French resistance

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AGS emerged from behind Henri Julien’s garage in the south of France, made the grade in Formula 2, flowered briefly in F1, and was gone

By Johnny Tipler

When the boules clack under the plane trees in sleepy Gonfaron I won’t look at those old boys by the fountain in quite the same way again. One of them has quaffed champagne with Alain Prost and tasted international success in Formula 2. He’s Henri Julien, founder of the AGS team. 

The AGS star shone brightest in 1984 when Philippe Streiff won the very last F2 race at Brands Hatch, though by 1991 it had faded from the F1 firmament. On the way, Henri Julien’s backyard équipe encompassed tiny home-made 500cc F3 cars, Formula Junior and Formule Renault. It gained the French F2 title in 1980, ’81 and ’82 with Richard Dallest and Streiff. Today, AGS is a thriving corporate entertainment centre at the Circuit du Var, a mile or so from Gonfaron, near Saint-Tropez, where successful execs and wannabe racers get to lap F1 cars in the Mediterranean sunshine. 

Founded in 1968, the AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives) marque was always going to be a privateer operation in Julien’s tenure, yet it’s one of those David-and-Goliath sagas that occasionally warm the cold heart of international motor sport. Born in 1930, Julien was the son of a garage owner in Gonfaron. His Garage de l’Avenir filling station stands on the main road through the dense town centre. Behind it, the collection of backyard buildings to the rear of his house where the racing cars were built is largely unchanged; his office walls are festooned with photos of AGS cars and scores of small trophies. In a small room are four tiny 1950s F3 cars: two Volpinis, a Dyna-Panhard and a self-built Julien. Small and moustachioed, with a twinkling eye, Julien wanted to race, but with no money to buy a car he simply created his own. 

His first race was at nearby Draguignan in 1949, in his home-made tube-frame Simca-powered 500cc car, the JH1. During the next decade he raced a succession of 500cc F3 single-seaters at club level, including his own Dyna-Panhard- and BMW-powered JH Juliens. In 1959 he ran the front-wheel-drive Julien JH3 in FJunior, finishing 19th (and last) at Monaco. 

In 1968 Julien built a spaceframe chassis powered by a Renault Gordini engine for the inaugural Formule France and the team became AGS. A brief excursion into F3 with an Alpine-Renault A330 revealed that he wasn’t quick enough, so the first salaried AGS driver was François Rabbione, who won the 1969 Volant Shell trophy in the JH4.

For the new Formule Renault series in 1971, AGS built four JH6 chassis, a riveted aluminium monocoque designed and fabricated in the Gonfaron workshops. Unlike well-funded operations which could base chassis design on the outcome of crash tests, AGS had to come up with something robust from the outset. But although they tended to be overweight, the cars rarely broke. There were no wins, but François Guerre-Berthelot set several fastest laps, while Alain Jallot ran well in the Monaco GP curtain-raiser, coming fourth in 1972 and third in ’73. AGS climbed another rung with Formule Super Renault, and in 1977 began to score consistent results, with Richard Dallest taking four second places to finish fourth in the series in a JH14. 

In 1978 AGS entered the European F2 Championship with Heini Mader-prepared BMW engines powering the JH15 chassis. Two seasons passed before Richard Dallest scored wins in the Mader BMW-engined JH19, at Pau and Zandvoort. AGS was one of a handful of teams running its own cars. “At the Nürburgring,” says Julien, “Dallest was fastest in practice, and all the other drivers thought the timekeepers must have made a mistake. But there was no error!”

Dallest stayed on at AGS for 1981 and won the French F2 crown, but was replaced the following year by Philippe Streiff and Pascal Fabre. Streiff was particularly impressive, in the points often enough to clinch the French F2 title. With some excellent results in 1983, Streiff finished fourth in the European F2 series, the team aided by the financial input of wealthy Italian F2 and sportscar racer Fulvio Ballabio.

For F2’s swansong year, AGS and Streiff, unfancied against almost unbeatable Ralt-Honda opposition (Mike Thackwell and Roberto Moreno), took third at Thruxton, second at Pau and Misano, and Streiff’s first F2 win in the final round, the Daily Mail Trophy at Brands Hatch. The organisers were so surprised by Streiff’s victory – in a French car – that they couldn’t come up with a recording of La Marseillaise to play as he stood on the podium. He jokes about it now, but this was Henri Julien’s finest moment, and the reflection prompts him to open a bottle of Muscatel.

The next logical step was F3000, and the Cosworth DFV-powered JH20 tub was constructed for Streiff, who racked up four fifth places during 1985. Then, support from the Italian Jolly Club and a supply of Carlo Chiti’s 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 Motori Moderni engines allowed AGS to graduate to F1 in 1986. The JH21C tub was drawn by Julien and Christian Vanderpleyn “on the kitchen table”. It was influenced by the three-year-old Renault RE40 (so successful in 1983) and fabricated in carbon-fibre by MOC. Tested by Didier Pironi (four years into retirement but looking at a comeback), it took until Monza to get it race-ready. The pressure was on. Ivan Capelli managed just one practice lap before the engine grenaded, and the AGS crew were still working on the car as the paddock gates began to close before the warm-up; preparations were completed in the pits. Capelli qualified 25th out of 27, and was going well until a puncture stopped him. At Estoril the gearbox lasted just six laps, and that was that for the year. Nevertheless, Julien was upbeat: “The advantage with us being a small team was that you could quickly adapt and make changes, unlike the big factory teams like Renault where there was a lengthy decision-making process and it often took them weeks to make a modification that we could do in a weekend.” 

Capelli went off to March, so for 1987 AGS hired its one-time F2 pilot Pascal Fabre. They decided the best bet for a low-budget team was to go the more reliable normally-aspirated 3.5-litre route using a customer Cosworth DFZ V8. It gained a succession of seven last places – the JH22 was a reliable car, despite its bizarre tacked-on 1970s airbox. Having failed to qualify the overweight chassis on three occasions, Fabre was replaced by Moreno, who came sixth at Adelaide to score the team’s first world championship point. Streiff was back in the fold for 1988, to drive a  new, slender-look JH23. In this, the last year of turbo engines, the normally-aspirated cars were midfield runners, and Streiff’s best result was eighth at Suzuka. As far as Julien was concerned, “it was a good year, as we were fighting with the established teams and drivers. When someone like Nelson Piquet deliberately blocks your driver because he feels threatened you know it is going well”.

The JH23B used Cosworth DFRs for 1989, but during pre-season tyre testing Streiff had a career-ending accident. That year AGS ran cars for Gabriele Tarquini and Jo Winkelhock. Tarquini fared quite well, coming sixth in Mexico, but Winkelhock failed to pre-qualify for several GPs on the trot and was replaced by Yannick Dalmas, who fared no better. Despite the advent of the new Claude Galopin-designed carbon-Kevlar JH24, the season tailed off to an ignominious succession of DNPQs. A ray of hope in the shape of a W12 engine designed, built and tested in an old AGS chassis by Motors Guy Nègre came to nothing.

The team’s survival hung in the balance. As its sponsorship evaporated the team disintegrated, and Julien sold up to industrialist Cyril de Rouvre – Julien was sidelined as a consultant. Former AGS assistant designer Michel Costa was re-hired to pen the JH25, which first ran at Paul Ricard in mid-season where Dalmas placed 17th, while Tarquini managed 13th at the Hungaroring. In a run of DNQs, Dalmas’ ninth at Jerez was as good as it got. 

During the 1990 season the team relocated to the new facility at Circuit du Var, and staff turnover went into overdrive. The JH25B was much the same car – at 39 races, it proved the most prolific of all AGSs – and was wheeled out to no better effect in the hands of Stefan Johansson, Tarquini and Fabrizio Barbazza. They seldom made the grid. By now, de Rouvre was in financial difficulties, and early in 1991 he sold AGS to Gabriele Rafanelli and Patrizio Cantù. Last of the AGS line was the JH27, drawn by Vanderpleyn and Mario Tollentino and introduced at Monza for Tarquini. Neither car qualified for the two Iberian races, and after the Spanish GP the team pulled out. Henri Julien had already begun to write his memoirs.

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