July 20, 2012

The Last Privateer

Reading about thet horrible Maria De Villota's accident, you may have read about how her father Emilio De Villota used to be a Formula One driver.

Mario Donnini wrote an article about Emilio's adventures of Autosprint.  It is not only an interesting sidebar but a fascinating bit of Formula One history, happening right at that moment when the series changed dramatically and forever.

Maria De Villota's dramatic accident turned back the spotlight on one of Spain's beloved racing families, up to now known mostly for the passions and tribulations of Emilio.

Madrid, end of 1976.  For a spaniard  in the post Franco era,  Formula 1 is little more than a dream.  Emilio De Villota is almost thirty an knows he will never impress any team manager, but he's not one to give up.  From a wealthy background, a bank manager and  owner of a manufacturer of articles for children, he has many friends among the sporting authorities and the confidence to jump into a seemingly impossible situation.

He started racing late, in national touring cars, then tries theShellsport Gr8 series in the UK. In that marvelously insane Formula 1 where in 1976 season 56 different drivers sign up for at least one GP,  Emilio got behind the wheel of an old Brabham  run by John McDonald and Team Ram and tried to qualify for Jarama, his home race.  Nada, he qualifies 28th, the last to be cut from the starting grid.

Back in Great Britain, racing in F5000 with Lyncar, Emilio does a little accounting and gets his crazy idea.  Crazy but not stupid,  F1 is an open circus,  used cars are inexpensive, there is no Superlicense, tires can be found cheap.  Electronics are still a dream  and you could run a team with a bunch of friends recruited at the local bar.  A round of phone calls, a few promises and the miracle really did happen.

A few days later, big headlines in the national newspapers "Spain returns to F1 with Emilio De Villota".  All he has managed to put together are 16 million pesetas, something like 100,000 present day Euros,  enough though to buy an old Mclaren M23, complete with three Cosworth engines, spares and Goodyear tires.  De Villota: "the chassis coast 2 million pesetas, that is 12,000 euros,  each Cosworth DFV V8 1.5 million pesetas, 9,000 euros and a set of tires was 100,000 pesetas, believe it or not, 600 euros"  And it was not inconceivable to run a whole Grand Prix week end with two sets of tires.

Iberian journalists get carried away:  "Con el patrocinio de Iberia Airlines y del Banco Iberico, entree otros, De Villoto conigue inscriber su Mclaren numero 36 en las clasificatorias de siete de los diecisiete Grandes Premios de la temporade de F1:  España, Bélgica, Suecia, Gran Bretaña, Alemania, Austria e Italia"

What they are not saying is that Emilio has a team of three mechanics and has equipment and know how barely sufficient to check an NSU Prinz before a sunday drive.

For five times he fails to qualify but, and how about a round of applause here, twice he succeeds: In Spain where he ends the race 13ths and in Austria where he's 17th,   Ok find, he collides with an safety car after the race but, hey.

These seem like great small accomplishments but they terrorize 47 year old Bernie Ecclestone, Brabham's owner and boss of FOCA, the Formula One Constructors Associaltion.
If someone like Villota, with a couple of pesetas can be in the game, how could one justify for example the huge budget Copersucar was spending to struggle qualifying Emerson Fittipaldi?    No, in the Formula 1 of the future, the one Bernie has in mind, oceans of dollars will have to flow, everything will be or seem to be super expensive and the De Villotas will be given a swift kick  in the ass.

Next season Emilio tries again just for the Spanish GP in his moth eaten M23 but fails to make the grid so he concentrates on the UK's Aurora Afx F1 series (a series for cut rate F1 cars).

In 1979, with technical help from Giuseppe Risi,   the same Risi who became Risi Competizioni and has had so much success with Ferrari GT2 in the US,  De Villota contacts Hector Rebarque from whom he buys a Lotus 78 "rolling chassis", with no engine, for 5 million pesetas, more than twice what he had spent on the M23 but still the equivalent of just 30,000 euros.  With this car he is one of the leading drivers in the Aurora championship.

In 1980 with the sponsorship of Banco Occidental he returns to Team Ram running a competitive Williams FW07 and wins the championship.  But that year he also qualifies for the Spanish GP and thats where the big mess starts.  It was at the apex of the fight between Ecclestone's FOCA and Baletre's FISA (today's FIA) a fight so bitter that the race is stripped of it's championship status.  De Villota, in his Williams, has a misunderstanding with Lafitte and Reutemann who are lapping him and manages to crash out  the two two leaders of the race .  An unlucky episode that presages the more serious events of the following year.

1981 sees the birth of the Concorde Agreement.  In the FIA offices in Paris,  in Place de la Concorde hence the name, on January 19, 1981 the first "pact" that should at least temporarily end the war between FOCA and FISA and regulate the future of F1 is unveiled.

In it, among other things,  it is spelled out quite clearly that only competitors running the full season are allowed.

Here's the problem, for the Spanish Grand Prix, and only for that one, Emilio De Villota shows are regularly entered.  There's more,  the picture of his private Williams number 37 is on the cover of the official program!

Quite a picky and one who could set a precedent.  Now, Jarama was the property of RACE, the Real Automobil Club España., an organization close to Emilio.  RACE was in deathmatch with FEA, the spanish automobile federation which had just aligned itself with Ecclestone who wants privateers out of F1.  Catch the drift? De Villota becomes the spark the threatens to ignite a nuclear war.

That week end, more than a race, resembled a legal thriller.

The FIA fires the opening salvo with a telegram to RACE specifying De Villota is a private entry and as such cannot take part in the Grand Prix.  RACE replies that the driver and the team have the pre requisites to participate.
Fia sends a second telegraph aknowledging RACE's argument but pointing out that according to the Concord agreement De Villota should not be entered but that they would be willing to make a concession:  De Villlota can be admitted as a reserve who can be entered if another team forfeits.

In the meantime, ATS' transporter is late because they have been held up at the border, apparently having presented insufficient documentation.  RACE notifies that ATS has forfeited and that therefore De Villota will be running his Williams.

FIA fires back another telegraph threatening to strip the race of its championship status is ATS excluded and De Villota enters the track.

As practice starts, Emilio's FW07 has electrical issues and will not start  and De Villota is handed the an official decision by the stewards rejecting his entry.   Next stop the Spanish Civil Court where in a few hours there is a sentence re-instating the entry.    But the FIA stands fast on its threat to strip the race and finally De Villota throws in the towel.
Bernie and the FIA have finally won their war against privateers.  Punish one to educate a hundred.

After F1 the spaniard found satisfaction in sports prototypes even scoring a fourth place at Le Mans on a Porsche 962 in 1986.

Done with racing, De Villota starts a competition school that has seen the Gene brothers, De La Rosa, Garcia and even a young Fernando Alonso as students.
Emilio is a mentor to Emilio Jr. and Maria, his racing children, heirs to a long, complicated but courageous story, one with the last small bits of poetry when privateers, with two cents, could still see their F1 dreams become reality.

Mario Donnini.


  1. How awesome! Thank you very much for the post. What a great read and insight to the history of F1 that I had no idea exsisted. This just brings up other questions for me. Isn't it a little ironic that Bernie is now in charge of F1 but doesn't seem to like FOCA?

  2. Thanks for the great read!

  3. Awesome info...Awesome read! Thank you!

  4. Amazing one! First time, I hear the truth! :)


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