TEAM ENSIGN Battling against the odds
THESE days one might be excused for thinldng that all Grand Prix teams arc sUnply dripping with major commercial sponsorship as multi-national corporations queue up to pour finance into their coffers, avidly attempting to take advantage of lavish television coverage all over the World. But that’s a very superficial view indeed. The fact of the matter is that commercial sponsorship is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain against the backcloth of the current severe economic depression. There is no place for sentiment or Profligacy; companies want value for money from their financial support of any professional sport and there are plenty of other pastimes currently eumPeting with motor racing for a slice of the sponsorship pie. You don’t have to look very far to see the problems. Jr 1981 Tyrrell, Fittipaldi, Theodore and Ensign all battled against the fmancial wind and participated in the World Championship without major sponsor, True, the
big companies are still around, but they are being more selective and want to associate themselves increasingly with teams of proven stature, not simply those who are promising mid-field runners at their best. So whik Williams, Brabham, Renault, Ferrari and others have substantial budgets to sustain been at the top of the spon, the poor teams face the risk of becoming even poorer unless they can achieve a miraculous “breakthrough” when it comes to securing hard results. And even Frank Williams, no stranger to racing on a lean budget (almost non-existent at times!, during his team’s formative years, is fully aware that the big sponsors will only be there as long as he’s winning. For winning is everything in the Grand Prix game.
Nonetheless, these hard financial statistics do not prevent small and under-financed teams from contesting Formula One events. Some may make progress, some are destined never to move from the back of the starting grid. One such tiny team is Morris Nunn’s Ensign equipe which has been in Grand Prix racing for eight seasons now and is still struggling to establish a niche for itself. Tenacity, sheer enthusiasm, a rneasure of stubborn defiance and a sheer love of motor racing have kept Nunn, himself a former F3 driver of considerable repute, fighting against the odds for much of the past decade. On several occasions Team Ensign have tottered on the financial brink but always manage to survive, just keeping there collective heads alxwe water. It’s been a long road, a hard road, but one which Nunn insists he will continue to tread until he achieves some measure of success. For deep down inside he is a true, passionate motor racing enthusiast. Morris Nunn’s enthusiasm for motor racing was fired shortly after he emerged from his national service with the RAF at the end of the 1950s. Whilst running his own modest garage business he was talked moo buying a leaf sprung F/Junior Cooper from those enthusiasts and traders, the Ashmore brothers open West
ENSIGN CHIEF, Morns Nunn (left), squats by Eliseo Salazar’s car in the Montreal pit lane prior to the 1981 Canadian Grand Pnx. Below, Derek Daly struggles round Kyalarmduring pracnce for the 1979 South African GP at the wheel of the distinaMe, but unsuccessfid Enstgn N179, compkte with water radiators mounted on the front of the cockpit section.
Bromwich. Morris admits that at the time “I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing,” but he was steered onto the right track by some friend and converted the car to coil springs for the 1963 season. “My first foray into engineering”, he reflects. Later Nunn scraped together sufficient money to enter F3, thanks to the support of Midlands businessman Bernard Lewis and quickly established himself as a clever and successful competitor, particularly adept at threes of slipstreaming on faster circuits. His results at the wheel of his own, immaculate, self-prepared Lotus 41 (at a time when everybody else was driving Brabhams) earned him a place in the Gold Leaf Team Lotus F3 line-up for the 1969 season. Nunn was by that time 32 years old and didn’t want to spend any more time in F3. He wanted to have a crack at F2, but Lotus abandoned that category for 1970, so Nunn turned to the newly established Formula 5000. At the wheel of a Doug Hardwick owned Lola T190, Morris had an enormous accident on the start / finish straight at Snetterton, waking up in the ambulance on the way to hospital. By now he was seriously questioning whether he ought to “hang up his helmet”, and a couple mom crashes in the unwieldly Lola confirmed that thought in his mind. But he didn’t want to give up his involvement in motor racing, so he turned his hand to the role of constructor.
The first F3 Ensign was built in the garage and garden of Mo’s modest semi-detached Chasetown, Walsall, home. He built the prototype and kept his family above the bread-line, thanks to Bernard Lewis’s continued support, silos £2,000. By the end of the year the neat side-radiator Ensign was complete. Initial testing with a 1-litre F3 engine saw local ace Alan Rollinson under the Silverstone record first time out and Holbay racing engines helped out with the loan of one of the new “restricted” twin-cam engines for the new F3 which started in 1971. Bev Bond was signed up to drive and he walked away with the Race of Champions supporting F3 event only to spin twice and lose victory by less than a length to Colin (son of Tony) Vandervell’s Brabham. Bond continued to drive up to the British GP meeting after which he was replaced in the car by Mike Walker. In F3 circles the Ensign had attracted a great deal of interest. One person who made enquiries about a car was Rildry von Opel, a member of the German car-building dynasty, who’d out started F3 with a private Lotus after a spwacular Formula Ford career. Von Opel was signed up in
a two-car works team with Mike Walker, sponsorship for the project coming from Iberia Airlines. In 1972 the team really hit the headlines for the first time, winning countless races and proving themselves very much .the taste beat”. Although von Opel was providing some of the money to run the team, he appreciated the frank and open way in which Nunn treated him. There was no way the team chief was going to defer to the driver if he stepped out of line and Rikky received more than one “chewing off’ during their successful season. But von 0,I’s ambitions were extending beyond the boundaries of F3 and, towards the end of the year, he put an exciting proposition to Mo Nunn. If he were to finance the whole project, would Morris commit Ensign to building him a Grand Prix car, Nunn agreed immediately and the first Fl Ensign, a distinctively styled if rather large machine, made its debut in the 1973 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard.
Von Opel stayed with the team for just about a year until he decided that his talent might find a better outlet in the Brabham team. But he didn’t leave Nunn “in the lurch”, paying the Ensign team’s expenses up until the end of 1974 even though by that time he’d briefly flirted with Brabham as a paying drive, convinced himself that he didn’t have the ultimate talent and retired from the sport altogether. Nunn still speaks appreciatively of him to this day: “He helped us a lot, he was a nice man and I always felt that he’d got more talent than he gave himself credit for”. Nunn got through 1974 75 with a variety of different sponsors and drivers, culminating in his arrangement with the Dutch HB Alarm systems company for Roelof Wunderink and Gilt van Lennep. But although these deals brought much-needed finance to the company, it wasn’t really the way Nunn wanted to go motor racing. In August 1975 an idle suggestion from this writer resulted in Nunn signing up Ph refugee Chris Amon who was just recovering from the financial trauma of attempting to build his own Grand Prix car. Amon first drove for the Ensign team in the 1975 Austrian GP to cement a pleasant, good-natured and relaxed relationship which lasted for just a year. For Nunn, to have a driver of Amon’s calibre on the team strength was a totally new experience. “He was the first driver we had who could give us any feed-back on how the car was behaving. He pinpointed a problem we had in respect of low straight-line speed, a problem we traced to the wrong airbox shape. Admittedly, early on in our relationship, I used to “test” him. On one
occasion I adjusted the rear wing angle be une notch. After two laps he was back in the pits saying ‘Morris, have you changed that rear wing adjustrnent?’. He helped us a great deal to make that new car competitive.” The new car was a sleek Dave Baldwin side-radiator design which was originally conceived welt inboard brakes all round, although it didn’t take long bethre they were convened to an outboard arrangement at the front. Prior to Amon’s retirement from the team at the 1976 German GP, disillusioned at the length of time it took track officials to get the badly burned Niki Lauda to medical attention. the quiet New &slander showed that the Ensign had a great deal of promise. Ile finished fifth in the Spanish GP and was challenging Depailkr tor second place in Sweden before a from suspension failure caused hint to crash heavily — as it had already done earlier in the yirar in Belgium, But Nunn was encouraged and, after Jacky Ickx
briefly tried the car at the end of the season, he signed Clay Regazzoni to drive thr Ensign in 1977.
To the outsider, Ensign’s 1977 project may have looked well-financed, but that simply wasn’t the case. “We had 660,000 from Tissot”, recalls Nunn reflectively, “and Clay drove for nothing. But we were still very hard up. The previous year, with Amon, we’d wound up with a deficit of 156,000. Our income had been 6130,000, but we’d spent 6186.000. “It was gitod working with Clay. He was easy-going and he didn’t cause unnecessary trouble. He knew we were shoe of money, accepted our problems and simply drove. On one occasion he wanted to UN Ferrari-like rear wing, so lie had it made up at Ins own expense in Italy and brought it along to one ot the races. But although we were short of money we alwavs attempted to have our engines rebuilt bet/,re they went ‘over time’ Even so, we did have some
engine problems. By that I mean a problem with one particular engine which simply didn’t want to develop the power never mind which preparation company we sent it too.”
For 1978 there was insufficient money available to design a new car and Nunn continued with a development of the 1977 machine. “Regazzoni wanted to stay with us in 1978 but he said that he just couldn’t afford to drive another season web no money. So he went off to Shadow. After an initial couple of races with Danny Ongais and Lambert° Leoni, we had Ickx back for a while.” However Mo Nunn admits that he was never totally convinced that the Belgian, undeniably a brilliant Grand Prix driver in his heyday, was very interested in Fl by that stage in his career.
“I was particularly worried when we went to Sweden with Jacky”, Nunn remembers, “we were much slower then we’d been the previous year with Regazzoni and he didn’t seem to know why. It was very frustrating. He was OK as a driver, but I often found difficulty getting him to discuss details about the car. I came away thinking that he perhaps wasn’t taking Fl too seriously any longer.” Looking round for some new talent, Nunn fixed his eye on both Derck Daly and Nelson Piquet. He tried them both, Daly in the British and Piquet in the German GP. “I didn’t know which one to pick bull eventually went for Daly; I think Derek was slightly, ahead of Nelson at that Nint in his career in terms of what he’d achieved. But I Ithew Bernie Eeclestone was keen on Piquet because, prior to my running him at Hockenheim, became to me and said ‘Morris, if you don’t take Piquet, then I will’. And, of course, we all know that started Nelson out on his path to the World Championship,”
Daly drove well for the balance of 1978, picking up a sixth place and splitting the works Tyrrells in Canada. But for 1979 Nunn went “out on a limb” and commissioned anew’ car which, on its debut, featured an outlandish cooling system layout with the radiator laying down the front of the bodywork from cockpit to footwell. It assuredly wasn’t a success and although it was hastily adapted to a more conventional radiator layout there was no way it ever became competitive. Daly struggled with it for a while, tube succeeded by Patrick Gaillard and then Marc Surer for the end of season races in North America. Ensign fortunes seemed to be slipping towards another very low ebb.
However, prospects for 1980 became much brighter when Nunn secured sponsorship for lthipart. A brand new car, the N180, was built up — “Ralph Bellamy did all the chassis and suspension while Nigel Bennett completed the bodywork and aerodynamics” and Clay Regazzoni rejoined the team. In 1976 the popular Swiss had been pushed out of Ferrari to make way for Carlos Reutemann and now he was being shown the door by the Williams team to accommodate Reutemann’s arrival again. He was happy to return to Ensign because, as he so often said “for we. winning is not everything. Driving in Formula Its simply far more important”. For a few races it really did look as though Ensign were on the verge of pulling themselves into the ranks of the midfield runners, but this progress was tragically thwarted when Regazzoni crashed heavily at Long Beach. The Swiss driver suffered serious injuries affecting his back and spine from which he has not yet fully recovered. Ensign were unable to secure the services of another top driver and Nunn was thus obliged to “fill in” with a series of inexperienced competitors such as Tiff Needell, Patrick Gaillard and Jan Lammers.
What’s more, it was pretty dear that the Ensign 180 badly needed more development and Unipart lost interest as the team’s results waned towards the end of the year. For the 1981 season Ensign lost their sponsor to McLaren and were left to soldier on as optimisitcally as they could.
“I think we paid the penalty for being a small team which built its ground effect car too quickly”, explains Nunn, “By the time we appreciated what changes needed to be made we had no more money to effect them. The biggest problem has been our failure to scoop a really big sponsor to keep us going; perhaps, looking back on it, one could say that in 1980 we started off with no excuses . . .” However, that certainly wasn’t the case in 1981. To begin the year Nunn hired the services of the promising Swiss driver Marc Surer. To say “hired” might, in fact, be something of an exaggeration. Surer was employed to drive the Ensign solely for expenses and whatever prize money he might earn. When he drove to a splendid fourth place in the rain-soaked Brazilian Grand Prix at Rio-de-Janeiro. Mo Nunn stood in the pits with his fingers firmly crossed. He simply prayed that the track didn’t dry out; Team Ensign had only two spare wheels, so d Surer had needed to change to dry weather slicks, there was no way he could have continued. He would have been forced to retire. Later. Surer finished sixth at Monaco but financial realism meant that his place in the team was taken by the Chilean driver Eliseo Salazar. He managed a sixth place finish in the Dutch Grand Prix at “Landvoort, thereby helping to keep the Ensign team’s head above water. In a world where Fl sponsorship budgets tend to be measured in millions, Mo Nunn is remarkably candid about his financial outlay during 1981. “We did the whole season on
1315,000″, he smiles weakly. That may seem a great deal of money to the outsider but, taking inflation into account, it effectively means that Mo Nunn ran his Fl team during 1981 with a budget smaller than the one available in 1976. Despite all the problems, the intrigue and undue difficulties attached to the task of being a small team in the Grand Prix world, Morris Nunn remains indefatigable in his approach to the sport. He fully intends to continue, to survive, perhaps even to prosper. He feels that his small company, now based at Lichfield with 12 people on the payroll, could return successful results for half the financial outlay expended by some of the established teams. “It’s primarily a money game these days”, says Nunn, “and sometimes I feel very depressed because it’s difficult toner the light at the end of the tunnel. But as long as I think I can see light at the end of that tunnel, I will continue. If we had a million and a half pounds we wouldn’t have to give any excuses for failing to beat Brabham or Williams. And they’ve got twice that amount —
Mc Nunn has been struggling for years to obtain a decent Fl budget. If he gets the money he feels he can do the job. Many people pooh-pooh such an idea, feeling that Nunn is an also-ran and always will be. Maybe. But we close with a sobering thought; that’s what they were saying about Frank Williams from 1971 to 1977! — A.11.