As modern professional sports go, Formula 1 has consistently proved to be one of the hardest to enter, let alone succeed in. As 2015 testing cranks up and new stories break, the ghost of Caterham grows fainter while Manor/Marussia struggles to be reanimated.
It is no secret that F1′s current constitution is a wholly unsuitable environment for running a lasting independent and healthy team. With at least three current midfield F1 teams currently facing unsettled and largely uncertain futures, three-car teams have been mooted as a possible solution in the latter part of the current decade.
The last time a third chassis came close to entering a grand prix was in 1987. Pretty much all of the necessary ingredients to make a competitive debut appeared to be in place. But it was more complicated than that.
Halfway through that season Middlebridge Racing planned to enter a sole, year-old Benetton-BMW, but it was eventually denied a seat at the F1 table. That was not because of any financial constraints, rather an arduous course of sporting political hurdles that could not be sufficiently cleared.
The deal to run the B186 chassis, which had brought Benetton and Gerhard Berger their first F1 victory in Mexico the previous autumn, was set in motion during the early spring of 1987. The then well-known commercial agent Luciano Secchi had introduced Italian fashion house Trussardi to F1, initially via Bernie Ecclestone.
Secchi brokered a deal and Middlebridge team principal John Macdonald approached Benetton boss Peter Collins to acquire two of the B186s. After the deal was done the cars duly appeared in crates at Middlebridge’s base in early June.
“The original plan was to just do the Japanese Grand Prix for Mr Nakauchi [Koji Nakauchi, owner of Middlebridge Group],” says Macdonald. “But then the Trussardi deal came out of the blue and I thought we could do it earlier and do the second half of the season.
“We originally intended to race the car with a Hart engine but then we switched to BMW and it all became a lot more complicated because of that particular decision, which led to a whole lot of politics with the other teams, mainly because we had what was potentially a really potent package.”
Under the expert ‘spannering’ of former Arrows chief mechanic Dave Luckett, the cars were soon resplendent in a unique half-black and half-white livery. The driver for the planned testing and the first six races was Emanuele Pirro, who had some prior experience with both Benetton and BMW.
Pirro had almost made his F1 debut two years previously when Brabham dispensed with the services of Francois Hesnault mid-season. The Italian impressed the team greatly in testing but Marc Surer was favoured at the last minute, chiefly because of his deeper and longer relationship with BMW.
“I had a test in 1986 with Benetton at Donington Park,” remembers Pirro. “It all went very well and just after this I got a works BMW deal in touring cars as well. Whether or not this helped with the Middlebridge plans I don’t know.
“I was also racing in F3000 (for Onyx) and I also stayed in touch with Bernie quite a bit. Through all of these contacts I was of course aiming to get into Formula 1.”
Ecclestone, increasingly focusing on FOCA matters rather than his Brabham team, which he was looking to sell, was well aware of Middlebridge’s financial clout via its group of companies owned by Nakauchi. But it would take a further three years and many messy and convoluted episodes for Nakauchi and Middlebridge to acquire Brabham.
Ecclestone and Macdonald were old associates and it is a relationship that endures to this day, since Macdonald is currently employed by Formula One Management.
“Bernie was always a good ally,” says Macdonald. “But there was a lot of stuff going on, especially with Arrows. I remember that [Jackie] Oliver even put Trussardi stickers on his car at Silverstone, believing that he had a deal with them.
“He was soon told to take them off by a load of lawyers. So I suppose he was never going to do us any favours, was he?”
With both cars completed, a test programme for the ex-Berger Benetton B186 was planned to begin in early August – but behind the scenes, all was not well.
The year-old Benetton chassis was deemed to constitute a breach of the original Concorde Agreement since it was a third chassis, but more importantly it was to be run with a different engine to the contemporary ‘works’ Benetton B187s of Thierry Boutsen and Teo Fabi, who were powered by Ford V8s.
Frantic negotiations went on between the Hungarian and Austrian Grands Prix, and for a brief period it looked like the Middlebridge Benetton would make its debut at the Osterreichring in mid-August. A Pirelli tyre deal was provisionally agreed and plans made to rehomologate the entry as a Trussardi-BMW, if that would guarantee the team some track action.
But the most immediate sticking point was that with Middlebridge hoping to join the 26 cars already present, and only 26 sanctioned to start a grand prix, Macdonald and his associates needed the say-so of every team in order to be granted a race start.
Since a second iteration of the Concorde Agreement was due at the end of the year, some of the other teams were not in the mood for compromise. But after some progress was made in Austria, particularly with Tyrrell, Lotus and Ligier, the Middlebridge mechanics received their itineraries for a launch at Trussardi’s Milan headquarters on the Wednesday before the Italian GP, and all seemed to be in place for their first grand prix.
The mood of optimism was soon dashed, though. Arrows team manager Oliver refused to give any leeway to the Middlebridge entry regarding a 27th entry for Monza. Then BMW began to have misgivings about the whole circus it was becoming embroiled in; and, as the Middlebridge truck was about to leave the workshop, news came through that BMW ECUs to run the engine would not be released to the team – the dream was over.
What made it all the more galling for Macdonald and his team was that they had also signed a provisional deal with Aguri Suzuki to make his debut at his home race of Suzuka.
“I had the feeling that John was relying on Bernie’s help on the run up to Monza,” says a still-wistful Pirro. “I wasn’t in the loop at all, but felt sorry for John because he and the team had worked very hard.
“It was right at the last minute I got the call that I was not going to drive at Monza; I think it was on the Wednesday afternoon of race week. One minute it was, ‘We are doing it’, the next, ‘We’re not doing it’. It is easy to say it now but at Monza I am convinced we would have been in the top 10, even with no testing.”
Unlike the car, everything was far from black and white for the Middlebridge F1 programme. Much like F1 in the modern age, the intricacies and politics detracted from the spectacle itself, denying fans and the paying public the chance to see new drivers and teams in action.
HOW MIDDLEBRIDGE FAILURE SPAWNED PIRRO’S McLAREN DEAL
Emanuele Pirro’s (almost) entry into the cut-throat world of F1 appeared to be an ungainly career-stalling farrago. At the time it didn’t do much for Pirro’s state of mind but, as the four-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner explains, it eventually opened more doors than it shut.
“The closer it got to Monza the more anxious I got,” he recalls. “We had not run the car at all, not even a shakedown.
“But actually I wasn’t that worried because it was a proven car and had a great engine, so it should have just been a start-up-and-go experience.
“I was calling John Macdonald every other day and I was quite nervous. I remember he used to say in his funny London accent, ‘Be patient… be patient, Bernie is helping us. JUST BE PATIENT!’”
But from what looked like a bodyblow to his nascent F1 career, Pirro’s luck was actually in. A lucrative – financially as well as in terms of air-miles – deal to become the resident test driver in Japan with Honda was soon to be sealed.
“In 1988 I ended up driving for Middlebridge in Japanese F3000 as well as doing the Honda F1 testing,” says Pirro today. “I didn’t actually know how the F3000 deal was done but I always got the impression that somewhere along the line John and Koji [Nakauchi] had set things up, and possibly with Bernie’s help, to get me the Honda deal.
“If that really was the case then I am grateful because I worked with such an unbelievable company in Honda and of course also McLaren with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
“It is difficult to look back with regrets. I tend not to think like this really – it’s funny how things work out in F1 and life in general, isn’t it?”
This article was first published in the 12th February edition of Autosport magazine