15 minutes of fame - Idea with wheels

Rial: 1988 Detriot Grand Prix

It wasn’t so long ago that a one-car team crewed by a handful of blokes could be competitive in F1. Adam Cooper relates one of the last such adventures

Gunter Schmidt’s ATS team appeared in F1 from 1977 to ’84, and while there were occasional flashes of form on the tracks, the German wheel-maker’s rocky relationships with his staff and drivers gained rather more press coverage.

After three years away he returned in 1 988 with a new team and a new company name: Rial was based in a corner of his wheel factory and had a tiny staff, led by designer Gustav Brunner. The Austrian had done great things with ATS before heading off for a spell at Ferrari, which further boosted his reputation.

“The project started very late, actually on October 1,” recalls Brunner. “We had limited resources and it was a small operation at the start, with just me and one other guy. I remember that we had to draw the car very, very quickly and, amazingly, it was ready by February 28— after a tough time!”

It was a typically neat Brunner design and, inevitably, he used a lot of the knowledge gained at Maranello. Indeed, it was soon dubbed the ‘Blue Ferrari’. The Italian connection continued in the cockpit, as Schmidt got Andrea de Cesaris to drive after the Brabham team had opted out and left him with very few other options.

“He had Brunner, and Ferrari had been doing quite well,” says Andrea. ‘The car looked promising. I knew we were going to have problems, but I said to myself, ‘I have enough experience, and if the car is good, maybe I can handle the situation’.”

De Cesaris says he had no real dramas with Schmidt: “He was not as bad a guy as people said he was. The fact is the amount of money we had was limited, and the things we were doing were not to professional F1 standards. I knew he couldn’t destroy his business to pay for F1, but we tried to do the maximum we could with the things we had.

“I think people couldn’t understand it now. If you describe it, it looks just impossible! It was like another planet. We were not an F1 team —we were a Formula Ford team, with maybe eight people. Basically Gustav was doing everything, and I was in charge of some of the work that a car engineer would do, like taking care of how many kilometres the suspension was doing. It was my life — and I wanted to know!”

Despite the compact size of the operation, the ARC1 turned out to be a promising piece of kit.

“It was a good car,” says Brunner. “I remember it had some nice small sidepods and efficient cooling. We ran it for the first time in Imola, and it was surprisingly a very good car from the start. Andrea did a very good flying lap. It was a very impressive job.”

First time out at Rio, de Cesaris qualified a respectable 14th in a field of 31, only to retire in the closing laps. A mechanical problem was blamed, but later it emerged that the car had run out of fuel. Its sleek shape compromised the fuel tank capacity, as de Cesaris recalls: “The problem was, when Gustav designed the car, he had asked Heini Mader what the consumption of the engine was supposed to be. There was a misunderstanding, I think, so this was a disaster! We were missing 10 litres, and I lost many points.”

On the whole, it was a year of frustration for Andrea. He regularly qualified as high as 12th, only for mechanical gremlins or the lack of fuel to stop him. The problems continued at Detroit in June, where he lost the clutch halfway through the race. But he was at least able to keep the car going in a race of high attrition. He crossed the line in fourth, beaten only by the McLarens of Senna and Prost, and Thierry Boutsen’s Benetton. It was to be the only top-six finish all season, and after Schmidt returned to form and sacked Brunner, Rial had lost its greatest asset.

In 1989, Christian Danner scored another US GP fourth place, this time at Phoenix, but thereafter Rial went into a downward spiral that led to its demise after just two seasons. Nevertheless, de Cesaris has good memories of the experience: “I enjoyed it, and it was a great challenge for me. To handle that situation for a year and score points was special.”