While the 1988 McLaren, ‘92 Williams and ‘04 Ferrari will go down in the record books as some of the finest racing cars ever engineered, we often overlook all of the cars produced by the little guys that were bad to just downright terrible and barely made a ripple on the sport. Before the days of Bernie capping the grid size and demanding a sum the size of the GDP of Belize just to enter the series, there were teams of all shapes and sizes providing amusement and bewilderment at the back of grid.
Without a doubt the worst F1 car that I’ve ever seen live was the 1990 Life-L190. Back in those days I used to look at new teams with youthful optimism and in the process of thumbing through the Autosport season preview, I managed to get myself lathered up over the prospects of Gary Brabham, the youngest of the Aussie racing dynasty, driving a bright red car with a radical W12 engine developed by a former employee of Ferrari.
I was still under this illusion when the track went green at 8:00am for pre-qualifying through the not so scenic streets of Phoenix, Az. It was immediately evident that Roberto Moreno in the Euro Brun-Judd and the Lola-Lamborghini’s of Bernard and Suzuki were the class of the field. It was also evident that the local residents in the Valley of the Sun had no interest whatsoever in F1 and were actually attempting to sit in their offices and work while F1 cars were buzzing their building!
I waited patiently for 20 minutes into the session until a red car appeared in the concrete jungle that had yet to turn a lap. When it was clearly visible my first thought
was it looked like somebody had taken a barrel, painted it red and stuck four tires on it. This was more soap box derby than F1. As Brabham went to the brakes the car twitched and moved around like a spooked horse. He looked more like a guy returning home at 4:30am from an all night Scottsdale hot tub party than the reigning British F3000 champion. When he went to the power the engine sounded like a sick dog. Just one corner on an out lap was all the data necessary to proclaim the Life L190 an unmitigated disaster. Mercifully for Brabham, the car only lasted 3 laps before the ignition box failed but the damage was done. In those three laps Brabham managed to clock a time a cool 35 seconds slower than Moreno and 20 seconds slower than the Trans-Am pole time. He would have only been marginally quicker than a confused commuter that somehow wandered onto the track while trying to get to the office that morning.
The next time I had the pleasure of seeing the Life in action Gary Brabham had wisely fired himself after the car only rolled 400 feet in Brazil due to the
mechanics failing to put oil in the car on purpose (sounds like a whole new story to research) and Bruno Giaccomelli had for some bizarre reason come out of retirement to pilot this machine. The team was run by Italian businessman Ernesto Vita, so maybe Bruno was family or had some unpaid debts? Regardless, as pre-qualifying for the ’90 Canadian GP got underway, Bruno was hustling the car around at speeds slower than the Formula Atlantic cars and that W12 engine still sounded pathetically under powered. The rumor was that the engine was only making 375bhp which sounds nice for your trip to the grocery store but not when the goal is to compete with Senna in a McLaren. In fact Giacomelli was actually nervous that somebody, most likely his Friday am compatriot Claudio Langes, would misjudge his pedestrian speed and run up the back of the car. For all their hard work of crating and shipping the car, team members and parts across the Atlantic for 1 hour of track time on a Friday morning, the reward was a lap time of 1:50.25, only 21 seconds behind session leader Roberto Moreno in the that not so mighty Euro Brun-Judd.
At Silverstone, Bruno must have been all hopped up on Espresso because he was able to get the car around only 15 seconds off the pre-qualifying pace of Eric Bernard in the Lola-Lamborghini. By Estroil the team had abandoned the W12
and managed to bolt a Judd-V8 to the chassis only to have the engine cover fly off the car on the first lap of the day. After posting a time 20 seconds off the pre-qualifying pace for round 14 at Jerez, the team finally called time on the project.
The fact that the Life team actually hauled this hunk of junk to 14 rounds of the 1990 FIA F1 World Championship is a mind boggler. In fact what Ernesto Vita was attempting to do fits in nicely with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What were they thinking? I guess we will never know but contemplating their attempt brings to mind a famous Ron Dennis moment when he bitterly scolded a member of the media in a press conference by saying, “We make history, you just write about it.” In a way this can also apply to the Life L190. They made history and I’m sitting here on my duff 23 years later still fascinated by it.