Worst team ever in F1 & why we must thank them

One of the most common and usually heated discussions in F1 is who or what, is or was the best. The best driver, car, engine or circuit provides endless debate. But sometimes who or what was the worst can actually be more interesting. And in this article I’m going to detail one of F1’s little known but maybe greatest team failure.

Today, at the end of the 2017 F1 season, various groups within F1 are looking to come up with a new simpler engine spec for 2021. However it turns out, one of the common statements made is that this new spec could encourage new engine supplier entrants into F1. Whether that actually happens or not, only time will tell. But there was a time the FIA did change the spec and make that claim and it did actually happen. This isn’t just a story of engines, but also about a team being formed because of their engine. Usually a team in F1 fails because it has a bad chassis or engine. Rarely do they ever get both wrong. And that is where or story begins.

Well, it actually starts a little bit earlier than that. The engines of the first turbo era were astounding pieces of engineering. The first Honda turbo in F1 in 1983, the RA163E, produced around 600HP. By 1987 the RA167E was producing about 850HP in race trim and 1200HP when set-up as a one lap qualifying wonder engine. Regulation changes for 1988 brought the HP of the RA168E down to around 725, but that was still 150+HP more than the Cosworth DFZ produced. F1 had evolved into a two-tiered sport with those who could afford or get turbo’s and those who couldn’t. Honda was reported to be spending $60M – $70M a year on their turbo engine program in the late 1980’s. Depending on what calculator you use, that is $125M – $150M in today’s money. It was clearly financially unsustainable and if left unchecked could have finished off F1. The FIA acted and for the 1989 season turbo’s were banned and the new F1 engine spec was a normally aspirated 3.5L with no restriction on configuration.

In 1988 former Ferrari engine designer, Franco Rocchi, saw this as an opportunity to design an engine for the new 1989 F1 engine spec. Rocchi was no novice when it came to engine design, he was responsible for the engines in Ferrari’s 308 series in the 1970’s, but those were road cars. This would be his first F1 design. He believed that with 20 teams entered in the 1989 season there was bound to be a team willing to buy his design, as Subaru had done with another former Ferrari engine designer Carlo Chiti, and especially as Rocchi felt he had an ace up his sleeve in a W12 engine.

I’m sure most people reading this have no idea what a W12 engine is. Simply put, it uses 3 banks of 4 cylinders (which look like a W) instead of the traditional arrangement of 6 cylinders in 2 banks configured as a V. W configured engines weren’t new, they had been used in the aircraft industry since the 1930’s and occasionally in motorcycles. The advantage Rochi saw of using them in F1 was that while they are slightly higher than a V8 they were the same length and any of the Cosworth powered teams could easily fit the engine into their car and get the benefit of 4 extra cylinders. That was the theory.

By mid-1989 the design was finished. Rocchi didn’t have any success selling the concept to any F1 team but an Italian businessman named Ernesto Vita liked the idea and figured he could make a quick buck or lira selling the design to an F1 team, so he bought the rights to the design and Vita (which is Italian for life) named the new company Life Racing Engines.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Vita had no more success selling the W12 concept to any F1 team than Rocchi did. Teams were sceptical of the W12’s radical design. It was safer to go with a proven engine from Cosworth or even Judd. At this point most people would have walked away and realized they had made a mistake buying the engine’s design. But not Vita. With an F1 engine he decided the smart way to go was to form his own F1 team, and Life Racing was born.

Vita’s big problem was he didn’t have an F1 chassis to put his engine in. Luckily he found that First Racing had designed a chassis which they intended to run in 1989, but it had failed to meet the FIA’s crash test requirements. First Racing abandoned their F1 project but the single chassis they had built was available, so Vita bought it and renamed it the L190. A couple of ex-Ferrari engineers were brought in to modify the chassis to accommodate the engine and get it to meet the crash test requirements. By the middle of February the work on the chassis was finished.

Vita now needed a driver. With less than a month before the first race in Phoenix they would be hard to come by. Somehow Gary Brabham was asked to drive for the team. Brabham, the son of three time F1 champion Jack Brabham, had been in the fringes of F1 for a while. He had tested for Leyton House, Brabham and Benneton and likely saw the Life drive as his last chance to get into F1. Vita saw Brabham as a known figure, giving the team some credibility and as an English speaker could help him sell his engines to other teams. Life decided to forego testing and with one chassis and two engines headed out to Phoenix for the first race.

With 20 teams competing and as Life was a new entrant, they would be required to pre-qualify. When it finally did get out on the track to pre-qualify it was slow, dreadfully slow. Brabham only got in 4 laps before the engine blew up, but his best time was 30 seconds slower than Senna’s pole time from 1989 and ultimately 35 seconds slower than Berger who took pole. After failing to qualify the team packed up and went to the next race in Brazil. In Brazil the mechanics decided to go on strike and sent out Brabham to pre-qualify without any oil in his engine. Brabham went a couple of hundred yards before the engine blew. He got out of the car and quit.

Back in Europe for the San Marino GP, Life was looking for a new driver. Somehow they were able to convince Bruno Giacomelli to drive for them. Giacomelli, who had once driven for McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Toleman, was presently Leyton House’s test driver. He hadn’t driven in an F1 race since 1983 with Toleman and with his F1 career effectively over, the Life drive was as he admitted simply a way to stay in F1 and be with his friends.

Things didn’t get any better with Giacomelli at Imola. Suffering engine and chassis problems he posted a time of 7:16.212, while Senna did a 1:23.220 for pole. Next was Monaco – he did a 1:41.187 while Senna’s pole time was 1:21.314. Then Canada with a 1:50.253, while Berger posted a 1:30.514 for pole. And it continued like that all season.

After the Italian GP Life dropped the W12 engine and purchased a couple of year old Judd engines for the Portuguese GP. They finally got the Judd engines fitted the night before pre-qualification only to find that much of the rear bodywork no longer fit around the new engine. Without any time to make new body work they used gaffers tape to hold it on. As soon as Giacomelli got on track the body work started flying off. The FIA disqualified them.

A week later at Jerez for the Spanish GP with body work that fit and with the Judd engine, Life hoped they might be able to get through pre-qualification. It wasn’t to be. Giacomelli was 17 seconds slower than the slowest car to make it out of pre-qualification and 25 seconds slower than Senna’s pole. After the race Vita had had enough. He shut the team down.

In 14 attempts Life never made it out of pre-qualifying. Only once in pre-qualifying were they ever quicker than another team, and only then it was when a Coloni suffered a partial engine failure but continued simply to set a time.

Years later an Italian collector bought the chassis with a W12 engine and restored it. When the engine was restored he had it dyno tested and found it produced about 450HP, while Cosworth’s DFR produced around 600HP and Senna’s Honda RA100E around 700HP.

One final note about Life. Many people have said that Bernie Ecclestone’s obsession with having only 10 teams in F1 was to a great degree the result of seeing the Life team and wanting to make sure that another team like them never got anywhere near F1.

And that’s Life.     @CavallinoRampa2

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8 responses to “Worst team ever in F1 & why we must thank them

  1. thanks for the read, a gloriously unsuccessful team indeed.
    I’d still argue that the were not the worst team by the way (I do love to argue 🙂 ), whilst they were horrendously slow, they did at least turn up to a few more races than poor old Lola managed in ’97 before their card was declined, and bad and all as their own W12 engine was, at least they put it on track a few times, Lola didn’t even get that far with their engine 🙂

    • Always amusing debating who was the worst. I picked Life as the worst as they were never intended to be a team in the first place, but a creation of a quick buck operator who never seemed to understand the adage – ” when you’re in a hole it’s best to stop digging”.

      • Lola at least got the disaster memo on time thats true. It’s ability to spark genuine debate due to the differences in equipment is all part of the appeal of F1 for me (the but sure driver x would do way better than driver y in the same car argument). For what its worth, Pacific (94/95) were my personal favorite ill prepared outfit in F1, another case of going ahead anyway regardless with an outdated chassis design/engine combo rather than admit defeat before they started. A story for another day perhaps 😃

  2. That is a very cool looking engine…there was a W16 engine in the Bugatti Veyron. It was also had 4 turbochargers and produced almost 1000 horsepower.

    I love the stories of the teams that failed dismally – those were the days that a big dream and an even bigger fortune could give you a chance to lose your fortune in F1 if you so desired…now everything is regimented so tightly that those teams that are only 2 seconds off the pace never get a chance to show how good they really are! My favourite are Eurobrun…if only for their bright orange livery when they were sponsored by Jägermeister. Unfortunately, it was not money well spent for that particular sponsor as in 1989 they never managed to qualify for a single race.

    • I’ve actually been trying to find out whether a W12 engine could have created anywhere near what a V12 could or was it simply a bad design. Ferrari’s 3L V12’s in the mid-70’s produced more HP than Rocchi’s 3.5L W12 did in 1990.

      You could write several books on the teams that failed, especially in the early – mid 90’s, Coloni, Moneytron Onyx, Rial, Modena Team…………….

      • Getting horsepower out of an engine is far from straightforward…the underlying design could have been OK…it might have just needed tweaking. Some engine just work…and some don’t…and some will eventually work well if you just change a couple of small things. Probably no-one will ever know if that one would ever have been competitive…

        Those 80-90’s teams were the epitome of tremendous faith in themselves and their own abilities but no actual insight into what was required…but much more fun than teams that had it all together. Some of them had had considerable success in the lower formulae though. It does make what Jackie Stewart managed to do with his Stewart F1 team all the more amazing though 🙂

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