'I JUST WANTED TO write a thesis, how the hell did I end up here?!”
Maurizio Ferrari had started the year as a fresh-faced university undergraduate, and now he was in the middle of tense negotiations, with all eyes in the room focused on a single black briefcase which sat in waiting atop a table.
Click! The gold clasps of the briefcase flick open in sync, the black leather lid lifting to reveal the contents – thick wads of cash. All of a sudden, despite being a typically hot and dry September day in Monza, it wasn’t the rising mercury that was causing Maurizio to sweat. Having to abscond to a motor home in the heart of the Formula 1 paddock to escape the oppressive heat descending upon the Temple of Speed, the 28-year-old was now entirely out of his depth. Trained as an electrical engineer, he was instead acting as a de facto middle man and translator in a secretive back-room deal.
To one side of him sat his boss Ernesto Vita, an impossibly charismatic salesman with an enigmatic past. To the other, representatives from the newly formed Leyton House F1 team. And there, now sitting open directly in front of Maurizio was the briefcase, filled with more money than he had seen in his life.
Time to start counting.
This was but one chapter of a relentlessly absurd saga that is equal parts tragedy and comedy. A tale that begun in 1988 when a purple Rolls-Royce arrived at a nondescript Italian villa. Welcome, to the unbelievable but true tale of Life F1 – Formula 1’s worst, and most misunderstood, team.
Franco Rocchi had enjoyed an illustrious career building racing engines during Ferrari’s golden years, but by 1988 he was happily retired and spending his days painting. Entering the later stages of his life, Rocchi had fallen in love with his watercolors and not even a personal petition from Enzo Ferrari could lure him away.
Which makes it all the more impressive that when Ernesto Vita stepped out of a royal-hued Silver Spirit unannounced, he would be successful in convincing Rocchi to rejoin the world of building and designing engines for Formula 1. You see, Vita had a plan, and it was going to make him – and anyone who joined his endeavour – rich. Key to everything was Rocchi, and an engine design the ex-Ferrari man had worked on over two decades ago.
Back in the late ’60s Rocchi had toyed with designing a W18 engine for Ferrari, going as far as building a 500cc W3 as a proof of concept, with positive results. Ultimately though, Ferrari opted to go with the flat-12 design instead, and the unique plan was put on ice. That was until Vita walked through the door, commissioning Rocchi to design him a W12 to race in F1. Some context: by the mid-1980s Formula 1 was on a runaway train when it came to turbocharging. While teams were turning the boost up on the new technology, the FIA was fighting a losing battle trying to keep speeds in check. The surprisingly un-French solution was a total ban on snails, with F1 moving to a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated formula. Down came the edict that teams could use as many cylinders as they saw fit (up to 12); let them breathe freely and go wild.
It was in the tech vacuum between turbocharging and natural aspiration that Vita saw opportunity and, importantly, profits. He recognised there would be multiple teams up and down the Formula 1 grid looking to replace their now outlawed turbocharged engines, and he planned to sell them Rocchi’s W12. Being incredibly self-absorbed, Vita dubbed the venture Life Racing Engines (or Life F1 for short) after the English translation of his name. Having convinced Rocchi to join him, all that was needed were firm orders.
While Vita was a compelling salesman by all accounts, his silver tongue wasn’t enough to convince a single team to use the engine for 1989. Looking at it now, it’s unsurprising that the traditionally conservative Formula 1 cabal decided against throwing large wads of cash at a businessman with no racing experience and an unproven engine design. This left Vita in a hole of debt. Wedged into a corner, there were two options. He could eat his losses and walk away, or go all-in on the biggest gamble of his life. He chose option two.
If those in pit lane weren’t going to buy into his sales pitch, Vita backed himself to start his own F1 team using the W12, and when inevitable on-track glory materialised, teams would realise the errors of their ways and line up in droves, cap in hand, begging for the chance to use his design. Easy.
Spoiler alert: it was not easy.
To get his team started, Vita purchased a warehouse in Formigine, only a few kilometres from Ferrari’s home base in Maranello. His engine also needed a body to call home, so Vita purchased the F189 chassis built by an Italian Formula 3000 team, FIRST Racing, that had intended to compete in F1 in 1989 but never got off the ground. Gianni Marelli (a former Ferrari engineer) was enlisted and tasked with making the chassis crashworthy as it had failed mandatory pre-season crash testing 12 months prior, and also with modifying it to accept the W12 instead of the smaller V8 it was initially designed for.
The first race was to be held in Phoenix in early March. By February, Life was yet to conduct a full test of the now renamed L190 and their driver Franco Scapini had just been denied the required super licence to take part in F1 events. Unsurprising, given in his 19-race F3000 career (then the feeder series for F1) he finished only four races, with a best result of 10th, and he failed to qualify 12 times. Australian Gary Brabham was brought in at the last minute as a replacement.
Formula 1 had reintroduced pre-qualifying for 1990, with the bottom two teams from the ’89 championship, and new teams like Life, having to compete in a one-hour session from 8:00-9:00 am on Friday each grand prix weekend. The four quickest cars then earned the right to take part in a 30-car qualifying session on Saturday, with only the fastest 26 cars in qualifying being allowed to start the race come Sunday. However, with no 107 per cent rule, this meant that theoretically, a team could find themselves starting a grand prix, despite being horrifically off the pace. Many did just that, but not Life.
In Phoenix, Aguri Suzuki set the benchmark time to escape pre-qualifying in his Larrousse – a 1:33.331. For context, Gerhard Berger set the eventual pole time at 1:28.664. Brabham’s best in the Life? 2:07.147. The Italian privateers were nearly 35 seconds off the pace. A TCR car is closer to Max Verstappen’s 2021 pole time around the Red Bull Ring than Brabham could get to the slowest car allowed to even attempt to qualify in 1990. Life weren’t so much in a different ballpark, they may as well have been playing a different sport.
The reason for the colossal gap in speed was that in race specification Rocchi’s W12 had around 375hp/280kW at its absolute best. Honda’s RA109E V10 engine was capable of 710hp/530kW. The W12’s outputs were still several hundred horsepowers down on even its nearest competitors – and we use that term very lightly. Hell, the Lotus 49 was more powerful back in 1967.
At the next round in Brazil, Brabham couldn’t even complete an out lap before the engine suffered a catastrophic failure and the car ground to a halt. It would be the last time the Australian would drive for the team. At the same time, the chassis’ co-designer Gianni Marelli departed after a disagreement with Vita, leaving Rocchi as the sole member of Life’s technical department.
Rumours that the team failed to fill the car with oil, prompting the failure in Brazil, are false. However, even with the right amount of lubrication, mechanics discovered several decades later that a critical flaw in the engine design meant the W12 was cursed to a life of destruction and rebirth in an endless, cruel cycle.
Bruno Giacomelli was enlisted to replace Brabham after Vita’s requests to other young drivers were either laughed at or outright ignored (see sidebar). Life was beginning to earn a reputation no one wanted to partner with. Having last raced in Formula 1 in 1983, pundits were confounded at the time as to why Giacomelli – who had an impressive track record up until that point – would return to the sport with such a comically under-performing team. So, we asked him exactly why he did sign up.
“I never thought that I could do something special,” Giacomelli tells MOTOR. “But I was quite interested in the fact that Mr. Rocchi designed the engine, and I just wanted to help the team to get better. To get better, to perform better. I never thought that I could do something special. Of course, I’m not that stupid.”
During his first lap in the car at Imola a drive belt for the water and oil pump snapped, the W12 expelled all of its coolants onto the main straight, and the team’s weekend was over by 8:08 am on Friday. Bruno never got as far as engaging fourth gear.
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