In 1988, the successful F3000 team, FIRST, decided that the time had come for them to graduate to motorsport's premier league, Formula One. Talented Italian Gabriele Tarquini was signed up to drive for the team, and Brazilian designer Richard Divila was commissioned to design the car. The result was actually quite elegant and purposeful enough. Undoubtedly, as a new team they would be limited by the fact that they would be running customer engines, but that aside they looked like the most promising newcomers there had been in some time. Sadly, the money was never really there to do the job properly, and the project was quietly canned. The cars themselves were sold off to a little known Italian engineering concern, Ernesto Vita's Life Racing Engines, who needed a chassis to act as a testbed with which to develop their rather unusual W12 engine.
That engine had been designed by Franco Rocchi. Rocchi had been a prominent engineer in the Ferrari team during the sixties and seventies, fostering the talent of a young Mauro Forghieri, among others. Now in his late sixties, the W12 engine was all but certain to be his final project. A W12 engine has three banks of four cylinders, as opposed to the more conventional V12 layout in which the engine has two banks of six cylinders. In theory, a W12 has the advantage of producing as much power as a V12, whilst being as compact and easy to package as a V8. It was considered a sufficiently promising concept that fellow engine builder Guy Negre went down the same route. His W12 was tried out in an AGS 'hack' chassis, and eventually found its' way into the Norma MGN sports car which ran briefly at Le Mans in 1990. However, the major disadvantage of the W12 engine is that any engine with three separate banks of cylinders is necessarily incredibly complex.
Having failed to persuade any other team to make use of its engines, Life decided to enter their own team in 1990. Gary Brabham, son of the double world champion Jack Brabham, was hired to drive the car, and they duly turned up for the opening race of the season in Phoenix, Arizona with minimal fanfare. The car was recognisable as that which Richard Divila had built for FIRST, although the elegant lines of the original had been comprehensively butchered in order to accommodate the W12 power unit. Right from the first race it was all too clear just how hopelessly out of their depth Ernesto Vita's outfit were. They even had to borrow a tyre temperature gauge from another team as they did not have one of their own. As it turned out, there was precious little need to measure the temperature of the car's tyres anyway. The car lasted just three laps in pre-qualifying before the engine gave up. Gary Brabham ended up 43 seconds off the pace of Gerhard Berger's pole position time.
The team managed to go one worse at the second round in Brazil when a connecting rod in the W12 engine broke before it had run a complete lap in pre-qualifying. Sensing that a season with Life was no way to further his career, Gary Brabham wisely bailed out at this point.
He was replaced by veteran Italian Bruno Giacomelli, for whom career prospects had long ceased to be of any great import, and to whom the idea of spending a summer on the road (if on the whole, not actually on the track) with the Life team sounded like a reasonable enough way to kill time. Like Brabham, he was quite unable to get the car past the prequalifying hurdle, though to be fair, that was almost certainly a task beyond even Ayrton Senna.
Giacomelli would later recall that the greatest problem with the car was the engine. The team had no money and almost no spares, so the engine would become increasingly badly patched up over the course of the season. They only had one spare engine block .an absurd situation in an era when Honda took seven engines to each race for McLaren. Aside from the total lack of reliability, the engine was quite hopelessly down on power. On the rare occasions when it fired on all twelve cylinders, the Life W12 produced around 375 BHP. To put that into perspective, Honda's V10 was producing around 700-750BHP in 1990, nearly double that of the Life. More sobering still, the 1967 Cosworth DFV, which was actually 500cc smaller, was generally reckoned to have around 450-500 BHP on tap. Whatever the actual figures, the end result was that Giacomelli's Life was some 40mph slower through the speed traps at Hockenheim than anyone else. His best pre-qualifying performance came at Silverstone, when he was a mere 19 seconds off the pace, around three or four seconds faster than the Formula 3 boys managed that same weekend.
As it became blindingly obvious that their W12 simply didn't work, Life swapped their own engine for a rather old Judd V8 unit for the Portuguese Grand Prix. Unfortunately they couldn't get the engine cover to fit back onto the car, and once again they failed to record a time at all in pre-qualifying. They took the car to Spain where they did succeed in getting a few laps out of it with the Judd V8, but it was scarcely any quicker than it had been with the Life W12. Whether it was because the chassis was awful in itself, or simply because the car was appallingly put together is unclear, but merely ridding of themselves of the W12 did little to help matters.
The team disappeared completely at the end of the European season, unable to afford the cost of the trip to the flyaway races in Japan and Australia. The team was sold to a Viennese concern with an interest in building racing cars in Leningrad. What became of the car and its unusual engine is unknown. Giacomelli remembers how the team, unable to pay him, offered instead to give him one of their W12 engines. Giacomelli had since gone on record as saying he regretted turning down their offer. Such an odd piece of racing history would probably be worth something by now.
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