The scandalous story behind the man who introduced glamour to F1

Elizabeth Blackstock
The 1981 Lotus 88, driven by Elio de Angelis.

Essex sponsorship emblazoned on the side of the 1981 Lotus 88, driven by Elio de Angelis.

We might take the glitz and glamor of Formula 1 for granted these days, but over-the-top car launches and swanky hospitality only came to the fore in the late 1970s and early 1980s courtesy of one man: David Thieme, owner of the Essex Overseas Petroleum Company, sponsor of Team Lotus…and serial fraudster.

Thieme was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota to the chief engineer of the Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation; after attending university, the younger Thieme used his father’s airline connections to start his own company that designed the interiors of executive aircraft.

The business was a success, and David Thieme began to expand his burgeoning business prospects to work with big-name oil and auto companies when it came time to outfit their corporate jets. 

David Thieme establishes Essex Overseas Petroleum

Before long, he began making big money by investing in the oil trade; as it turned out, Thieme had a knack for the whole endeavor.

It’s not completely clear exactly how it happened, but by the late 1960s, Thieme had become an all-out motorsport fan. 

By that time, he was already a millionaire, and in 1973, by the age of 30, he was able to shutter his jet design business to focus full time on oil. At the same time, he moved to Monaco, a tax haven, and opened a new business: Essex Overseas Petroleum.

His move came at the right time; in late 1973, an oil crisis wracked the globe, and oil prices jumped four fold in the span of just a few months. 

Thieme had already established himself as a hugely important figure in the industry, and he was able to broker investment deals with governments around the world, bolstered by funding from Credit Suisse. 

In 1979 alone, Crispian Besley in Driven to Crime: True Stories of Wrongdoing in Motorsport reports that Thieme made a whopping $70 million. What better way to spend that money than on motorsport? 

The late 1970s and early 1980s marked a pivotal turning point for global motorsport fortunes. 

Formula 1 stood as something of a world leader in the field of racing, and the roughshod engineering experiments of the early ’70s had been refined into sophisticated and highly expensive efforts — but in many ways, the sport still held firm to its more down-to-earth roots. 

Thieme was destined to change that.

David Thieme enters sponsorship arrangement with Lotus

His first investment came with Porsche, which intended to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Thieme’s backing, but there were bigger fish to fry. Colin Chapman, owner of Team Lotus, was preparing to enter a new decade without the financial assistance of Imperial Tobacco. 

In 1968, Imperial’s funding convinced Chapman to become the first team owner to field cars in a sponsored livery, swapping Britain’s traditional country green for a red, white, and gold look inspired by Gold Leaf CIgarettes. Imperial then opted to promote its John Player Special line via Chapman’s cars. 

But in 1978, after Mario Andretti took victory behind the wheel of the innovative Lotus 79 ‘ground-effect’ car, Imperial pulled out. 

Chapman was able to secure some funding from Martini & Rossi, but that deal lacked the kind of longevity and security he’d come to expect from Imperial. As a result, Team Lotus’ founder kept searching for more brands to add to his portfolio.

David Thieme seemed to be the man who could make Chapman’s dreams come true. The two had briefly met in 1978, when Chapman was left wanting to know more about the American benefactor who was keen on investing his millions of dollars into racing – mostly because Thieme’s job (making money on deliveries of oil that Thieme never once viewed with his own eyes) was so unique and compelling.

At first, the deal that Essex and Lotus inked was a smaller one: In 1979, Essex would appear on the sidepods as a secondary sponsor that would bolster funding from Martini. 

It was a miserable season for Lotus as the team failed to match its previous Championship-dominating form – but throughout it all, Chapman could count on one man, David Thieme. Thieme took Chapman under his wing, setting the team owner up in swanky hotels and exposing him to a lavish lifestyle.

Colin Chapman was, to put it simply, entranced. Heading into 1980, Chapman decided to completely pull out of the Martini & Rossi deal; instead, he signed a $4 million title partnership with Essex.

That’s when Thieme really came to form. Knowing that he now had a bigger say in Team Lotus and that he had firmly captivated Colin Chapman, Thieme set out to become one of the most audacious figures in the F1 paddock — starting with the team’s 1980 car launch.

Thieme went big. He rented out the Paradis Latin, an historic cabaret theater in Paris, France, to host the launch of the new car. 

The entire locale was decked out in red velvet while waitresses in revealing outfits poured champagne as if it were water. Over a high-class dinner, guests watched dancers perform routines before the final act: the launch of the Lotus 81.

Shockingly, the car was not simply rolled out onto a stage; it was lowered from a ceiling, with a nervous cocktail-jacketed Mario Andretti in the cockpit all the while. Music blared as team personnel made speeches, and the motorsport journalists in attendance had taken part in enough champagne that they didn’t care.

It was a frankly stunning display of opulence. In that era, car launches weren’t ornate spectacles. On occasion, a new model would be shown to a small set of media before a season, but it was simply more likely that the new car would debut trackside a handful of races into the season. There was no fanfare, not like what Thieme had created.

But he wasn’t finished. Three months later, Thieme hired a sports consultancy group to stage another, even more lavish car launch, this time at Royal Albert Hall in London. Roger Vergé, a Michelin-starred chef, was hired to cater a meal for the hundreds of guests in attendance, and the focus of this event was the Lotus Esprit Turbo supercar – the first 100 of which would be outfitted in an Essex livery. 

Rather than be lowered from the ceiling, this time the new car rose from the stage in a flurry of smoke and fake snow. 

Alongside it was an Essex-sponsored Penske machine that Mario Andretti would race in the Indy 500. To cap off the evening, guests were entertained by the legendary singer Shirley Bassey, with several James Bond film themes: Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker amongst her extensive back catalogue.

Had those egregious funds been poured into Lotus’ engineering department, perhaps the 1980 season would have been less of a disaster. New hire Elio de Angelis took second place in Brazil near the start of the year, but the Lotus 81 proceeded to slide further down the grid. 

The only other highlights were a handful of points-scoring positions that earned Lotus fifth place in the World Constructors’ Championship. recommends

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David Thieme is arrested in Switzerland

To make matters worse, Thieme continued to flaunt his wealth in the paddock. He commissioned a special three-story hospitality bus to be built to take to races, where he entertained big-money oil industry guests with high-quality trimmings and fabulous meals catered once again by Roger Vergé.

Then, for the 1981 season, he went all-out with yet another car launch. This time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the 900 guests in attendance, where she inevitably saw the special paddock bus parked outside Royal Albert Hall topped with Thieme’s helicopter. 

The Essex man is estimated to have spent $1 million on the event, which included flying in mimosa from the south of France to better fit his Riviera theme.

But not all was well in Thieme’s camp. Unpaid invoices began to pile up in his wake, the oil industry began to quake, and Thieme failed to turn up for the first three races of 1981. 

He publicly claimed he’d attend race number four, the San Marino Grand Prix — but he was arrested before he had a chance. After landing in an executive Swiss airport, Thieme was apprehended for what Credit Suisse alleged were economic crimes to the tune of $7.6 million. 

To pay back the bank for the stolen funds, Thieme’s assets were seized and sold; this included his private jet and the Essex-Lotus hospitality bus, which was estimated to cost roughly $760,000.

In essence, oil prices began to fluctuate wildly due to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Thieme began to lose his magic touch at reading the market — resulting in the loss of millions. 

Credit Suisse may have found that he was exceeding credit limits with either falsified or insufficient collateral, Besley posits in Driven to Crime; the bank took action as a way to prevent any further damage to the company.

However, Thieme was never charged, despite a long legal battle between Essex Overseas Petroleum Company and Credit Suisse. It was, however, enough to kill Thieme’s career. 

The lavish spender disappeared from the public eye, never to be seen again.

As for Lotus, the team dropped its Essex branding after the Monaco Grand Prix, and John Player Special was persuaded to return. 

Elio de Angelis took one shock victory in 1982, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough to return Lotus to its former glory. Chapman died of a sudden heart attack at the end of that year; his widow Hazel and Lotus’ former competitions manager Peter Warr took over the running of the team. 

Lotus never quite regained its previous form, and after the team changed hands multiple times, it finally folded in the mid-1990s, leaving behind a once-great competitive legacy and a general thirst for the finer things in the Formula 1 paddock.

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