At a time when we seem to be increasingly bemoaning the absence of characters in Formula 1, the death was announced last week of a man who appeared larger than life – in every way.
Jean-Pierre Van Rossem was briefly a motor sport money man in the sense that his investment company, Moneytron, predicted the markets and generated cash, which he then used help a small team into Grand Prix racing.
Onyx Race Engineering, run in many former guises by Mike Earle, had plenty of racing experience before making tentative steps into F1 with their own cars in 1989. Drivers were Belgium’s Bertrand Gachot, and former Ferrari and McLaren man, Stefan Johansson.
Knowing his fellow countryman’s interest in motor racing, Gachot arranged a meeting in Brussels with Van Rossem, warning Earle not to be shocked by the potential sponsor’s appearance. Nonetheless, Earle found it difficult not to be taken aback by the imposing presence of a large man behind an equally large desk with hair down to his waist, a beard to match and racing boots on his feet. But Earle maintained his composure, particularly when the first payment arrived in his bank account even before he had returned to England.
The funding was to help greatly with the completion of a neat car, the Ford-Cosworth powered ORE-1, designed by former McLaren engineer Alan Jenkins and used to great effect as Moneytron Onyx scored six points at a time when only the first six finishers were rewarded.
Meanwhile, Van Rossem had quietly caused a stir in the paddock for reasons other than his eccentric appearance. He insisted on bringing several glamorous models to each race and dressing them in high fashion. This attempt to brighten up the pit lane received a set back when Bernie Ecclestone ruled the ladies’ presence could go no further than the back of the garage.
Not that Van Rossem cared about such officialdom in Portugal, where his enthusiasm knew no bounds – quite some sight – as Johansson scored a sensational finish on the podium. It was a moment to saviour because, not long after, a change in management structure proved too much for the fragile team, Van Rossem eventually withdrawing his financial support before the F1 team disappeared.
‘Van Rossem was heavily involved,’ recalls Johansson. ‘He was one of these big characters. Outwardly, he was this crazy-looking guy, but he was highly intelligent and very enthusiastic. Given some of the shady people you meet in motor racing, I have to say he was nothing like that. Jean-Pierre did everything he promised to do – and more, probably. I can’t say a bad word about him.
‘If you look at what we did with the limited resources, it was pretty impressive. It was a fantastic car that was as good as it looked. In many ways, my time with Onyx was the best feeling I’ve had in any of the teams in F1 because it was such a tight operation and everybody fought so hard to make it happen. To finish third in Estoril was a brilliant feeling; as good as a win for us. We wouldn’t have been able to do any of it with Jean-Pierre Van Rossem.’