The worst team in F1 history? A chaotic and classic tale from the 1990 season

The Life L190 on a demo run at Goodwood Festival.

Life L190: The worst car in F1 history?

Upon the quickest of first trackside glances, the Life L190 Formula 1 car had many similarities to the early nineties Ferraris.

The bold red colour scheme was complemented with black front and rear wings along with white and yellow accents from the sponsors they had managed to convince to join. But this car possessed none of the power or performance that was often associated with the cars from their esteemed Italian neighbours.

With Formula 1 banning the expensive turbocharged engines at the end of the 1988 season, the following years saw an influx of new teams and suppliers sensing a better value-for-money opportunity to compete in the pinnacle of motorsport. This same opportunity was sensed by Italian businessman Ernesto Vita.

Welcome Life Racing

For 1989, Formula 1 specified that engines must be naturally-aspirated with an engine capacity limit of 3.5 litres, and permitted up to twelve cylinders. With minimal restrictions on the configurations, the suppliers trialled numerous iterations of V8, V10 and V12 engines. The openness of these regulations was a world away from the heavily-scrutinised 1.6 litre turbo-hybrids Formula 1 uses today.

Vita aimed to capitalise on this innovative era, and convinced ex-Ferrari engineer Franco Rocchi out of retirement to join him in bringing a ‘W’ configuration engine to Formula 1. The W engine utilises three or four banks of cylinders to rotate the engine’s crankshaft, instead of the two banks used in V engines, and Rocchi had been working on W engine projects at Ferrari.

Vita’s aim was to become one of the key engine suppliers in Formula 1 but, having been unable to find a team willing to take a chance on an unproven wildcard of an engine, Vita elected to set up his own team for the 1990 season; Life Racing Engines, with ‘life’ being the English translation of the Italian word ‘vita’.

In a golden era of Formula 1 where, in stark contrast with the vast research facilities and technology centres required in the sport we know today, teams were seemingly able to be set up with few facilities and team members. The Jordan Formula 1 team, which joined the sport just one year later, consisted of only around 30 people in their first season, several of which were still focused on their efforts in Formula 3000.

Life F1 followed the Ferrari and Minardi (now AlphaTauri) teams by setting up in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and pursued development of the W12 engine in their own factory. With limited capacity to design and build a chassis, one was purchased from the First Racing team, which had failed to join Formula 1 in 1989.

Disaster at the first hurdle

Ready in time for the season-opening US Grand Prix in Phoenix, sponsors had been signed and British Formula 3000 title winner Gary Brabham – son of three-time F1 World Champion Jack Brabham – signed up to race for the team’s one-car entry. Hopes were high for the hastily-assembled squad.

Such was the bloated nature of the entry list in 1990, each event had to whittle the numbers down to 26 cars. So, with 35 cars vying for a place on the grid, a ‘pre-qualifying’ session allowed backmarkers to fight for a place in the official qualifying session. It was here where Life’s lack of readiness for Formula 1 was laid bare. Back in 1990, the famous 107% rule did not exist.

McLaren’s Gerhard Berger would go on to set the pole position lap time of 1:28.664, with the pre-qualifying cut-off time, set by Aguri Suzuki in the Lola-Lamborghini, being a 1:33.331. Any team and driver slower than that was eliminated from the event at the first hurdle. Brabham’s time in the Life car was an appalling 2:07.147.

Sympathisers might have been able to look past the debut and label the poor performance as ‘teething issues’. After all, fellow backmarker team Coloni failed to qualify with a lap time three minutes slower due to gearbox gremlins. However, the Life L190 had been exposed as being woefully off the pace due weight issues and a chronic lack of power (some 300 horsepower down on the benchmark engines).

Recommended reads

Murray Walker: 20 legendary quotes from the undisputed voice of motorsport

Trouble in the pits: The 12 biggest pit-lane incidents in Formula 1 history

Bye bye Brabham

Little progress was made in the coming races, and numerous reliability issues occurred, often in the opening laps of a pre-qualifying session.

A failure to complete even one lap at the next event in Brazil resulted in a disillusioned Brabham leaving the team, with the team turning to seemingly one of few drivers happy enough to be seen near the car, Bruno Giacomelli, who had left Formula 1 several years earlier. Designer Gianni Marelli, another former Ferrari employee, had also become frustrated and left the team.

It was soon apparent that Life’s issues extended beyond weight and a lack of power. At the Monaco Grand Prix, which is less dependent on outright engine power compared to other venues, Giacomelli was 14 seconds off the pace in pre-qualifying, and almost 20 seconds away from the eventual pole position time.

Such was the lack of performance, the L190 would’ve qualified at the back of the grid for the Formula Three support race. This would be the closest the car would get to qualifying for a Formula 1 race all season and, when the car was running, it frequently failed pre-qualifying by over 20 seconds.

The end of the road

If it wasn’t already obvious to the world that things weren’t going well, by round 13, the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, Life decided to go against their entire raison d’etre by shelving their underperforming W12 engine and swapping to a rival Judd V8.

The model they used, the ‘CV’ engine, wasn’t even the latest-specification of Judd engine – many teams were using the more powerful ‘EV’ model in 1990. When their ambitions were set at the start of the season, Life were likely hoping to have started taking business away from the British engine supplier by now, or at least showing they could compete with them.

Life was in a race against time to modify the car in time for the Estoril race but, after successfully swapping engines over, they were thwarted by a detached and damaged engine cover and, with no spare available, were forced to withdraw from the event.

Their final chance came at the next round in Spain but, despite running in pre-qualifying, they did not achieve the silver bullet result they had hoped for with the old Judd engine, and still qualified 20 seconds off the pace.

Life pulled out of the final two Grands Prix, and were never seen in the Formula 1 paddock again.

A rare revival

The L190 car was largely forgotten about until it was lovingly restored (along with fixing issues with the W12 engine) for the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed, and successfully gave fans a demonstration of some of the pace, reliability and soundtrack that failed to materialise on the world stage.

In a sport that was already unlikely to move away from the V8, V10 and V12s, that was it for the W-configuration engine. Life’s W12 motor was the last non-V-configuration internal combustion engine in Formula 1.

Even with vastly increased development time and an even healthier budget, it’s difficult to see how Life might have succeeded. Perhaps there would have been increased political pressure from rivals, including neighbours Ferrari, or maybe their design would have been outlawed by the engine standardisation and the eventual tightening of the rulebook in the years that followed.

But maybe, in some sort of obscure parallel universe, their revolutionary engine became the one to have, and Italy developed a new rivalry akin to the Milan derby.

V12 vs W12. Ferrari versus Life.

Read next: Exclusive: The inside story of Caterham’s collapse in Formula 1