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, as we are halfway through the 2018 F1 season, various groups within F1 are looking to come up with a new, maybe 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 made 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 normally aspirated Cosworth DFR produced. F1 had evolved into a two-tiered sport with those who could afford turbo’s and those who couldn’t, or those who couldn’t get a turbo engine deal. 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. That’s significantly more than Honda is spending today, rumoured to have been $100M at McLaren and $40M at Toro Rosso. 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 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 late 1970’s an early 1980’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 taller 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 an engine from a proven company like Cosworth. 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 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 on 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. It was rumoured that part of Brabham’s contract was he would get a commission on any engines he could sell 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, who hadn’t been paid, 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 new body work that did 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.
Article written by Cavallino Rampante (@CavallinoRampa2)