Simtek

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Last updated: 13-October-2004


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• Wirth and Mosley start Simulation Technology
The history of Formula One is littered with 'if only' and 'what if' stories. It's true that many of the drivers and teams featured on this site brought about their own unsuccessfulness through lack of application, naivety or mismanagement, but there are just as many stories where the outcome could have so different if only the cards had fallen the right way. But, amidst the Grand Prix tragedies of 1994 and the worldwide economic downturn of the early to mid-1990s, the story of Simtek was a heartbreaking example of all the cards falling the wrong way.

Though not a team with lower category pedigree, Simtek had much going for it. Simtek Research Ltd (Simtek being short for 'Simulation Technology') was a company founded in August 1989 by Nick Wirth and none other than Max Mosley. Wirth had been a top mechanical engineering student who was friends with Mark Herd, son of one of the co-founders of the March F1 team, Robin Herd. Mosley, of course, had been another of the team's original owners. Wirth had been so impressive, within two days of graduating from university he was working for March as an aerodynamicist.

He then assisted Adrian Newey in designing the March 881, and he personally penned the March-Nissan Le Mans challenger. He was approached to join Ligier as chief designer in 1989, yet decided to stay with March instead. But when March was sold to the Japanese Leyton House concern, Herd and Mosley pulled out, Max wanting to invest in a high technology racing company instead. Upon Herd's recommendation, Mosley and Wirth formed Simtek in an office in Wirth's home, but it grew so quickly with Mosley's backing that soon they built a windtunnel in a new base in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

Mosley's connections also meant that this fledgling R&D company soon had an enviable list of clients. Those who utilised Simtek's services included the FIA, the French government, Ligier (for which Simtek designed and installed their Magny-Cours windtunnel), and Group C, Indycar and F3000 teams. Above all though, Simtek secretly designed an F1 car for BMW in 1990 as the Bavarians toyed with the idea of entering F1 on its own, although the plan was eventually rejected, and developed and ran the 3-series touring cars which competed in Germany in 1991.

David and Sir Jack Brabham with Nick Wirth. David and Sir Jack Brabham with Nick Wirth.
• Sir Jack and David Brabham on board
In 1992 Mosley became President of the FIA, and sold his shareholding in Simtek to Wirth. That year Andrea Sassetti of the ill-fated Andrea Moda team came calling, bought the two-year-old BMW designs, and proceeded to undertake the most farcical F1 effort has ever seen. Thankfully, that did not reflect badly on Wirth, so much so that for 1993, Simtek was asked to design a car for the new Bravo Grand Prix team. But when that project's backer died suddenly, the deal was off. Nevertheless, it left Wirth itching to show the Grand Prix paddock what his designs were capable of.

So, in August 1993 he decided to form an F1 team of his own, and Simtek Grand Prix was born. In stepped triple World Champion Sir Jack Brabham as a shareholder, and when the team was officially launched later in the year, Sir Jack's youngest son David Brabham was announced as one of the drivers. A deal was done to run customer Ford HB engines, and the US$500,000 new team entry fee was paid (a far cry from the US$48 million entry fee today). With Herd labelling Wirth "the next superstar designer", Simtek had much to live up to in its debut season in 1994.

But already the team struck difficulties and setbacks. The original design for the Simtek S941 featured active suspension, but when driver aids were banned for 1994 Wirth had to revert to a design that was conservative, and which also turned out to be overweight. On the other hand, the outdated Ford HB engine was down on power. Also, when the car began pre-season testing in December 1993, it ran without sponsorship, and money was clearly also going to be an issue. Alongside Brabham, Wirth had to find a paying driver who could bring some sponsorship.

Simtek entered into negotiations with the experienced Andrea de Cesaris, who came with Marlboro backing, and also Gil de Ferran, but the Brazilian took his money from meat-packaging company Sadia over to America. Wirth looked next to Jean-Marc Gounon, but the Frenchman had commitments for the first half of the season, and finally the likeable Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was given his F1 break for the first five races. With Ratzenberger aged 31 and Brabham 28, at 27 Wirth was the only team boss younger than his drivers.

Brabham in pre-season testing at Silverstone. Brabham in pre-season testing at Silverstone.
• Tragedy strikes at Imola
Though a major backer in MTV was signed in time for the start of the season, it was clear that a challenging debut year was in store, with an inexperienced team, only just enough money, a conservative chassis initially featuring a fully manual gearbox, and an engine giving away horsepower to the best on the grid. While team manager Charlie Moody encouraged the team members to treat the season as an adventure, it seemed as though the best Simtek could hope for was to beat fellow debutants Pacific. But what they didn't realise when the year began was just how tough 1994 would turn out to be.

Disaster struck early. Only Brabham qualified for Simtek's first race in Brazil, but he brought it home 12th. Then both cars started at Aida, and Ratzenberger in his first start also finished, this time in 11th. But then at Imola, on his Saturday qualifying out-lap, telemetry showed that the Austrian had had an off, and probably damaged the front wing. After a quick systems check, Ratzenberger decided to attempt his first flying lap. At the flat-out Villeneuve corner, the front assembly loosened, the car lost downforce and plunged head-on into the wall. Ratzenberger was killed instantly, his neck broken.

It was the first fatality in F1 since Elio de Angelis died in testing in 1986. Needless to say, the debutant team was left devastated and confused. And though traditionally the other team driver would withdraw in such a situation, seeing the demoralisation around him Brabham bravely decided to race on, only to crash out after a suspension failure of his own. But it had been a pivotal moment nonetheless, as Brabham's courage gave Simtek the heart to keep pressing on. In Ratzenberger's memory the team made a collective decision to see out the season.

Simtek ran only one car at Monaco, where Karl Wendlinger then had an accident in his Sauber which left him in a deep coma. Many Simtek mechanics had worked for Wendlinger at March, and this was yet another hurtful blow. But there was still more to come; for Spain the team signed talented Italian Andrea Montermini, who then on his first flying lap had another sickening accident coming onto the front straight. It left another chassis destroyed, and, although Montermini only suffered a broken toe and a cracked left heel, another injured driver.

Ratzenberger at Imola. It was a tragic weekend for Simtek and F1. Ratzenberger at Imola. It was a tragic weekend for Simtek and F1.
• Brabham heroic as Simtek struggles on
It was an amazing amount so early for a new team to endure. That Wirth, Brabham and the whole of the Simtek crew pushed on through all this was a tremendous tribute to their fighting spirit. Montermini had been signed for both Spain and Canada before Gounon would be available to drive in the seven races after that. But after the Italian's injuries and the ever-mounting repair bill, once again Simtek was forced to take only one car to Canada while yet another new chassis was being built up, hoping that perhaps the run of cruel fortune had come to an end.

As Gounon joined the team for France, a sense of normality returned, and both he and Brabham could knuckle down to the job at hand, and try to finish races and put some decent results on the board. Whilst regularly slower than Brabham (he only once out-qualified the Australian), the Frenchman was fairly consistent and managed to keep the hapless Pacifics in the nether DNQ regions. But due to the high attrition rate in his debut race for the team at Magny-Cours, Gounon managed to bring the car home in 9th, which turned out to be Simtek's joint-best result.

Brabham, though, in the words of the Autosport season review, was one of the heroes of the season. Despite his car's obvious disadvantage, he managed to challenge the Lotuses and Larrousses, and occasions beat them. His average grid position was better than 23rd, and he put egg on Larrousse driver Erik Comas' face in Belgium by out-qualifying the Larrousse, only a race after the Frenchman had promised jokingly to retire should he ever be lower on the grid than a Simtek. Brabham's determination to make the Simtek adventure bear fruit meant he was not someone to mess with.

But all jokes aside, Brabham's best finishes were 10th in Spain, 11th in Hungary, and 12th in Japan, where he also set the 13th fastest lap in the wet conditions. He was also running 9th in Germany and 10th in Italy when he retired, and generally there were a few too many mechanical retirements and teething problems for Wirth's liking. Nevertheless, Brabham's near-faultless efforts throughout the season did much to hold the team together, his only errors being two tangles with Jean Alesi in Monaco and Portugal, and an accident in testing at Silverstone in July when he rolled the car.

Simtek somehow carry on, "for Roland". Simtek somehow carry on,
• Money becomes the central issue
But towards the end of 1994 the monetary situation was again tight, and after Gounon left Wirth was on the look-out for a pay driver once more, signing Domenico Schiattarella. Though the Italian didn't bring a massive wallet, it was a bargain basement deal that brought a steady driver into the team. As it turned out, Mimmo came 19th at Jerez and impressed with his careful approach. Less so Taki Inoue in Japan, the ultimate pay driver, who was four seconds off Brabham in practice and pitched the car into the pit wall early in the race (in admittedly impossibly wet conditions). Not surprisingly, Schiattarella was brought back in for Adelaide.

And so ended what was an unexpectedly difficult and tragic 1994 for the debutant team. But more disappointments were still to come at the end of the year. MTV's sponsorship commitment was about to decrease for 1995, leaving the team a rather precarious financial position. Brabham saw the signs, and though his heart was committed long-term to Simtek, when he had the chance to drive for BMW in the British Touring Car Championship, it was an offer he couldn't refuse. But Wirth was undaunted. 1994 had been an inconclusive year, but he was convinced that Simtek could do better.

Thus he pushed on into 1995 with the new S951 chassis. For drivers, he kept Schiattarella for the first half of the season, whilst signing journeyman Hideki Noda for the second half and gladly taking the Japanese driver's deposit. In the other car, Wirth signed Jos Verstappen, who after a debut season with Benetton littered with mistakes and off-track excursions was being farmed out by Flavio Briatore to gain some more experience. In addition, along came ex-Benetton gearboxes to drive the Ford ED engines, which were better than the HB but still not state-of-the-art.

But right from the outset, it was apparent that the S951 was one giant leap for Simtek. Even though Schiattarella was no new Ascari or Nuvolari, he could quite readily beat the Pacifics and the debutant Fortis. But it was Verstappen who extracted maximum potential out of the car. In his hands, at times the car was flying, managing to mix it in the midfield with the Minardis, Tyrrells, Ligiers, Saubers and Arrows. Jos the Boss reported that it was an easy car to drive, rather like a go-kart, and as a result it encouraged him to go fast and stay on the track.

Mimmo, Jos and Hideki at the 1995 launch. Jos, Mimmo and Hideki at the 1995 launch.
• Jos the Boss mixes it with the big boys
After an early double-DNF for the S951 in Brazil, Jos was as good as his word in Argentina, undoubtedly Simtek's best ever race. There he qualified a fabulous 14th, and making a lightning start moved all the way up to the points by the first round of pit stops, even fending off Gerhard Berger's Ferrari. But it all came undone at the pit stop, where Simtek's lack of a fast wheel clip system cost him over 25 seconds, and the next lap Verstappen's gearbox gave up. Nonetheless, Schiattarella picked up the pieces and came home 9th. Simtek's competitiveness in Buenos Aires had left Wirth ecstatic.

But, sadly, it was soon to all come unglued, and fast. Another double-DNF at Imola was followed by a double finish in Spain, but by the time they reached Monaco, money was becoming a desperate struggle. There Wirth revealed that in 18 months the team had amassed a 6 million pound debt, especially after "a broken deal" and a con involving "bogus bank transfer documents" that had left Simtek in a lurch. Though some potential backers were interested, none were prepared to take the plunge. Wirth negotiated with all of them, threatening to shut down the team if funding was not forthcoming.

As a sign of their plight, Simtek could only bring three troublesome gearboxes to Monaco, and then Verstappen compounded the misery by hitting the wall twice. Both Simteks then retired with gearbox problems without starting the race. Meanwhile, Noda's funds, especially via the Men's Tenoras sponsorship, were severely dented by the Kobe earthquake. Wirth's appeals were to no avail, the backers never came, and Wirth was forced to close down the team immediately, leaving 48 crew out of a job. Even though Wirth took his deposit, poor Noda never drove the S951 in anger.

To try to offset some of the debts, Tom Prankerd tells us that an auction of Simtek's property was held in July 1995. Verstappen's rolling chassis raised £18,000, Schiattarella's £16,000. Two of the older S941s couldn't even fetch £10,000. The team's transporter was sold for £48,000 to a BTCC privateer, whilst the driver's pit boards went for under £100, and even Verstappen's undertray from Monaco garnered £14. Most poignant of all, a mountain bike presented to the team by Ratzenberger in Brazil to mark his F1 debut was auctioned for only £420.

Jos battling with Berger's Ferrari for position! Jos battling with Berger's Ferrari for position!
• Major debts close the team
To add insult to injury, for a team whose entire history seemed to have been a baptism by fire, when the fire sale was concluded it only raised a total of £250,000, when its accumulated debts was around the US$9-10 million mark. Who knows how many good reputations could have been made and surprises could have been sprung if Simtek got the money it needed and saw through 1995 with a more reliable car? If its early-season promise and speed was anything to go by, our guess is that Verstappen would have picked up anything up to half a dozen points.

Though his dream of running his own F1 team was now shattered, and with it virtually his whole Simtek company, Wirth was still in some demand as a designer. He was courted by Ferrari, Sauber and Benetton, choosing the latter because he wanted to stay in England. With the departure of Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn, he became chief designer in 1997. But after some average seasons in 1998 and 1999, when some of Wirth's more radical design initiatives failed to pay off, he resigned from the Enstone team, and left Formula One completely to work in robotics.

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