Formula 1 had seen a lengthy domination by turbocharged engines starting in 1983. However, rising costs had made it very difficult for privateer teams to compete. The unfortunate death of Elio de Angelis in a 1986 testing accident then officially started the downturn of the monstrously powerful and wildly dangerous turbo cars. After two years of increasingly limited boost, turbocharged engines were banned outright for the 1989 season. In its place 3.5L naturally aspirated engines were mandated.
Seeking to capitalize on the new 3.5L naturally aspirated formula, Italian entrepreneur Ernesto Vita contacted former Ferrari engineer Franco Rocchi. Rocchi had been developing an engine for Formula 1, based on an old proof-of-concept he had made for Ferrari. This 500cc W3 engine was intended to be developed into a 3L W18 for Ferrari’s F1 program, but the maniacal motor was never built. Instead Rocchi had developed it into a 3.5L W12, divided into three banks of 4 cylinders. This design was highly unusual and had until then only been seen in large pre-war aircraft.
Ernesto Vita saw potential in the daring project and decided to buy the rights to the engine from Franco Rocchi. He then tried to sell it to a number of teams running in F1 at the time, but met with no success. After spending most of 1989 desperately trying to find a buyer, Vita had had enough. He decided to start his own Formula 1 team to show his glorious engine to the conservative F1-world.
For this purpose Vita founded Life Racing Engines. Life being the English translation of his Italian surname. Limited by budget and engineering resources, he was not able to build a Formula 1 car from scratch. This meant Vita had to look for a chassis elsewhere.
He found the stillborn F189 chassis from Italian Formula 3000 team FIRST Racing. The team had tried to make the jump to Formula 1 in 1989 with the Judd V8-powered chassis shoddily designed by Richard Divila.
After failing the pre-season mandatory FIA crash test the car was quickly withdrawn before the first Grand Prix. Divila disowned his design and called it “unsafe“ and “nothing more than an interesting flower pot.“
Undeterred by the awful history of the chassis, Ernesto Vita bought it for his own project. Former Ferrari engineer Gianni Marelli was then tasked with turning the car into a viable competitor for the 1990 season. The team was still woefully underfunded, but Marelli made it work.
With the modifications in place to fit the cumbersome W12, Life was all set to compete in the 1990 season. Their limited funds meant the team had just one chassis, one engine and allmost no spare parts at the start of the season. Driving the car would be young Australian Gary Brabham, son of triple World Champion Jack Brabham.
During pre-qualifying for the US Grand Prix, the first of the season, Gary Brabham noticed a couple of faults about the car. The opposition was running conventional V8, V10 and V12 engines producing anywhere from 600 up to 700 horsepower. Life’s complicated W12 only managed a pathetically terrible 480.
Coupled to the total lack of power was the engine’s appalling center of gravity. Since it had the properties of both a V8 and a straight 4 engine, it was incredibly top heavy, ruining the car’s handling. Adding insult to injury, the L190 chassis was the heaviest in the 1990 field. Reliability was also very poor.
The eventual pace of the L190 was comparable to a Formula 3 car of the era. Even in the second-tier F3000 field the car wouldn’t have stood a chance. Unsurprisingly the car failed to set even a decent time and was not allowed to start the Grand Prix.
Brabham’s second outing with the L190 came to a very violent and early end when the engine seized after just 400 yards. Life’s mechanics had gone on strike, and revealed they never even put any oil at all in the fragile W12. This madness proved to be too much for Gary Brabham, as he quickly left the team after the incident.
In his place F1-veteran Bruno Giacomelli (ITA) was drafted back into service. Giacomelli had been racing in F1 from 1977 to 1983, and had not seen the inside of an F1-car since. His first flirtation with the questionable car came in pre-qualifying for the next round at the lightning fast Imola-circuit in San Marino.
The car’s absolute lack of power was amplified tenfold on Imola’s long straights and fast swooping bends. Giacomelli was mortified driving the comically slow car, fearing he’d be struck from behind by the much faster cars in the field.
As a testament to the car’s awfulness, the L190’s W12 engine actually produced 10 horsepower less than the McLaren M23 Giacomelli had driven on his F1 debut in 1977. Again the car failed to set an adequate time, dropping out with mechanical issues.
The L190 proved to be so excruciatingly unreliable that it never completed more than 8 laps of any given circuit. Every time Bruno Giacomelli climbed back into the car he’d know he’d never even make it to the grid. The car failed to get through pre-qualifying at the San Marino, Monaco, Canadian, Mexican, French, British, German, Hungarian, Belgian and Italian Grands Prix.
Because even the rabid engineers at Life weren’t mad enough to try and develop the wonky W12 into a working F1-engine, plans were made to finally replace it. For the next round at Estoril, Portugal, a customer Judd CV V8 was fitted to the tortured chassis. The Judd was widely used as an alternative to the Cosworth DFR and provided decent bang for buck.
Staying true to their spirit, the engineers at Life forgot to modify the L190’s engine cover, which consequently didn’t fit. Immediately after setting off on track the cover broke free and flew off.
It turned out even the much more powerful and reliable Judd could not fix the car’s problems, as it failed to pass pre-qualifying both in Portugal and the next round at Jerez in Spain. Life Racing Engines then withdrew from Formula 1 with two Grands Prix left to run, and quickly folded.
Ernesto Vita’s Life Racing Engines was doomed to fail from the very beginning. An insane engine concept coupled to a dangerously sub-standard chassis meant the car didn’t actually fit in the F1-category in terms of speed. The L190 had no power, no reliability and handled like a pig.
Its main driver spent more time taking smoke breaks and enjoying the scenery than he ever did driving it. A quote by famous British F1-journalist Nigel Roebuck summed it up perfectly: