From zero to FIRST
- Mattijs Diepraam
- 8W August 2000 issue
- Marco Apicella - Apicella's Japanese years, by Rainer Nyberg
- Life - For the Life of me..., by Mattijs Diepraam
Lamberto Leoni (Mario Andretti)
Ensign-Cosworth N177 (Lotus-Cosworth 78)
1978 US West GP (qualifying on 1 April 1978)
With his single GP start Lamberto Leoni achieved more than he managed as a Formula One team owner! His final try in the spring of 1978, here pictured at Long Beach during practice, led to another DNQ and the end of a very short Grand Prix career. A decade later, Leoni was back on the brink of F1, now proudly presenting his First F1 car to the press. Its lines, penned by respected Brazilian designer Richard Divila, looked promising. But although it was tested at the hands of Gabriele Tarquini, the car never raced. Or did it?
In its First life the car remained stillborn, but it got an unexpected second, erm, Life. After Leoni's F1 plans were scuppered he sought ways to cut his losses. Soon he found his victim in the shape of one Ernesto Vita, the Italian businessman who had already been fooled by veteran ex-Ferrari engineer Franco Rocchi, who had been involved with the Scuderia since 1949. The man had some fame for having a part in the great Ferrari flat-12, which must have meant to Vita that he had talent to throw away. Which was exactly what he did when coming up with his latest dream engine. Rocchi had convinced Vita to create Life Racing Engines as a vehicle for his aircraft-style W12 motor, which used a peculiar 4-4-4 configuration. Initially intended as test bed, the First 189, now rechristened Life F190, was extensively rebuilt to conform to FIA's latest crash test regulations and could thus be promoted to race car. The idea of using such an outdated design to debut its revolutionary engine didn't seem a bright idea to followers at the time. Still, the 12-team restriction being years away from entering the Concorde agreement, anyone could enter F1 and around 1990 the common feeling looked to be the more, the merrier indeed.
Life's subsequent disgrace as the worst modern-era Grand Prix team is fairly well documented, as the car was so hugely off the pace and unreliable at that, that we had to go back to Al Pease's overambitious entry into F1 to find an effort that was similarly out of place. The engine reportedly produced a mere 360bhp while McLaren's Honda engine had about 800bhp! 'Nuff said… Sticking a Judd V8 in the back - the engine the First was originally designed for - didn't help and the outfit folded before having to spend lashes of lire on the two Asia-Pacific long-haul events.
Quickly, Leoni returned to his well-oiled F3000 enterprise and just as rival F3000 team DAMS never made it to F1. Lamberto had started his association with the F1 junior category as a driver, though. In the series' debut year, Leoni teamed up with the PMC outfit to form a driver pairing with Belgium's Thierry Tassin. Like the Barron Racing team, which fielded Tyrrell 012s for Roberto Moreno and Claudio Langes, and Roger Cowman entering a sole Arrows A6 for Slim Borgudd, the two used the transitional rule that DFV-engined F1 cars were also eligible for the championship and thus ran a pair of Williams FW08Cs. It proved a disastrous decision as the pukka F3000 machinery such as the March 85C or Ralt RT20 completely outclassed the ageing F1 cars. Tassin and Leoni always managed to finish but usually were several laps down, as last of the classified runners - that is, in case they managed to get classified at all. After the opening two British rounds the team wisely decided to skip Estoril. Tassin moved over to Eddie Jordan's team, while Lamberto had to sit out the event. He returned with PMC for his home race at Vallelunga, but got involved in a tangle with Ivan Capelli's Genoa March after just four laps.
Then at Pau, there was a sudden upturn in fortunes, as Lamberto survived the usual Pau carnage at the infamous Foch Square to finish 3rd of the five remaining runners, while also finishing on the leader's lap, ahead of Olivier Grouillard no less. PMC's podium finish was the highest-ever finishing position for an F1 chassis during any F3000 event.
But soon the team were back to its old ways. Spa saw another retirement while at Dijon Leoni was making up the rear as usual. After that, enough was enough and Lamberto grabbed the opportunity to replace Alain Ferté in the Corbari Italia team, which was running Marches. At Enna, he took over the Frenchman's seat but retired in the Sicilian heat waves. Then the F3000 circus moved to the Österreichring and there Leoni equalled his best result, taking a fighting third right behind Ivan Capelli and John Nielsen's Ralt. Again, it was reason for temporary happiness, as Leoni left Zandvoort with nothing to show for and showed similar lacklustre form at the final event at Donington.
In 1986, the quantity (and quality!) of the F3000 field almost doubled compared to 1985, Leoni decided to go his own way and entered a March 86C as driver/team owner. The International Trophy at Silverstone, now part of the F3000 championship, was the first time First Racing entered a race. Leoni finished an undistinguished 11th. In the following races, the new combination only attracted attention by falling off at Vallelunga and in Belgium, and at Mugello Lamberto even faced the ignominy of not qualifying, with a repeat embarrassment at Zeltweg after crashing out during the warm-up session. It was a big hit and car nor driver were ready to enter the first Birmingham Superprix, nor were they present at the final two events at Le Mans and Jarama.
Leoni was undeterred. For 1987, he created a three-car Italian superteam which March-Mader 87Bs for himself, Aldo Bertuzzi and star driver Gabriele Tarquini. Still in the first part of the season, a 6th for Leoni at Pau was the only reward, as the hapless Bertuzzi DNQ'ed his heart out and Tarquini was found crashing his car at several events. Suddenly, at Enna, the disappointing Gabriele turned his form around and produced a podium finish for First, with Leoni taking 5th. Strangely, Tarquini was soon back to his habit of finishing last in a season dominated by Stefano Modena. But then Gabriele found new form as Modena won again at Imola. There the First team took its best result of the season, Tarquini finishing second and Leoni fourth. Even Bertuzzi managed to qualify and finish the race, albeit in last position. On a roll, Leoni and Tarquini took fourth and fifth at Le Mans-Bugatti, with the team boss taking another fourth at Jarama, where Claudio Langes replaced Bertuzzi. In the championship table, Leoni and his main man Tarquini finished equal 8th with 12 points each.
1988 was supposed to be Johnny Herbert's year, as JH comfortably took the opening race at Jerez. Meanwhile, Leoni had decided to step down from his driving duties and managed to win a classy driving pairing for his March-Judd 88Bs. Both Pierluigi Martini - two-timing with F1 after his mid-season return to Minardi - and Marco Apicella were hot title favourites and expectations ran high. After two strike-outs the season got underway for Martini with third at Pau, breathing down the neck of Jean Alesi. The team hen had to wait until Monza for Marco Apicella to put himself on the scoreboard, finishing runner-up to Bromley's later champion Moreno. A couple of weeks later, at Enna, Martini won First's first race, while at Brands he took second to Martin Donnelly and in Birmingham snatched the final podium spot. His F1 schedule clashing with the F3000 calendar, Martini chose to go to Estoril with Minardi, while Alain Ferté subbed at the mini-sized Le Mans-Bugatti track. His return for the two final races went nowhere in the way of results.
And so another season of high expectations had gone by without the success to show for it. Granted, the team had taken its first win but the mercurial Martini could - and should - have been a major detractor to Roberto Moreno's title aspirations. As it was, he took a distant fourth in the championship.
Thus it was not without surprise that Leoni launched his plan to move up to F1. During the time the car was drawn, built and put through its first motions by Gabriele Tarquini, First had its usual F3000 business to take care of, and this wasn't a job to be taken lightheartedly, as Leoni again decided to go for a three-car team, new team leader Apicella being joined by Fabrizio Giovanardi and later FIRST boss Jean-Dénis Délétraz. Incidentally, Leoni's First squad should not mixed up with the French FIRST sportscar outfit formed by Fabien Giroix and Délétraz some years ago…
Ironically, 1989 was to be First's most successful season in F3000, as young Giovanardi took a surprise victory in just his second race for the team while Apicella took several podiums to take fourth in the championship. If it hadn't been for those quick and ultra-professional DAMS Lolas of Bernard and Comas and of course that man Jean Alesi… Still, Marco had been in the thick of it during most of the races and looked like real championship material for 1990. And so the F1 project was set aside to give Apicella a real shot at the title, supported by the same drivers as in 1989, although Délétraz was replaced by Marco Greco during the year. Also standing in the way of First's F1 ambitions was F3000 chassis supplier March, which had just given First a semi-works status and was going from strength to strength themselves with their Adrian Newey-penned 881. It is rumoured March more or less prohibited First to continue their F1 operation on the sanction of the Bicester factory withholding its support for Apicella's title bid.
All the more sadly that in the end it wasn't to be, not by a long-shot. The 1990 season was all about the singularly efficient DAMS team, their Lolas only breaking under the hands of Allan McNish, while Erik Comas strolled to the championship, seemingly unperturbed. Apicella duly followed the DAMS cars home on many occasions but also had to contend with opposition from Forti's Gianni Morbidelli, Eddie Irvine in Jordan's Camel Reynard and GA's Eric van de Poele, who took three wins. While Van de Poele was easily Comas's best opponent, Apicella's form tailed off at the end of the season, hitting a low point with disqualification at Brands Hatch.
Having lost Apicella's services to Paul Stewart Racing for 1991, First started all over with Reynard 91D chassis, Mader-tuned Cosworths, the returning Délétraz, the promising Giovanni Bonanno and French hotshoe Éric Hélary, now an Opel DTM regular. The young Frenchman showed his speed on many occasions, but was unlucky to score just a third at Pau. While the season unfolded into a Zanardi/Fittipaldi benefit, the First team's first shake-up came at the same classic track, where Bonanno - who later returned with a self-run Reynard - was released in favour of Steffi Graf's boyfriend, Michael Bartels. A second blow followed when after Jerez Délétraz left the team for the second time. He was not replaced. Then Bartels and Hélary failed to show up at Enna for the Gran Premio del Mediterraneo. It was the end of the line for First Racing, which came close to the championship on two occasions, only to have its foolhardy F1 ambition get in the way. By then the mantle of leading Italian F3000 team had long been taking over by Forti, Crypton and the lusciously named Il Barone Rampante, before F3000 domination also passed over to British teams. Having abandoned his F3000 outfit, Leoni followed in Didier Pironi's footsteps in going for the ultimate modern-day danger ride: powerboat racing. This venture became rather more of a success, Lamberto taking many wins and almost taking the World Championship in 1993.
It would be cruel to say that Lamberto Leoni's seven-year association with Formula 3000 left him with nothing. His team took just two wins but had been a front-runner at best and a mainstay at the least during its stay in the category. Last year, while still competing in offshore powerboat racing, Leoni even made a return to the junior formula, this time fielding a two-car entry under the Monaco Motorsport banner. Main drivers Thomas Biagi and Cyrille Sauvage seldomly starred and the outfit was relegated to Italian F3000. Still, it was more than could be said of Leoni's involvement in Formula One.
Lamberto's initial road to F1 was very similar to that of many of his countrymen, particularly that of Siegfried Stohr. Taking a Formula Italia title into F3, Leoni regularly produced steady drives to some podium positions, but he never set the world alight with a particular performance. Then, after a slow start in a Ralt RT1, Leoni signed to drive Scuderia Everest's curious Ferrari V6-engined Chevron in the European F2 Championship. With this car he then proceeded to win the Adriatic GP at Misano on aggregate. Before that, he hadn't scored a single top-six finish! And he wasn't in the remainder of the season…
A one-off rent-a-drive for Surtees in his 1977 home race preceded Leoni's real F1 break. This came through Ensign's Mo Nunn losing the services of Clay Regazzoni to Shadow. Two races into the season more woe followed for the little team as lead driver Danny Ongais quit, taking along his Interscope dollars to get himself a private Shadow. At Kyalami, Lamberto was thus promoted to the No.22 seat, the team now reduced to a single-car outfit. But with two more DNQs following - pictured is his last qualifying attempt - there was little chance of his staying with the team, especially now Nunn was able to lure the able Jacky Ickx into his pretty competent design - at least it was so the year before, as Ickx was about to find out, although the Belgian's young replacement Derek Daly managed to grab a point with it in Canada.
And what about Leoni? For the next couple of years he was in and out of Formula 2, a 6th at the 1983 International Trophy on board a March-BMW 832 his best result. Only when F3000 was introduced Lamberto's interest was rekindled and, as is proven above, he became one of the category's staunchest supporters.
Reader's Why by Don Capps
It looks like Mario Andretti is trying to pass someone. The car is carrying the number 22 and wearing Tissot sponsorship. So that narrows it to the Ensign. And looking at the background, it says, "Long Beach!" That means this must be Andretti coming up to pass Lamberto Leoni during practice for the 1978 race.
Leoni is one of those shooting stars that flashes through the firmament and is soon over the horizon. A good, competent F3 driver, Leoni moved into F2 and was never quite there in the placings at the end of the race that one would expect. He did manage to win an F2 race, the 1977 Misano race, driving a Chevron-Ferrari. His win was at the expense of Eddie Cheever who spent most of the weekend overcoming some sort of adversity - although he did win the first heat after an amazing race from deep on the grid. However, Leoni won the second heat and beat Cheever on the aggregate.
Leoni immediately parlayed this into an F1 drive, getting enough lire to hire a Surtees at the Italian GP. He then did a deal that saw him in the Ensign for 1978. Although he did make the grid for the Argentine race, he retired when the engine let go. At Brasil he had a driveshaft break during the warmup and he failed to start the race. He then failed to qualify in south Africa and at Long Beach and was then dumped by the team. He did the odd F2 and F3000 races, but a serious accident while racing F3000 in Austria led him to found an F3000 team - FIRST - and work that side of the bargain.
Ensign was the Mo Nunn marque that always seemed to be well-done despite restricted budgets and not standing in the correct line when luck was being handed out. The original Ensign was helped along with money from Ricky von Opel and later Teddy Yip. The N177 cars were wonderful machines that certainly deserved better. They are among the best looking cars from this era and in 1977 with Regazzoni in the works car and Patrick Tambay in the Yip car, they did very well indeed and one can only imagine what could have been should they had some serious sponsorship. However, these cars soldiered into the 1978 and 1979 seasons and struggled to qualify much less compete for placings although the potential was clearly there even when the "wing-car" revolution hit.