A question that comes up on the F1 bulletin boards, and elsewhere is "What was the worst formula one team of all time?" Those who have come to the sport only recently really don't know what they have missed. In the last few years, Minardi were a long way from being absolutely competitive, but for the most part they were far from wholly embarrassing. The car was close enough to being a modern F1 car to allow the likes of Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber to demonstrate their talent, and, occasionally, to embarrass teams with much larger budgets and supposedly much more developed cars. Think of Alonso frightening Jaguar and Benetton on occasion in 2001, or Mark Webber mixing it with the Toyotas at Hockenheim and Hungary a year later.
Another way of looking at the question is to ask which team accomplished the least by way of results with the greatest resources. In recent years, BAR and Toyota have both been in the running for this claim. Going further back, there is certainly a strong case to be made for the always well-funded and rarely competitive Ligier team through the late eighties and early nineties. Though, to be fair, it has never been clear that all the money supposedly coming in from French state companies such as Gitanes and Loto was actually reaching the team. This was, after all, the government of Mitterand and the Elf-Aquitaine scandal, and it is certainly possible that some of the cash was ending up elsewhere. Going all the way back to the 1950s, the early racing efforts of BRM have got to be worth a mention on that score too.That's a story for another day. If one restricts the question to simply which was the most downright awful, uncompetitive racing car ever to appear in Formula One, the answer, I think, becomes rather clearer.
The return to normally aspirated engines at the end of the 1980s briefly opened the door to all kinds of two-bit operations who decided to make the leap up from F3000 or touring cars, or whatever they had been doing before. A host of teams came and went within the space of a few years - Coloni, AGS, Scuderia Italia, Fondmetal, Onyx, Larrousse, Modena, and so on. Some made a brief, fleeting impression. Onyx initially looked like a serious Grand Prix team and their neat Alan Jenkins designed ORE-01 enabled Stefan Johannson to pick up a final career podium at Estoril in 1989. Gerard Larrousse, who had been in charge at the works Renault team in the early eighties, always knew roughly what he was doing, and his well turned out cars occasionally threatened the big boys. Other teams, such as Coloni and Eurobrun, never did more than make up the numbers.
It is doubtful though whether there has, in the modern era, been a more completely hapless Grand Prix team than Ernesto Vita's Life Racing Engines concern. Throughout 1990, the tiny Italian team would turn up each Grand Prix weekend with a car that would have struggled to qualify for a Formula 3000 race, never mind a Grand Prix.
In 1988, the successful F3000 team, FIRST, decided that the time had come for them to graduate to motorsport's premier league, Formula One. Talented Italian newcomer Gabriele Tarquini was signed up to drive for the team, and Brazilian designer Richard Divila was commissioned to design the car. The result was actually quite pretty and looked purposeful enough. Undoubtedly, as a new team they would be limited by the fact that they would be running customer engines, but that aside they looked like the most promising newcomers there had been in some time. Sadly, the money was never really there to do the job properly, and the project was quietly canned. The cars themselves were sold off to a little known Italian engineering concern, Ernesto Vita's Life Racing Engines, who needed a chassis to act as a testbed with which to develop their rather unusual W12 engine.
That engine had been designed by Franco Rocchi. Rocchi had been a prominent engineer in the Ferrari team during the sixties and seventies, fostering the talent of a young Mauro Forghieri, among others. Now in his late sixties, the W12 engine was all but certain to be his final project. A W12 engine has three banks of four cylinders, as opposed to the more conventional V12 layout in which the engine has two banks of six cylinders. In theory, a W12 has the advantage of producing as much power as a V12, whilst being as compact and easy to package as a V8. It was considered a sufficiently promising concept that fellow engine builder Guy Negre went down the same route. His W12 was tried out in an AGS 'hack' chassis, and eventually found its' way into the Norma MGN sports car which ran briefly at Le Mans in 1990. However, the major disadvantage of the W12 engine is that any engine with three separate banks of cylinders is necessarily incredibly complex.
Having failed to persuade any other team to make use of its engines, Life decided to enter their own team in 1990. Gary Brabham, son of the double world champion Jack Brabham, was hired to drive the car, and they duly turned up for the opening race of the season in Phoenix, Arizona with minimal fanfare. The car was recognisable as that which Richard Divila had built for FIRST, although the elegant lines of the original had been comprehensively butchered in order to accommodate the W12 power unit. Right from the first race it was all too clear just how hopelessly out of their depth Ernesto Vita's outfit were. They even had to borrow a tyre temperature gauge from another team as they did not have one of their own. As it turned out, there was precious little need to measure the temperature of the car's tyres anyway. The car lasted just three laps in pre-qualifying before the engine gave up. Gary Brabham ended up 43 seconds off the pace of Gerhard Berger's pole position time.
The team managed to go one worse at the second round in Brazil when a connecting rod in the W12 engine broke before it had run a complete lap in pre-qualifying. Sensing that a season with Life was no way to further his career, Gary Brabham wisely bailed out at this point.
He was replaced by veteran Italian Bruno Giacomelli, for whom career prospects had long ceased to be of any great import, and to whom the idea of spending a summer on the road (if, on the whole, not actually on the track) with the Life team sounded like a reasonable enough way to kill time. Like Brabham, he was quite unable to get the car past the prequalifying hurdle, though to be fair, that was almost certainly a task rendered all but impossible by the laws of physics.
Giacomelli would later recall that the greatest problem with the car was the engine. The team had no money and almost no spares, so the unusual lump became increasingly badly patched up over the course of the season. For instance, they only had one spare engine block….an absurd situation in an era when Honda took seven engines to each race for McLaren.
Aside from the total lack of reliability, the engine was quite hopelessly down on power. On the rare occasions when it fired on all twelve cylinders, the Life W12 produced around 375 BHP. To put that into perspective, Honda's V10 was producing around 700-750BHP in 1990, nearly double that of the Life. More sobering still, the 1967 Cosworth DFV, which was actually 500cc smaller, was generally reckoned to have around 400BHP on tap when it first appeared in the back of Jim Clark's Lotus 49, and over 500 by the time it bowed out with Stefan Bellof and Martin Brundle at Tyrrell in 1985. Whatever the actual figures, the end result was that Giacomelli's Life was some 40mph slower through the speed traps at Hockenheim than anyone else. His best pre-qualifying performance came at Silverstone, when he was a mere 19 seconds off the pace, around three or four seconds faster than the Formula 3 boys managed that same weekend.
As it became blindingly obvious that their W12 simply didn't work, Life swapped their own engine for a rather old Judd V8 unit for the Portuguese Grand Prix. Unfortunately they couldn't get the engine cover to fit back onto the car, and once again they failed to record a time at all in pre-qualifying. They took the car to Spain where they did succeed in getting a few laps out of it with the Judd V8, but it was scarcely any quicker than it had been with the Life W12. Whether it was because the chassis was awful in itself, or simply because the car was appallingly put together is unclear, but merely ridding of themselves of the W12 did little to help matters.
The team disappeared completely at the end of the European season, unable to afford the cost of the trip to the flyaway races in Japan and Australia. In so far as there was a team to sell, it was sold to a Viennese concern with an interest in building racing cars in Leningrad. What subsequently became of the car and its unusual engine is unknown. Giacomelli remembers how the squad, unable to pay him, offered instead to give him one of their W12 units. Giacomelli had since said that he regretted turning down their offer. After all, such an odd piece of racing history would probably be worth something by now.