Life Begins At Forti

A subject for debate might be which has been the best team in the history of Formula One, with arguments for Ferrari, McLaren, Team Lotus or Mercedes (100% title-success with Juan Manuel Fangio in the two previous seasons Stuttgart had a team in 1954 and 1955, winning nine of the twelve events entered). Which, however was the worst?

There have been teams that entered one or two rounds with resounding failure, especially in the old days when privateers might have a go (like Bernard Charles Ecclestone who failed to qualify his self-entered Connaught twice in 1958) but those aside, the real period for sustained failure was, as covered in my last entry on non-pre-qualifying, the late ‘eighties into the early ‘nineties. Although teams like Coloni, AGS, EuroBrun, Zakspeed, Osella and Onyx all amassed hideous totals of DNPQs, all of them at some point qualified and finished races, some even scored points. Andrea Moda were such a shambles, they vie for most embarrassing team of all time, and almost certainly would have recorded nothing but DNPQs had they turned up a year earlier than their useless 1992 campaign, but with shorter entry-lists in that latter season, they at least managed once to qualify a car, albeit for their best result of retirement. The all-time worst team in terms of quantity of consistent failure and general uselessness has to be Life Racing Engines.

Franco Rocchi had been an engine-designer for Ferrari responsible for the 3-litre V8 used by some Ferrari road-cars in the ‘seventies. Rumour is during this period, he proposed a W12 engine unsucessfully, but after being dispensed by the Italian car-maker in 1980, worked on the project privately. If you view a V8 engine from in front, it has two banks of four cylinders, one leaning to the left, the other to the right, creating the v-shape, but a W12 engine has a third bank of four cylinders pointing up vertically in the middle. Theoretically, it offers the power of a V12 but closer to the compactness of a V8, although will be taller with a higher centre-of-gravity. By 1989, his W12 was ready.

Enter Italian businessman Ernesto Vita, who bought the commercial-rights hoping to sell to the post-turbo F1-teams that needed normally-aspirated engines. After acquiring zero customers in 1989, Vita decided to start his own team the season after to show them what they were missing, naming the team with a translation of his surname. In ’89, FIRST had made an attempt to establish an F1 team commissioning Richard Divilia to derive a design from a March F3000 car. When Divila saw the shoddy and dangerous quality of the construction of the resultant chassis, he warned drivers not to get in it and took legal action to avoid his name being associated with it. FIRST abandoned the move to F1, but the chassis was bought by Vita, patched up, and adapted for the W12. Thus the team arrived for the first round of 1990 at Phoenix as, with Ferrari, one of only two teams with their own chassis and engines.

Gary Brabham failed to pre-qualify the car managing a time 38 seconds off the eventual pole-time. The engine only had 450 hp when 600 to 700 hp was the standard. The car broke down not far out of the pits in Brazil, and Brabham quit. Veteran, Bruno Giacomelli, took over, recording a time at the next round at Imola of 7:16·212, less than five minutes shy of pre-qualification. As the season went on, the car only ever managed three or four laps, if that, before breaking, the highlight being only 14 seconds off pre-qualifying at Silverstone. After 12 races, the Life Racing Engines team fitted a Judd engine for Portugal, but the engine-cover would not fit so no time was recorded. The team were still eighteen seconds off pre-qualification in Italy and duly disappeared from existence.

I use a lot for statistics, and looked up Life recently. I was greeted by the message, “An Error Had Occurred”. This amused me because I thought it a very apposite summary of the team. I e-mailed the site receiving a reply that they were aware of the problem, it will be corrected in an update to the site (due yesterday (Thursday)), and that the error was caused because when the site-programming tried to calculate the team’s pole-success percentage, it divided by how many times the team was in qualification, and any programmer will tell you that code leading to dividing by zero causes failure.

(Let me be honest in admitting that I am only writing about Forti to justify the title of this piece, whilst also doubting that anyone under forty remembers the expression, “Life Begins At Forty”.)

Apart from the Mastercard Lola debacle of 1997, the last notably uncompetitive team in F1 was Forti Corse. The F3000 team moved up to Formula One in 1995, with driver Pedro Dinz’s very rich family underwriting the first-season budget with sponsorship from Parmelet and a clutch of other companies. This gave the team a decent budget, but the car designed by Sergio Rinland seemed to closely resemble the last car he had designed for Fondmetal for 1992, was the only F1 car that season with manual-shift gears, and stank. Qualifying was no problem with only thirteen teams but Dinz and team-mate, Roberto Moreno, were finishing six to nine laps behind, four of their first five finishs too far back to be classified, and more than 50% of starts resulting in retirement in the first ten races. The team did manage to find a bit of improvement in the cars by later in the season. In a high attrition race, the last of the season in Australia, Pedro finished seventh.

Word was that the sponsors did not mind the team being so slow because the amount of times they were lapped gave them good TV time, but this was probably face-saving sentiment, and unsurprisingly Dinz and his money moved to Ligier for 1996. Also, following the slow performances of Forti and Pacific in ’95, the 107% qualification rule was re-introduced, having been scrapped some years earlier with the disparity between turbo and non-turbo cars (Pacific’s second-and-last year was 1995 when in order to stave off folding, they had resorted to a succession of slow pay-drivers). The previous year, only Dinz’s qualification in Australia had been within 107%.

Although stuck with adaptions of the old cars for the first few rounds, the team had more up-to-date Ford engines, and the new car when ready was praised by the drivers, Luca Badoer and Andrea Montermini, as a significant improvement. Unfortunately, the team was badly in debt to Ford for the engines. The Shannon organisation, which had teams in F3000 and several F3 series, bought into the team before Spain, where neither car qualified. Things seemed fine in Canada, apart from double-retirement, but had fallen apart by France. Shannon claimed 51% ownership of the team whilst Forti claimed not, denying any payment had been made. At Magny Cours, both cars had to pull out of the race to preserve engine-mileage, Britain both stopped after two laps in qualification using the last of the mileage, and Germany, without fresh engines, neither car left the pit ending the team’s existence. Indeed, Shannon’s other teams also collapsed, but later a court ruled they did own 51%!

(Second entry in a row to mention F1 Rejects, but they do have good articles on Andrea Moda, Life and Forti, amongst other unsuccessful teams, listed here.)


2 Responses to “Life Begins At Forti”

  1. Pat W Says:

    Good article. I’m fascinated by the stories of teams which seem to persist in the face of utter incompetence. Some teams are the ‘plucky’ types that keep trying and do a good job in the face of adversity – the likes of Life and Forti were not among them. I wonder which camp Hispania will join, I have a feeling I know which USF1 would’ve joined.

  2. Steven Roy Says:

    Love the title.

    Form now on everytime someone says HRT and Virgin are too slow to be in F1 I think I will point them here.

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