During the 1986 Formula One season, the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile decided to direct the sport into a new era. Throughout the 1980s, F1 had become the domain of extremely powerful 1.5L turbocharged engines. Though spectacular, the fire-breathing powerplants were very complex for the time, and came with high associated running costs.
With figures of up to 1400 horsepower in qualifying trim, the cars were incredibly dangerous to drive. Additionally, the complexity and cost forced smaller teams to rely on large manufacturers to develop competitive engines. Combined with the rather wasteful practice of using specialized engines, transmissions and tires just for qualifying, this made life at the back of the grid nearly impossible to sustain.
Tiny teams like Zakspeed struggled to keep up in the turbo era.
With this in mind, the FISA moved to address all three concerns at once. In an effort to reduce power levels, increase safety, and lower the financial burden placed upon privateers, turbo engines were to be phased out over two seasons. Gradual boost restrictions were also applied, allowing a new 3.5L naturally aspirated formula to become competitive in time for a total ban for 1989.
The new ruleset fulfilled its purpose quite effectively, as it sparked interest with a large number of F1 hopefuls. This included former competitors such as March and Lola, as well as a host of Formula 3000 outfits hoping to advance into the big leagues. Among this group was First Racing, headed by Italian former F1 driver Lamberto Leoni.
Lamberto Leoni (left) and Richard Divila.
After a mixed career in European Formula Two, Leoni hired a Surtees TS19 to contest the 1977 Italian Grand Prix. However, he failed to qualify. A seat at Ensign for 1978 didn’t bring much more luck, as he retired from the Argentine Grand Prix with engine failure from 22nd on the grid.
He improved to 17th in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix, but the transmission gave out before the start. Two failures to qualify followed in South Africa and Long Beach, causing Lamberto to leave the sport.
Lamberto Leoni in the Surtees TS19, Monza 1977.
Leoni moved back down to F2, staying there as the series was converted to F3000 in 1985 to accommodate teams displaced by the dominant turbo cars in Formula One. After failing to secure a drive for 1986, he decided to go out on his own, creating First Racing in the process.
At the end of 1987, he decided to give up on driving and focus on running the team, providing seats for notable drivers like Marco Apicella, Pierluigi Martini and Gabriele Tarquini. With Martini at the wheel, First achieved their first victory at the 1988 Gran Premio Mediterraneo held at Sicily’s Enna-Pergusa circuit.
Pierluigi Martini on his way to a heat victory, Enna-Pergusa 1988.
Motivated by this success, Leoni hatched plans to push through into Formula one for the 1989 season. F3000 rivals Coloni and AGS had already made the jump, and Onyx was preparing to do the same thing.
However, Lamberto wasn’t keen on starting everything from scratch. Trying to ease his entry into the sport, he contacted Gunther Schmidt, who had previously founded ATS in the 1970s, before starting the Rial Racing team in 1988. Though Schmidt was struggling to keep his second team afloat, his famously erratic character made closing a deal very difficult.
Gunther Schmidt's uncompromising attitude prevented a Rial buyout.
Disappointed, Leoni resigned himself to constructing a car of his own. To this end, he contracted designer Richard Divila. The Brazilian had been one of the driving forces behind the Fittipaldi team, designing their cars from 1975 to the team’s closure in 1982. With just 20 employees to assist him, Divila went to work on First’s F1 challenger in a small shop on the outskirts of Milan.
Exploded view of the F189.
Given his incredibly limited financial and technical resources, Lamberto Leoni couldn’t actually afford to build an original chassis. Instead, he used one of his March 88B F3000 chassis as a template. This wasn’t a horrible plan, as the March had been penned by a young designer by the name of Adrian Newey.
Richard Divila was asked to essentially upsize the March to fit the dimensions of a proper F1-car. This included the fitment of the 600 horsepower, 90-degree Judd CV V8 mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. The Judd provided superior power to the similar Cosworth DFZ and DFR, and was used to great effect by March during 1988.
Several months into the process, Richard Divila suddenly left the project. Money was still very tight at First, and an offer from French F1 squad Ligier was too good to resist for the Brazilian. As a result, he left the car largely unfinished, complete with several potentially fatal flaws.
The carbon-kevlar monocoque had been badly patched in several places, the mounting points for the suspension were compromised, the gearbox and engine were mounted together sloppily, and the steering arms were misplaced.
Desperate to finish the car, Lamberto Leoni sought help from local design bureau Studio di Milano. The Studio was run by former Ferrari and Autodelta designer Gianni Marelli, who had also done consulting work for Lola’s Indycar and Zakspeed’s F1 projects.
With assistance from British McLaren, Brabham, Fittipaldi, Ensign and Lola designer Ralph Bellamy, who modified the pushrod suspension system, Marelli finalized the First design in December of 1988.
With the difficult birth of the F189 finally over, the car was sent to Misano for an initial shakedown run. Behind the wheel was First F3000 and former Osella and Coloni F1 driver Gabriele Tarquini. The test was encouraging, ostensibly proving the issues Divila identified had been fixed by Studio di Milano.
Shortly after the shakedown, Leoni was shocked to find the FISA had thrown a wrench into his plans after all. Because the amount of new entries for 1989 had exceeded the 26-car maximum, a series of pre-qualifying sessions was announced. These were to be held a week before each Grand Prix, and were to take place on whatever circuit was available.
This approach not only robbed the new teams of potential publicity by dragging them to a mostly abandoned racetrack without any sort of TV-coverage, it would also vastly increase their traveling budget.
With only $4 million available to him for the entire season, this was simply not an option for Lamberto Leoni. At the public unveiling of the car during the 1988 Bologna Motor Show, he publicly decried the FIA’s strange policy.
Gabriele Tarquini at the Bologna Sprint, 1988.
Donned in a yellow, white and black color scheme, the F189 attracted its fair share of attention. Even more so when the V8 was fired up for the car to take part in a unique event, the inaugural Formula One Indoor Trophy. Despite the name, this Race of Champions-style sprint event was held on a parking lot just outside the convention center.
Gabriele Tarquini would be facing off against the Minardi M188s driven by his former F3000 stablemate Pierluigi Martinit and Luis Perez Sala, the Dallara F188 of Alex Caffi, Nicola Larini’s Osella FA1L and Fabrizio Barbazza’s EuroBrun ER188. Tarquini was fittingly pitted against Martini in the first round, but crashed out before completing his first lap. The car’s suspension was badly damaged, and First’s day was over.
Though the FISA’s pre-qualifying policy was eventually amended to have the sessions take place during the actual Grand Prix weekend and on the actual Grand Prix track, First Racing had already hit several speedbumps before the start of the season. While on display at the motor show, the F189 had been inspected by none other than Richard Divila.
Predictably, the Brazilian was horrified. He marked the car as a certified death trap, and instructed Lamberto Leoni to remove his name from it and any documents relating to it, as he refused to have anything to do with the dangerous design. Furthermore, he sought out Gabriele Tarquini, and pleaded him not to drive the car in a Grand Prix, fearing for his life.
Divila declared the F189 to be lethal.
As if Divila’s warnings weren’t enough, Leoni also received a set of angry letters from March. The British firm had noticed the strong similarities between the F189 and their own 881, leading to the simple conclusion First had “borrowed” some of their design. Normally this wouldn’t be much of an issue, but First was actually a works March runner in the F3000 championship.
Leoni’s use of an 88B F3000 car had come back to haunt him. Angered by the intellectual property theft, and unwilling to have First come into F1 after them and potentially compete for the same points, March set an ultimatum. If First continued their F1 project, March would retract their backing of the core F3000 business.
March wasn't amused with First's antics.
While Lamberto Leoni was still stubbornly thinking of a way to get around March’s ultimatum, possibly by buying Formula Three team as a shell company and incorporate the F1 project under that name, the hammer came down in February of 1989. Mere weeks before the start of the season in Brazil, an F189 monocoque was subjected to the mandatory crash tests.
Just as Richard Divila had predicted, the chassis failed miserably. Judging the car unsafe and therefore unfit for Grand Prix competition, the FISA barred First from racing it. With no money or time to construct another chassis, Lamberto Leoni was forced abandon the idea of finding an F3 team and signing a second driver. As a result, the First Formula One project was abandoned entirely.
The First F189 lived another horrible life as the Life L190.
However, he was still able to recoup some of his losses. Soon after the car’s failure, Leoni was contacted by Italian businessman and racing enthusiast Ernesto Vita. Though the F189 still had its suspension smashed in from the Bologna Motor Show shunt, Vita bought it without hesitation.
Ernesto had grand plans for the car, and subjected it to a series of heavy modifications. After making room for and installing an otherworldly broad arrow W12, the car would finally show up on the grid as the infamous Life L190.