Frankly, my ten fingers aren’t enough to count all of the former Formula 3000 teams that got their ass kicked in Formula 1. However, amongst this pile of failure, the Onyx team stands out thanks to its disturbing resemblance with the current Haas structure.
Haas is in the spotlight this year. Not because of its brilliant results – Romain Grosjean drives for them – but because of its livery. A beautiful black and gold dress, carrying the colors of its new sponsor: Rich Energy. You don’t know this energy drink company? Good, me neither. CEO William Storey strongly trumpets that his brand sells cans all around the globe. But it’s impossible to find his product in your local Tesco. It makes you wonder if the cans really exist and how Rich Energy found the money to put its name on both Haases!
And this scenario, well, we’ve already experienced it in Formula 1. Same team with meh results, same shady sponsor, same guru-haired mogul… There are signs that never lie.
Like most F1 teams, it all starts with a dream. This time, it involves Mike Earle and his friend Greg Field. Together, they establish Onyx Race Engineering in the late 1970s and enter the 1979 European Formula 2 championship. But because they lack money, experience and especially time, the ship sinks during its first year racing with the semi-big guns.
After this painful first time, Onyx takes a step forward and aims for a Formula 1 debut. In 1982, both Earle and Field urges March to use a third car in Grand Prix racing, entered by the LBT Team March with Emilio de Villota behind the wheel. But once again, it falls flat on its face. In five appearances, de Villota DNQd five times! Worse, he drove 30 seconds slower than the poleman in Monaco and blew up any other F1 opportunities.
This newest fiasco shuts everyone down. Back in F2 then F3000, Onyx finally grabs some trophies thanks to the talented Stefano Modena. And six years later, Earle feels that the time is right. Onyx is en route to Formula 1… again.
But to finish first, first you need money. After all, it’s the sinews of war. So, when their new driver Bertrand Gachot is talking about a Moneytron deal, everyone listens very carefully…
Let’s go back a few years. Jean-Pierre van Rossem is released from jail and swears that he won’t go back. This specialist in economics, econometrics and skulduggery wants to be rich. To do so, he creates Moneytron, a software which is supposed to predict the fluctuations of the market, with a probability of 9 out of 12!
Of course, it’s all smoke and mirrors. While collecting a 5% commission, van Rossem pays his oldest clients back with the money of the new ones. A basic pyramid scheme.
The worst part is that it works! The Belgian weighs nearly $400 million and is now in a “must buy everything” state of mind. But mostly Ferraris and Medellín cartel’s finest. So, van Rossem gets pretty excited when given the opportunity to buy advertising space on the Onyx cars in early 1989.
With money in the bank, Earle recruits and he recruits well. He gets acquainted with Alan Jenkins, John Barnard’s former right-hand at Mclaren, and offers him a job as technical director. Jenkins accepts and takes his new role very seriously. In addition to designing the newest Onyx, he insists to draw himself the toilet door handles of the factory!
The Brits face a tremendous challenge this year. 20 teams and 39 drivers are enlisted in the 1989 F1 World Championship. Never before has the sport been so attractive. So in order to reduce the density of the grid, the FIA establishes a prequalifying session. The new teams can’t escape it and every race weekend, nine drivers are systematically sent home before the start of FP1! It’s so cruel it’s brilliant.
You understood that Onyx is part of the new kids on the block, meaning that the drivers Bertrand Gachot and Stefan Johansson must go through the prequalifying session. Since Onyx didn’t do any testing before the first race of the season, the team gets knocked down a bunch of times.
TOUGH LUCK MATE
Whithin a couple of months, van Rossem reconsiders his commitment in Formula 1 due to Onyx constant mediocrity. But instead of giving up like many moguls before him, he choses to be the majority shareholder of the team.
In the paddock, the look of the Belgian businessman raises a few eyebrows: long and greasy hair, long and greasy beard, Ray-Ban’s yellowish Aviator on the nose and racing boots on the feet! Van Rossem looks like a shady guru rather than a respectable team owner…
On the driver side, Gachot keeps struggling and Johansson bitterly tastes his first races. After two retirements in Mexico and Montreal, the Onyx driver briefly shines in Phoenix. The Swede climbs up to seventh place, suffers from a puncture, leaves the pits twelfth, gains five positions… then retires because of a broken suspension.
When it rains, it does pour.
Eventually, the team also tastes success. In France, Gachot gets out of prequali for the first time and even leads his team-mate on the grid! During the race, a battery issue paralyzes the Belgian, while Johansson snatches fifth place under the chequered flag. Onyx scores its first points in Formula 1!
More importantly, the team is now sitting thirteenth in the Constructors Championship and could avoid attending prequalifying for the rest of the season.
During the time it was effective in F1, participants in prequali changed twice, meaning that teams sitting fourteenth and beyond in the standings were obliged to attend prequalifying during the second half of the season.
Unfortunately for Onyx, it all goes wrong. On the final race before the mid-season change, in Silverstone, both Minardis finish inexplicably in the points. The Italian team jumps Onyx in the standings. And as a result, Onyx is relegated to 14th place and still have to attend prequalifying until the end of the season!
In the meantime, Earle and van Rossem make a detour through Stuttgart. The two men have an appointment with Porsche, willing to supply a F1 team with an engine. Despite a shirt full of mayo stains (I kid you not), van Rossem gets the green light. Porsche will provide V12 engines to Onyx in 1991 under one condition: the information must remain confidential.
The next day, Earle receives a surprise phone call from Pierre van Vliet, Gachot’s manager.
— Hey, congrats on the Porsche deal! he said.
— How d’you know? asked Earle.
— Van Rossem was talking about it on television yesterday.
It was bound to happen, the deal’s off because van Rossem can’t keep his mouth shut. However, one could think that the summer break would calm him down. Boy you’re wrong. Following the phone call from Stuttgart stating “there ist nein deal anymhöre”, the Moneytron boss did set fire to one of his Porsche, allegedly!
After the break, van Rossem is also on fire himself. The Belgian is at home, in Spa-Francorchamps. He organises a press conference just to fire shots at two of his best mates: Jean-Marie Balestre and Bernie Ecclestone. By denial, he calls one a former Nazi sympathizer and the other a mafioso… You’ll be the judge of who’s who.
Years before any concept of “bad buzz”, van Rossem’s comments leave the paddock unimpressed. Ecclestone immediately summons him in his office and bans him from attending any F1 race in the future. Earle and Field hold their heads in disbelief. Why oh why did they leave the keys to their baby to such a character…
As a revenge, they use a blunder from van Rossem’s protégé Bertrand Gachot to fire him before the end of the season. In private, the driver complained about the lack of track time and the better treatment Johansson was receiving. A strictly private statement that ends up in an official press release, oddly enough… Later, Gachot explains that his words were greatly exaggerated and were not supposed to be made public, but Onyx doesn’t care at all.
Then comes the Portuguese Grand Prix. Gachot’s seat is now occupied by rookie JJ Lehto. In Estoril, Onyx strategists are hit by a stroke, a stroke of genius. During the race, Johansson’s car will not stop for fuel nor for fresh rubber, although it’s the ideal strategy. The mechanics fit the car with the hardest tyre you could ever imagine, fill the tank to the brim and alea jacta est.
A suicidal bet, certainly, but it pays off! After ten laps, Johansson is eighth. The Swede gains another couple of positions until Nigel Mansell makes his infamous pitstop, followed by a nervous breakdown. Johansson finds himself running third but the last laps are very painful. His tires are so worn out that the rim is showing and he barely makes it to the finish line because he just runs out of fuel!
Stefan Johansson snatches the last spot on the podium racing with a car that’s three seconds off the pace! This is one of the greatest achievements in Formula 1. And the Onyx garage erupts. Ten years after its foundation, the British team has just shown to everyone else that it can interfere in the F1 Goliaths eternal battle.
Sadly, this unexpected result will not lead to others. It’s already the swan song for Onyx. As expected, van Rossem is on the run. Blacklisted by Ecclestone, the Belgian ditches Onyx at the end of the season before declaring Moneytron bankrupt a couple of months later. By 1993, van Rossem would become a politician in order to get immunity. He gains attention once again when he shouts “Long live the Republic of Europe ! Long live Julien Lahaut !” in the Parliament while King Albert II is sworn in!
But let’s go back to our Onyx, shall we. After van Rossem’s departure, the team desperately needs cash and is forced to open its doors to another cuckoo, Peter Monteverdi. This rich Swiss car dealer becomes the majority shareholder of the team and hires Gregor Foitek as the first driver. Foitek is none other than the son of Monteverdi’s partner and co-shareholder, Karl Foitek.
A very rich man buying a team to place his son as a driver… Does that ring a bell?
Monteverdi doesn’t know anything about Formula 1. And that’s an understatement. As soon as he arrives, he fires two of Onyx best elements: Stefan Johansson and Alan Jenkins. The Swede is replaced by the lil’ Foitek while Monterverdi himself takes control of the technical department! This great mess doesn’t help the team to progress during the winter break. As a matter of fact, Onyx is forced to use its old chassis at the beggining of the 1990 season!
Johansson’s podium means that Onyx will not face prequalifying this year. But instead of being eliminated on Friday, Lehto and Foitek are eliminated the next day, during the qualifying session. Solid progress then.
His house might be burning, Monteverdi would rather look elsewhere. The Swiss renames Onyx as Monteverdi and orders the relocation of the factory to Switzerland. On the technical side, he asks the mechanics to weld the broken parts back together instead of replacing them! To push the boundaries of the wtf-ery, Monteverdi digs through his personal car collection to find elements that may suit to the Onyx!
Ridicule doesn’t kill anyone, I know, but still… One day, Lehto complains for the umpteenth time about the random behavior of his car. After close inspection, the mechanics notice that his new differential was installed the wrong way!
TIME TO LEAVE
And in Hungary, all hell breaks loose. Against all odds, a broken suspension, repaired on three different occasions with duct tape, breaks once again. Unfortunately, it occurs when Foitek is racing. He is sent at very low speed against the tire barrier. That’s one too many crashes for Gregor. The Foitek family take their Swiss francs and leave immediately. Alone, Monteverdi can’t deal with the enormous debts.
And that’s how the Onyx adventure ends. Despite a promising debut and a large will to win, the team had the same fate as many of its underfunded opponents. The shooting star van Rossem, first considered as a gift from the sky, turned out to be an asteroid threatening the survival of the human species.
Onyx had the potential to do very well in F1. Let’s face it, they couldn’t compete with the Mclarens and the Ferraris, but they could easily aim for seventh place in the championship. A position Haas would kill for, that’s for sure.