Life

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Last updated: 13-January-2001


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• Life L190 the horror descendant of FIRST F1 effort
In the pantheon of F1 team infamy, outfits like Andrea Moda earn pride of place for their antics on and off the track, and MasterCard Lola for their diabolical and ill-fated rush-job to get onto the 1997 entry list. But when it comes to sheer embarrassment value and pointlessly uncompetitive ineptitude, nothing in recent times can hold a candle to the Life Racing Engines team from Modena in Italy, the brainchild of Ernesto Vita, from whose surname the team's title was derived. Their one-off season in 1990 goes down as perhaps the most outrageously pathetic on record.

Actually, Life's life story goes back to the 1988-89 off-season. At that time, the FIRST team run by ex-F1 driver Lamberto Leoni, which campaigned quite successfully in F3000 with drivers such as Pierluigi Martini and Marco Apicella, had intended to enter F1. They put together an engine deal to run Judd motors, and commissioned a chassis design. The experienced Brazilian Richard Divila drew up an initial layout based around the somewhat diminutive dimensions of Martini and Apicella, and the March 88B they had been piloting in F3000.

But since Divila was soon off to the Ligier F1 team for 1989 anyway, and the March 88B had some fundamental design problems, the final design of the FIRST chassis was subcontracted out to a Milan design studio where it was handled by an ex-Ferrari and Zakspeed engineer. Gabriele Tarquini had been signed to drive the car, and by the end of 1988 the initial FIRST machine was built, in time for a run at the Attilio Bettega Memorial events. These were the annual show-races held in memory of the late rally ace, in conjunction with the Bologna Motor Show.

The whole effort was under-financed and it showed. When Divila had a look at the finished product, he was alarmed by the gearbox castings, some serious flaws on the suspension pick-up points, a chassis mould that had clearly been overcooked, and a steering column that was downright unsafe. In his own words, the car was good for nothing other than as an "interesting flowerpot". He told the FIRST team management that the car was a time-bomb, warned prospective drivers against stepping into it, and took legal action to stop his name from being mentioned in connection with the deathtrap.

The Life raison d'etre: The W12 engine that Life Racing Engines were showing off. The Life raison d'etre: The W12 engine that Life Racing Engines were showing off.
• Brabham and the W12 don't last long in Phoenix
Divila was soon to be proved utterly correct when the FIRST failed the FIA's compulsory crash test and was not allowed to compete in the 1989 World Championship. But to the Brazilian's horror, come 1990 Vita's Life Racing Engines team appeared on the entry list, with Australian Gary Brabham as the driver, and a deal to use Goodyear tyres. More to the point, the old FIRST chassis was now dubbed the Life L190 and was modified to take the team's in-house W12 engine, as Ben Lowe has reminded us, meaning that Life had joined Ferrari as the only teams with their own chassis and engine.

A W12 engine? Instead of two rows of 6 cylinders, the Franco Rocchi-designed Life F35 motor (with a badge that looked suspiciously like an upturned Ferrari logo) had three rows of four cylinders in what was known as an arrow-engine design. Potentially this could make the engine as compact as a V8 whilst generating the power of a V12. That was the concept, at least; and on paper it is an idea much admired by engine designers. Indeed, as Tom Prankerd tells us, the main emphasis of the whole Life effort was to showcase the engine so that some major team would decide to take it on.

The Life L190 featured extra air intakes on either side of the driver's shoulders, distinctly low side-pods, and particularly shallow cockpit sides that left the driver horribly exposed. In other words, it was still as unsafe as the old FIRST had been, and Divila actually warned Brabham about the dangers of driving it, especially since the W12 could theoretically push the car up to 220kph. A not insubstantial figure, especially if you were to have an accident or a mechanical breakage at that speed, but feeble by F1 standards. And that rather summed up the Life effort: a slow car with the fragility of tissue paper.

And so it proved. As 1990 dragged on, Life never had any more than one chassis and two W12 engines, and hardly any spares. The car never managed more than a lap or two, if that, before something broke. At Phoenix for the season opener, Brabham recorded a time of 2:07.147 in pre-qualifying after a misfire in the engine, although Bertrand Gachot in the equally raw Coloni-Subaru had a time of over five minutes next to his name! The Aussie was almost 30 seconds behind the next slowest pre-qualifier, Claudio Langes' EuroBrun, and almost 38 seconds slower than the eventual pole time.

Gary Brabham gives it his all in Phoenix, 1990. The car let him down somewhat!
© John Townsend.
Gary Brabham gives it his all in Phoenix, 1990. The car let him down somewhat!
• Giacomelli and Judd can't save sinking ship
In Brazil, Brabham was forced to park the Life having driven no more than 400 metres out of the pits, and recorded no time. That was enough as far as he was concerned, and he did the wise thing and left the sinking ship. In came jovial Italian Bruno Giacomelli, the former works Alfa Romeo F1 driver who had been in the wilderness for several years, but who was testing for the Leyton House team in 1990, and was happy to waste some race weekends trying to coax the Life along. Rumours had it Franco Scapini was part of the farce too, as Life's 'official test and reserve driver'. He may even have driven the car once, at Monza.

With Giacomelli at the wheel, the Life staggered on from race to race with no sign of improvement. At Imola, he was timed at 7:16.212, a mere 424 seconds off the eventual pole time. Monaco was slightly more promising, Bruno's time of 1:41.187 only 13 seconds off pre-qualifying pace, but in Canada he was over 20 seconds away from the slowest pre-qualifer. Then in Mexico he found himself crawling around the Hermanos Rodriguez track in a time of 4:07.475, before stopping on the track in France on his out-lap and failing to record a time.

These startling performances got little better. There was yet again a small ray of hope at Silverstone when the car was only 14 seconds off the time set by Olivier Grouillard's Osella, the fourth fastest pre-qualifer, but in Germany Giacomelli's time of 2:10.786 meant that he drifted back out to over 20 seconds off pre-qualifying pace, let alone qualifying speed. After being 18 seconds away from pre-qualifying in Hungary, the car was 20 seconds off in Belgium and over 27 at home in Italy. Rumours were rife that the team was ready to ditch the awful W12 experiment.

When the team showed up in Portugal they indeed had a Judd V8, but to no-one's surprise for this amateurish outfit, now the engine cover wouldn't fit. Giacomelli recorded an automatic DNPQ by not participating in pre-qualifying. When the car did get on track in Spain, it was still 18 seconds off pre-qualifying pace, and the team wisely didn't make the trip to Japan and Australia. All it could do was pull out of F1, the W12 engine having caught nobody's eye for the right reasons, and with few taking much notice of them any more. And perhaps thankfully, we have never heard of Life Racing Engines ever again.

The Life team fusses about Bruno Giacomelli, trying to get him on the road in Montreal.
© John Townsend.
The Life team fusses about Bruno Giacomelli, trying to get him on the road in Montreal.

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