CONSTRUCTORS: ONYX RACE ENGINEERING
Name: Onyx Race Engineering
Although Onyx Race Engineering was not established until 1979, its antecedents can be traced back to 1973 when Mike Earle and Greg Field first worked together, running a car in the British Formula Atlantic series under the Lec banner in 1973. For the three years which followed the pair ran David Purley and others in Formula 2 and Formula 5000. Purley won the 1976 European F5000 title. At the end of that year the Lec crew - five men and a part-time fabricator - started work on a Formula 1 car. An exhausted Field decided he had had enough and went to work for Ron Dennis.
By the end of 1978, however, the Lec team had disappeared. Earle asked Field to be his partner in a new racing team, to be called Onyx Race Engineering. The team opened a factory in Littlehampton, began to compete in Formula 2 racing and started a relationship with March in 1980, running a car for Johnny Cecotto in a couple of races and later taking on Italian new boy Riccardo Paletti. That winter the inexperienced Paletti did hundreds of miles of testing with the team and he was competitive at the start of the 1981 season. Paletti's sponsor Pioneer took him to F1 in 1982 with Osella while Onyx also tried F1, running Emilio de Villota in a private March 821. The Spaniard failed to qualify for all five races which the team entered.
There was talk that year of establishing an F1 team for 1983 with Paletti but the 23-year-old was killed in an accident in Canada. Soon afterwards Field left the team and sold his shares to racing enthusiast Jo Chamberlain.
That autumn Onyx had a stroke of luck. Robin Herd of March decided that he did not want to go on running a factory Formula 2 team and asked Earle to run it for him. He had the best chassis, the best BMW engines and the best Michelin tires. The Onyx March drivers for 1983 were Beppe Gabbiani, Thierry Tassin and Christian Danner and the season began with Gabbiani winning four of the first five races. Ralt-Honda was, however, very competitive and at the end of the year Jonathan Palmer scored five consecutive wins to take the title with his team-mate Mike Thackwell finishing second enough times to push Gabbiani to third in the championship. Danner finished fifth with Tassin 7th.
The 1984 season would be another Ralt-Honda benefit with Thackwell and his team-mate Roberto Moreno finishing 1-2 in the series while Emanuele Pirro, Thierry Tassin and Pierre Petit did not do as well as expected, largely because Michelin decided to sell its tires to all the teams. The best March runner that year was the experienced Danner, who was racing for Bob Sparshott Automotive.
The following season Formula 3000 replaced F2 but March and Onyx continued their relationship with the team running Emanuele Pirro, partnered by the underfunded Johnny Dumfries and later Swiss Mario Hytten. Pirro won two races and finished third in the series.
Pirro was retained in 1986 alongside Canadian John Jones and American Cary Bren. Pirro was the fastest driver that year but won only twice, letting the title slip to Ivan Capelli. Jones gradually became more competitive while Bren was completely out of his depth and disappeared. The third car was eventually taken over by British driver Russell Spence.
After a series of disappointing years Onyx bounced back in 1987, cutting back to two cars and drivers Stefano Modena and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. Modena won three races and the title, while Raphanel took some time to accept that his team-mate was quite so fast and scored only a couple of times.
The Onyx-March relationship continued in 1988 with German driver Volker Weidler, Russell Spence and Spaniard Alfonso Garcia de Vinuesa. The March 88B was not competitive and the team struggled, Weidler finishing 15th in the Championship.
By then Onyx had decided to enter Formula 1 and Alan Jenkins began work on the design of a Ford-engined ORE1 chassis. In September Paul Shakespeare took a majority shareholding in the team and further backing was found from Marlboro and eccentric Belgian millionaire Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, the owner of Moneytron. Stefan Johansson was signed alongside Bertrand Gachot (who found the Moneytron deal). The team moved to a grand new headquarters at Westergate House, Fontwell and Field returned as team manager. The 1989 season was a struggle as the cars had to pre-qualify. Despite this there were some strong performances with Johansson fifth at the French GP and third in Portugal.
Early in the year, however, Van Rossem bought Shakespeare's shares and began to impose his will. In September Gachot was fired for criticizing the team and was replaced by JJ Lehto. Soon afterwards Field left again.
The project began to fall apart during the winter with Earle and Chamberlain quitting following disputes with Van Rossem. Jenkins was left in charge with former Ferrari GTO organizer Peter Rheinhardt being hired. Van Rossem attempted to sign a three year deal for factory Porsche V12 engines but when this deal went to Arrows, the Belgian announced that the team was up for sale. It was bought by wealthy Swiss businessman and former racer Peter Monteverdi.
The season began with the ORE1B, a revised version of the original car, but many of the staff left, including Rheinhardt and Earle (who returned briefly after the sale) and Johansson was fired to make way for Swiss driver Gregor Foitek. Monteverdi announces that he intended to move the team to Switzerland but was unable to do so because of an injunction from Johansson. The team's performance suffered badly and there were several breakages because old parts had been fitted to the cars. In July the team was relocated to Switzerland but Foitek left after a suspension failure in Hungary and shortly before the Belgian Grand Prix the team was closed down, the victim of too many unpaid bills.