Colombia's mystery Grand Prix man
- Mattijs Diepraam, Felix Muelas
- 8W October 1999 issue
- Masami Kuwashima - Probably the shortest Grand Prix career ever, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- Stebro - Canada's first GP car, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas/Michael Ferner
- Rodger Ward - Midget among the giants, by Mattijs Diepraam
1981 Brazilian GP (track acquaintance session)
You'd think F1 was organized in a more professional manner come the 1980s. Phantasmagoric entries like Rodger Ward's Kurtis-Kraft sprint car entry to the 1959 US GP, Peter Broeker's Stebro FJ car entering the 1963 US GP or even Masami Kuwashima making a Friday appearance at the 1976 Japanese GP don't belong in modern GP racing, do they?
Well, when looking into the Londono affair, you will have to admit you were wrong. Straightforward and unassuming 1980s or not, Ricardo Londono's obscure 1981 Brazilian GP entry is definitely the purest kind of Kuwashima material. (Here you have a unique picture of F1's mystery man.) He was on the initial entry list, so he is entitled to a brief annotation in the all-time F1 annals. But just as the Japanese F2 driver was replaced by Hans Binder before qualifying, the Colombian was out of his No.14 entry before he could set a meaningful time. In fact, contrary to Kuwashima our friend from Bogotá did not even take part in official practice as his superlicense was not forthcoming. He did however find time to shove off Keke Rosberg in Wednesday's pre-event testing.
Punting off the Fittipaldi in the acclimatisation session will of course be the thing Ricardo will be remembered for, making him the butt of many jokes. But a look at the Wednesday session times suggests Londono wasn't actually that terrible. Best time was set by Reutemann with a 1.37.48, whilst RLB managed a best of 1.41.77. That wasn't too bad considering Salazar - who was to take the Ensign seat later in the year - set the slowest time at 1.46.39, while Ricardo also outpaced the likes of - get a hold of this! - Piquet, Arnoux, Daly, Giacomelli, Serra, Guerra, Jabouille, Stohr, Gabbiani and Zunino.
And it gets even better.
Only just ahead of him were Villeneuve with a 1.41.71, Jones (1.41.46), Watson (1.41.45), Tambay (1.41.25), Rosberg (1.41.20) and De Cesaris (1.41.08). On similar track conditions on Friday morning, with fastest times improving by about half a second, Londono's replacement Marc Surer managed a 1.41.00.
So let's get rid of the assertion Londono was dead slow. He wasn't.
As far as superlicenses go, they could have done a Tuero or Gene, who both used the 500km testing escape route to qualify. Then, when subsequently handed a license they proved they were up to the job. But of course that's modern FIA decision-making for you. Back in those days a superlicense was still a big thing which could not be acquired at the local supermarket. So, with the FISA refusing to hand out the necessary qualifications, suddenly Marc Surer, dropped by Morris Nunn after one race, found himself drafted back into the squad and duly qualified 18th.
Marc followed that up with a cracker of a race, which was ended after two hours with 62 laps completed. Amidst torrential rains Marc took the car home in fourth and recorded fastest lap in the process! This is his recollection of the days' events, as told to Andy Hallberry in Autosport's Race Of My Life column: "The Brazilian Grand Prix in '81 was very special for me, because I shouldn't really have been in it. There was this Colombian guy, Ricardo Londono, who had brought some money to the Ensign team, and he was going to drive in Brazil. I went to Brazil knowing I wasn't going to drive. Anyway, the week before the race they had some testing, which of course they don't allow now, and I did a few laps. I climbed out, Londono got in, and I thought, 'That's it'... I hung around, seeing if I could get another drive somewhere, or be there just in case. Then I heard some rumours that Londono had some problems with his superlicense, although I wasn't aware how big the problem was. I still hung around, and I remember coming back to the International Hotel around midnight on Thursday night, having had a good time. Before I arrived at the hotel, a journalist had already told me that Morris Nunn was looking for me. Morris was very nervous, walking up and down and so on. Then I walked into the reception and he was there. 'You must drive my car tomorrow, he didn't get the license!' And I said, 'Fine.' I wasn't drunk, but it was a bit late... So I got in the car - happily driving with Londono's money! - and qualified 18th."
Even the large present of three championship points and the glory of recording fastest lap could not keep Marc in the Ensign seat, although he was in the points again at Monaco. Mid-season he was replaced by another wealthy South American: Eliseo Salazar from Chile. Surer, who switched over to Theodore, doesn't bear a grudge though: "You know, this team was great. It was a shame that when they had enough money, they didn't do well. It is always a strange thing. We had no money, no spare parts - we were doing 1000kms on one engine, you know, until they sounded funny - but we were still doing well. It was probably my happiest season. I didn't get paid, just expenses, but I didn't mind. I'd rather it was like that than being with a team that had enough money, but was unhappy. I think I had only four mechanics, Nigel Bennett and Morris Nunn. A small team..."
Which still begs the question: how did jolly old Ricardo end up on the 1981 Brazilian GP entry list? Well, it's the high point of a short and very undistinguished racing career. There's not much on record on Londono's national career (it seems he was a motorbike racer at one time) but we do know that he finished up in Britain in 1980 to contest one round of the British Aurora Series. That single appearance came about through team boss Colin Bennett acquiring the ex-Villota Lotus 78 (chassis 02) and convincing Norman Dickson to drive it in a couple of early-season races. Dickson acquitted himself well with two second places at both the Evening News and Sun Trophies, trailing Desiré Wilson and Emilio de Villota respectively. For the overseas Lotteria race at Monza - now included in the Aurora championship - the car was given to Gianfranco Brancatelli. 'Branca' duly destroyed it...
(Talking of phantasmagoric appearances: will you allow us to dwell upon the only time a Formula One car called the Dywa took to the track? It was right at this Monza event, driven by Maurizio Flammini. It looked ugly and it performed even worse. This DFV-powered one-off only appeared for a couple of slow laps but was indeed laid out to comply to F1 regulations. It later resurfaced as an F3000 car, which was originally announced for 1985 and appeared once in 1986, as the Monaco.)
By the doing of Brancatelli the 78-02 had had its day. When it reappeared in the hands of Desiré Wilson at the Pace Petroleum Trophy at Brands, it gave the South African lady a mighty scare when a wheel bearing suddenly stopped performing its usual function. It was a big, big accident. That was at the end of August, and the car, twice badly shaken, was a forfeiter for the rest of the season. Until...
October 5, 1980, when a smiling Colin Bennett made a deal for the last race of the season at Silverstone for the first edition of the Pentax Trophy. He had a "promising" new driver on board, aged 31, who had no special problem writing the cheques: yes, it's our man RLB. As one can easily imagine, the car was far from repaired (was it repairable at that stage?) so Ricardo had another big shunt in practice. The car was fixed in time for the race (maybe that was a condition of the payment) and Londono, starting from the back, was able to finish the race in an astonishing 7th position, crossing the line after a heavy fight with Theodore Racing's protegé Kim Mather.
Now the way Londono got himself into an Ensign begins to become clear. The connection is of course provided by Colin Bennett, who became the co-owner of the Ensign team for 1981. Also debuting on that Silverstone grid was the Docking-Spitzley Racing Team, partly the brainchild of Alan Docking, who became a mainstay of British F3 later on, and still is. All season Docking's team had campaigned Dutchman Huub Rothengatter and Italian Siegfried Stöhr in a pair of Toleman TG280s in Formula 2 and now had hired someone called John Lewis for a one-off in the Aurora F2 class. As the order for two brand new Lola T850s for Stefan Johansson and Kenny Acheson to drive in 1981 had already gone out, Lewis was projected to drive the car they had decided to keep as a spare for 1981: TG280 chassis 03, the usual 1980 Rothengatter car. Lewis failed to impress, but maybe, just maybe, Londono did impress Alan Docking.
Or his wallet might have. After the events in Brazil, RLB make a phone call to Alan Docking to revive his racing career, and yes, he got the spare car! So, for June 8, 1981, we have Londono as third driver of the outfit, entered for the F2 Pau race with starting number 44. Ricardo qualified the car last, but might we remind you that other brilliant promises like Loris Kessel, Jürg Lienhard, Roy Baker, Paul Smith, Ray Mallock and the globally renowned Brutschin brothers - Harald and Bernd - did not...
Londono then marked himself as some sort of a finisher as he again managed to make it to the end in 9th while nine others crashed out on the notoriously gripless track. On the other hand, Ricardo only finished ahead of Jim Crawford because the Scotsman had to visit the pitlane one time too many. But in all, a competent performance.
Another "invitation" followed for Pergusa, Londono driving the same car with the same number. This time Ricardo qualified in front of Freddy Schnarwiller (another star-in-the-making...), but also ahead of the likes of Christian Danner, Johnny Cecotto, Del Castello, Smith, Paolo Barilla, Guido Dacco and Kessel again. In the race he didn't do badly, but his engine expired on lap 25. On August 9 the F2 boys went to Spa for a taste of 30 laps around the revised track. A tricky weekend, with rain coming and going, witnessed a wonderful battle between local hero Thierry Boutsen (who took pole) and Geoff Lees (who won). Our Colombian hero again qualified in the middle of the pack (surrounded by some of the names already mentioned) but on lap 15 a flywheel was responsible for his walk back to the paddock.
The last thing we know of Londono is that he went to Donington on August 16 for the next European F2 event, that he qualified 23rd out of 29 starters but did not take the start. We can only guess what happened but the bare facts give us plenty of clues. These facts are that he crashed out in the warm-up and that TG280-03 was never entered in a motor race again. That must have been a heavy shunt...
As far as the South American country's contribution to Grand Prix racing goes: apart from Roberto Guerrero's brief love affair with F1, we've just been treated to Juan Pablo Montoya, haven't we?
Reader's Why by Michael Ferner
Honestly, I think this is a little bit unfair since, strictly speaking, this performance falls outside the World Championship. In 1978 the Jacarepagua circuit in the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro played host for a WC round for the first time but instead of alternating with the Interlagos track near Sao Paulo it failed to attract sufficient sponsorship, until 1981 that is. By then the FIA felt the three-year gap was sufficient to allow for a special recce on the Wednesday before the actual GP, the usual procedure with new-to-F1 tracks.
Team Ensign had just survived a bitter blow when Unipart had discontinued its financial involvement with the team. In late 1979 the sponsor had approached Mo Nunn with the intention of "doing a Williams" with the chronically underfinanced team, following which designers Ralph Bellamy and Nigel Bennett switched from Lotus to Ensign. In less than three months they had to design and build a completely new car, and the fact that they succeeded owed very much to their "very good chief mechanic" Gary Anderson, as Bennett later recalled. As we know now, Anderson went on to become a very good chief designer as well!
Sadly, it all went horribly wrong again for Nunn, although the N180 had quite some potential: In Long Beach Clay Regazzoni had the car battling for third when his brake pedal suddenly fell through, the resultant accident leaving the popular Swiss permanently partially paralysed. Ensign had to see out the season with inexperienced drivers and failed to score a single WC point, which left Unipart decidedly unimpressed, so that was that!
Again, Nunn's pockets were empty and he tackled the 1981 season with an upgraded 1980 chassis, while Bennett would design a new car whenever time and money permitted. Eventually it would not appear before the second race of 1982! When no driver with a budget could be found the team had the nous to engage the up-and-coming Marc Surer for the first couple of races.
Then, all of a sudden, there was Londoño with a healthy dose of gelt. It did not matter that his racing experience was close to none, at least not to Nunn: his backing of a Colombian spaghetti producer was of far bigger interest. He had actually raced a Lotus 78 in a British Championship race at Silverstone the previous October, finishing seventh, but otherwise his CV included only some rather meaningless Colombian Championships in stock cars and on a 350cc Yamaha!
At first it was planned to enter F1 with a new team of old Williams cars, set up by Colin Bennett (no relation of Nigel), but the plan fell through when the FIA introduced a new rule that forced any entrant to build its own chassis, so Londoño signed for Ensign. After ten laps of the test session, while still lapping more than ten seconds away from the pace he contrived to run into Keke Rosberg's Fittipaldi which spelt the end of his F1 career. Thereafter he did some F2 races and quietly disappeared from the scene.
The "Colombia" stickers stayed on the car for the race in which Surer sensationally took fourth, the best-ever result for the team, to which he added the only fastest race lap for Ensign. Still, the beleaguered team could not afford to overhaul its engine which promptly expired at the next race. After another Colombian (Roberto Guerrero) had saved the team for 1982, Nunn couldn't hold out no longer to the continuous take-over bids by Teddy Yip who, as long ago as 1977 had expressed his interest in ownership after sponsoring the Ensign in 1974. So for 1983 the cars were known as Theodores until they finally disappeared altogether for want of a turbo engine.