Demeaning of life

Bruno Giacomelli 1990 LIFE F190

Italy’s economy boom threw up some strange F1 outfits, but none stranger than life, whose bizarre W12 engine gave 440BHP less than the Honda unit of the period.

There are many contenders for the worst F1 car of all time, but surely none comes dose to matching the performance of the truly awful Life F190, a beast that makes even the infamous Andrea Moda look like a rocket Suffice to say, the most competitive performance this unloved machine achieved was at the 1990 British Grand Prix, when it was a mere 15 seconds from creeping onto the back row of the grid.

Sadly, the Life squandered the talents of Bruno Giacomelli, yet he kept the faith, and stuck it out until the project finally collapsed. “For sure that was the worst car,” he says. “But I don’t know if you can call it a race car, it was so bad.”

Just a decade ago the sport was open to all corners, and anyone could put a team together. In 1990, there were 39 entries at each race, although Friday morning prequalifying weeded out the hopeless from the hopefuls. So when an unknown Italian outfit called Life announced it was joining the throng, it wasn’t a big deal. Apart from the fact that the team planned to build its own 3.5-litre W12 motor.

Life Racing Engines was the idea of businessman Emesto Vita, whose surname gave rise to the team’s Anglicised moniker. He had linked up with veteran Ferrari engine designer Franco Rocchi, who convinced him the W12 was the way to go. Rocchi had gone to Maranello in 1949, and his name at least gave the project a degree of credibility. Less promising was the decision to use an outdated chassis, acquired from the stillborn First team.

Gary Brabham was the surprise choice as driver and, having heard Vita’s sales pitch, he eagerly signed up. But after hopeless outings in Phoenix and Brazil, he baled out, which is where Giacomelli comes into the story. At the time Bruno had been out of F 1 for seven years, but had kept himself busy in sportscar racing. More recently he’d worked with Adrian Newey as test driver on Leyton House’s active suspension project. But he wanted to race, so when Life called, he ignored Brabham’s misgivings.

“I had the opportunity to get back into Fl, and I took it,” Bruno recalls. “I wasn’t really expecting anything from the performance point of view, but Rocchi, who designed the engine, was very famous he was involved in Ferrari’s flat-12. So I accepted to get involved in it because of him. I didn’t really have anything to lose.”

But why would a guy who convincingly led the 1980 US Grand Prix be willing to drive such a clearly uncompetitive car?

“Not everybody agreed with my way of thinking, but this is howl thought then, and howl think now: I had nothing to prove, so why not? I had a proposal to be test driver with a good team, but testing is not a fantastic job from a professional point of view.”

It didn’t take long for Bruno to realise that Brabham had good reason to walk out.

“I had a test before Imola, but I realised right away it was going to be a disaster. The engine had about 360bhp, and Ayrton Senna’s Honda had about 800! It was a very strange engine, a 4-4-4, like an aeroplane engine. The problem was, the guy who designed it was never able to modify anything; this was as it was born. The gearbox also gave many problems I couldn’t really shift down.

“When they first started the season with Brabham, the material was at least fresh, but then race after race, things were getting worse and worse, because they didn’t have any spares. I never saw more than two engines.”

At Imola, Bruno did a lap before the thing broke, and that set the pattern for the season. Time after time he would head out of the pits at 8am on Friday morning, only for the machine to conk out within minutes. In Mexico and France he did didn’t even get in a proper lap.

“The only time we did some laps was in Monaco, where we completed about 10 altogether. Then the engine blew up. It had a lot of torque with really low revs, and at Monaco I could feel that. That was the only positive thing it had. At Hockenheim, we were 1001cph slower than Ayrton’s McLaren.”

He never even came close to getting through prequalifying, and usually the car was 20 seconds off a competitive time in the handful of laps he managed. Yet Bruno never felt like giving up. “I really believed things could go a different way. I wasn’t dreaming at all. It was enjoyable anyway, although some people will never understand this. Improving it was the main challenge, that was the thing that kept me going. I never thought we’d show any real performance, but improvement, yes. They were young people, really without experience, and I was the one who was keeping everything together.”

At Monza the W12 blew up, and the team finally followed Bruno’s advice, and sought a replacement He was able to get a couple of Judd V8s from his old pals at Leyton House, and one was hastily fitted to the car for the Portuguese GP.

“I tested it at Vallelunga, and it was not too bad. The air scoop wasn’t working, and we couldn’t run the engine to its limit, but the car was flying. Just the new engine saved about 80kg! Then we took it to Estoril, and had different problems, like the engine cover coming off. We never ran properly with the Judd.”

The revised car made one more appearance at Jerez, where Bruno did two laps. Then Life packed up for the last time, closing before more funds were wasted on the trip to Suzuka and Adelaide.

“There was no finance there I’m still waiting today for my money. I don’t know where the engine is now, or the car. I was stupid not to take the engine as payment!

“There was one good thing. This guy who put up the money had some connections in Russia, and we publicised a company called Pic. I was told they took old satellites apart when they come back from space, and kept everything they could recycle. So for sure, I was the only driver ever to carry `CCCP’ and a Russian flag on a Formula One car.”