitimate consulting fee”.
Walter asserts his Lichtenstein accounts have been frozen since 2008, he has disbanded or left his many companies in Croatia and Slovenia, had given his 7,000 acre ‘logging’ ranch in Canada to his children twenty years ago, and is now effectively broke.
When asked, about his playboy image, he denies he “ever ran around” when he was married (though both wives divorced him for such reasons). “I’m not going to say that when I was married and in Hong Kong that I didn’t meet people – that when I was in Shanghai and there were those half-Asian, half-European girls who look like [raised his eyebrows], hell, fine…” And then added: “I’ve done lots of things in life, but I have principles. There’s not a woman in the world that can say I paid her.”
Some principle…! However… maybe Walter doesn’t include women that others paid for, as ‘gifts’ to him… Or the gifts he bought, and gave to women… Oh, come on… It happens…!