Perhaps the quintessential reject, the life and times of Adrián Campos saw him rub shoulders with the bright and beautiful people of motorsport just as much as the backmarkers. His F1 career saw him race for Minardi for a little more than a year.
After a tenure in touring car and sportscar racing, he retired from full-time driving to form Campos Racing, a team that would become synomimous with some of the best young talent of modern motorsport on their way to the top rank and with one of the biggest reject teams of the last decade – Hispania Racing (HRT F1).
A man of great wealth and passion, Adrián Campos used both to help shape the scenery of Formula 1 and all motorsport just a little bit for the better. And his story is hardly straightforward.
|Date of Birth||June 17th 1960|
|Date of Death||January 28th 2021|
|Best Result||14th (Spain 1987)|
Early Years: Racing is an Expensive Hobby
“He started racing motorcycles, but he was always beaten by another gentleman from…Alzira. This guy turned out to be [multiple 80cc and 125cc world champion] Jorge Martinez. So when he went to speak to his dad about if he could become a motorcycle racer, his dad sort of told him: ‘If you’re beaten by someone in your own town, how are you going to race for the world championship?’”
Dilbagh Gill, CEO of Mahindra, tells an anecdote of Adrián’s early career.
Born, as are many racing drivers (and many rejects!) to a wealthy background, Adrián Campos Suñer (to give his full name) lived well from a fortune on both his mother and father’s side, and the family businesses Cartonajes Suñer and Avidesa both remain to this day as major stakeholders in their respective industries. His maternal grandfather, Luis Suñer, had helped build the family empire since the 1920s, and these days there is an avenue named after him in the Campos family’s hometown of Alzira.
Familial influence brought its risks when Basque separatists kidnapped Luis Suñer in the January of 1981, and after a three-month public ransoming did not release him until the April. It was for this reason that Adrián Campos, along with the rest of his family, would travel with armed private security for the rest of their professional lives.
Regardless, the following three years had him running a home-built car named the Avidesa 383, after the family business, in various regional series. By 1983 he was entering the car in European Formula 3 alongside future F1 stars like Pierluigi Martini, Martin Brundle, Gerhard Berger, and Claudio Langes.
The scheme was never full-time, and did not yield any points for Campos, and so from 1984 Adrián paid his way to a full-time drive in the series with Volkswagen Motorport. He hardly set the world on fire with five points from ten races – his teammate John Nielsen alone took five podiums in fewer attempts. However, Campos was building valuable racing experience in a competitive environment, and was doing what he needed to do to rack up the miles.
1985-1986: Climbing the Ladder
In 1985, Adrián’s schedule grew far busier. Along with one-off races at Macau and the inaugural European F3 Cup, he ran full-time in German Formula 3, doing rather well for himself. Recording what are probably the Spaniard’s first professional podiums, he finished a strong third overall in the standings with only two retirements to his name. While not the quickest, Adrián’s consistency took him to 3rd in the final standings, 34 points behind his team-mate, dane Kris Nissen, who took six wins during the season.
Still during 1985, Campos was scheduled to run in the Nürburgring round of the International Formula 3000 championship, one of the F1’s primary feeder series at the time, aboard a Tyrrell 012 entered by Barron Racing. The race never took place due to a snowstorm but the Spaniard, never staying in a series for long, moved full-time to the series in 1986. Firstly he ran with Peter Gethin Racing, owned by the famous winner of the 1971 Italian Grand Prix. Gethin worked in various management roles in motorsport during this time, including a brief stint as Toleman team principal in 1984. His team ran one car with wildly inconsistent results. In Rome, for example, Campos suffered car issues that left him failing to qualify with the 36th quickest time, 12 seconds off the pace.
It wasn’t the car that was letting Campos down, either. Perhaps unreliable, the March 86B he drove for the first seven races was the same chassis that won Ivan Capelli the championship, albeit in a different team. Campos on the other hand only qualified for four of his first seven races, starting three and finishing one (in 16th).
Having left Peter Gethin Racing, Adrián teamed-up with Lola Motorsport for the final two races, replacing the Frenchman Pascal Fabre, whom he would join in F1 the following year, and who would have barely any more success than Campos in the highest series. Fabre took the car to three podiums, including a win at the opening round in Silverstone. Campos took his second finish of the season with Lola in 7th, after cracking the top ten in qualifying.
In the meantime Adrián was scoring time in an F1 car as a test driver for Tyrrell. It gave him valuable mileage and exposure that he needed for a team to take interest in him. In spite of finishing 27th overall and pointless in the standings, Campos moved to Formula 1 with Minardi for 1987. Initially he had one foot in the door of Zakspeed, but that deal fell through, and so Adrián took his tobacco and jeans sponsorship, along with a newly-validated superlicence, and moved to the Italian marque for the following season.
1987-1988: Misadventures in Formula 1
“When one works hard the results come, especially in the right environment. Being able to work is a matter of budget.” – Adrián speaks candidly about his future prospects in the sport to an expectant Spanish media.
The dream had become reality for Adrián Campos, and he was now in Formula 1. Minardi were not yet legends of the series, and were still finding their footing with what they had. It is important to note just how unreliable the M187 was – famously so, in fact. The Motori Moderni V6 in the car had been in use since Minardi’s first ever races as a single-car team in 1985, and it had drunk fuel while being totally unreliable. 1987 would be a very challenging year for the whole team.
Some great footage from our good friends at YouTube of Adrián testing the M197 in the off-season following his debut year.
The first race in Brazil saw Adrián disqualified after only three laps of racing for a bizarre rookie incident. Forgetting to use his earplugs, he had to put them on last-minute before joining the rest of the field who had sped away on the formation lap. Instead of settling in last place as he should have done, he raced back to his grid slot in 16th and was promptly black-flagged and removed a few laps in. This was after he had already irked the stewards earlier in the weekend by missing a weighbridge check.
At Brazil and Imola, he was impressively close to Nannini, qualifying within a tenth of the Italian’s times. Not that it mattered though, as the M187 missed countless qualifying sessions and had trouble making it beyond the first few laps at every race from then on.
Adrián recorded a DNS in Monaco after a severe crash in one of the warmup sessions. Left with a concussion, he qualified but was unable to take to the grid on Sunday. It was from around here that the pace difference widened, and session by session Adrián was setting times around 3+ seconds a lap behind Alessandro, regardless of the circuit.
Nannini’s 11th place at Hungary showed that the car – when it finished – was on the pace of the Ligiers, who scored one point over the whole of 1987. Points for Minardi would be a miracle, and Campos’ pace was consistently many seconds off Alessandro’s. And to reiterate, it didn’t matter as the car almost never made it to the finish on a Sunday anyway. Adelaide couldn’t come soon enough.
When it comes to that season, the statistics are damning. Campos’s results were so bad that his 15 failures to finish equalled that of his predecessor Andrea de Cesaris, a famous retirement aficionado. He never outqualified Nannini and his only finish was on home soil at the Spanish Grand Prix, 14th, 4 laps down and dead last. His 16th places on the grid at his first two races were the peak qualifying positions of his career. Everyone knew that Campos was a pay driver, but while his early showings were somewhat impressive, as the season went on, the gap between himself and his teammate became astronomical.
For 1988, Nannini was off to better things after signing a contract with Benetton. Minardi replaced him with Luis Pérez-Sala, and so the italian team lined-up on the grid with two Spaniards as teammates. Pérez-Sala, who came runner-up in F3000 the previous year, outpaced Campos from the get-go.
The M188 was just a little more reliable than before, with the naturally aspirated Ford engine providing some much-needed uplift to the team’s fortunes. Minardi had also undergone a lot of personnel changes: one of whom was Campos’ new engineer, Gabriele Tredozi, who commented on the Spaniard’s unusual style of primarily using the gears to brake the car.
Adrián’s career only lasted five more rounds into 1988, and the gap between him and his compatriot noticeably widened as those races went on. DNQing for the first time at Monaco, Adrián never raced another Sunday in the car, as he went on to record three DNQs in a row. Officially moving on to better things, Campos negotiated with Giancarlo Minardi to end his contract early, and was replaced by Pierluigi Martini. Martini, who had been Minardi’s original driver in 1985, had since spent some time winning in F3000. He and Pérez-Sala had been teammates in 1986, and it seemed smart for the team to bring Martini back into Campos’ seat, where there would be at least a little more promise. Campos was out, and in cruel fate Martini proceeded to score Minardi’s first ever points on his comeback at Detroit.
“The year or so that I have lived in F-1 has been very hard for me, especially the last few months. I don’t wish them on my worst enemy. It has been an unsustainable pressure. I can only say one thing: I’m rested.” – Campos speaking to El Pais shortly after exiting Minardi.
1992-1997: Racing for Fun
With few ties anywhere else, Campos’ career wound down very quickly. He has no recorded races after his F1 departure until 1992, when he began racing in the Spanish Touring Car championship. Then, from 1993 to 1995, he drove with Alfa Romeo alongside Luis Villamil. Villamil was no slouch: he had won the 1988 STC championship and would go on again to win it in 1995. Adrián’s competition didn’t stop there either: there was Pérez-Sala, Campos’ old teammate, who won in 1993 and was a main competitor in those years.
It should not be taken too lightly therefore to highlight Campos’ championship victory in the series in 1994. He won three of the ten races to beat runner-up Alain Ferté, and the season remains Campos’ only professional championship as a driver. The five wins he accumulated in his years racing the Spanish Touring Car Championship were the only professional wins of his career too.
Now in his mid-30s, Adrián committed to fewer and fewer series, and other than a few guest appearances such as the 1997 24 Hour of Le Mans, he retired from driving to pursue his undying passion throughout his adult life: racing management.
1998-2021: Campos Racing and Team Management
At the end of 1997, Campos moved into team ownership and management for the first time on a small scale, hoping that some effort in running junior formulae cars would help to foster young Spanish talent. He found his calling almost immediately: in 1998 a Spanish spec-series called Euro Open by Nissan (later named to Formula Renault 3.5 Series and World Series Formula V8 3.5) was founded, born from the Spanish Formula Renault Championship, and Campos Motorsport entered with two young drivers.
Those drivers were Antonio García and Marc Gené, and the two young men brought back an unbelievable eight wins in the first eight races in succession. It was almost too good to be true for Adrián. His team swept the constructors’ and drivers’ championship with Gené, who was then immediately promoted to Adrián’s old team Minardi for 1999.
Success hardly stopped there: another Spaniard, Fernando Alonso, was paired with García for 1999 and proceeded to win the championship on his first try, with another Campos sweep in the constructors. In 2000 García won the title and would end up being a multiple Le Mans class winner and IMSA champion in his own right over the next two decades.
Over the years, the series morphed into the World Series by Nissan, attracting more and more international teams and a higher calibre of competition. Campos Racing was crowded out by bigger and better drivers and teams, and left after 2003. The team sought other series, and began to branch out.
In 2004 Campos joined Euroformula Open, or Spanish F3. In 2005 they joined GP2, and ten years later they joined GP3. The team still runs in both series in their present guises. They dabbled in WTCC during the 2010s, and provided operational teams for NEXTEV and Mahindra in the first three seasons of Formula E.
However, Campos Racing’s history wouldn’t be it without mentioning what would be come the highest mountain climbed by the spanish outfit, when it dabbled into the world of Formula 1.
2009-2010: Founding an F1 Team
Firstly, 2009 was not the first time Campos Racing had tried to enter Formula 1. He also had links with the Bravo F1 team project – a project so admirable in its ambition that it would almost be insulting to call it rejectful. Underfunded and late, the Bravo team never made the grid in 1993 as planned, but as co-owner, Adrián was young and had plenty of time to try again.
Shortly into his managerial career, Campos had been one of the biggest rumoured links to buy Minardi in 2000 along with Telefonica. After all, he had financial connections, the drive, and history with the team both through himself and his junior drivers. In the end, Australian Paul Stoddart became the new owner, buying out the team as European Minardi from 2001.
When Alonsomania was gripping Spain, and the Ecclestone/Mosley double act were keen for respectable and passionate entrants, Campos at last saw a very real opportunity to join the influx of new F1 teams for the 2010 season. Campos gave away his GP2 team to business partner Alejandro Agag to focus fully on F1. Partnering with Meta Image, the F1 project became Campos Meta 1, and quickly went through the necessary steps to join the top series.
With Cosworth Engines and a Dallara chassis all signed on, things looked rosy for a long time until the money dried up. With that, development on the car came to a halt, and a desperate FIA looked immediately to either replace the team’s slot or to install new management. The latter was chosen, and Spanish businessman José Ramón Carabante instigated a last-minute buyout a few weeks before Bahrain. He renamed the team Hispania and put Colin Kolles in charge. The rest, as they say, is history.
There were many reasons for the team’s failure: one was the reversing of the imposition of the £30-40 million budget cap after the existing F1 teams threatened a breakaway series; another was the differing visions of Adrián and Carabante for the team’s setup with Dallara. Moving goalposts scared off investors and the project sadly failed. Some things are simply not meant to be.
After Campos Meta 1 failed to make it to Formula 1, Adrián returned to running his feeder series teams and promoting young talent until his untimely death in the January of 2021. The team continues bearing his name after his death, with its future secure for the time being.
The interesting thing to note about Campos was not necessarily his level of talent behind the racing wheel, but what he was able to do with the opportunities set before him. Money obviously helped, but his competition who dominated junior formulae in his time – Pascal Fabre, Volker Weidler to name just two competitors – none had the kind of success or mileage that Campos did in Formula 1. This includes Minardi as well: whatever their pace and their faults, they were still a better bet than AGS and Rial, teams that doomed the careers of their drivers.
As a pay driver, it would be easy and ignorant to dismiss Campos’ efforts in motorsport as a footnote. If he had left motorsport in the 1990s then that might be true. However, the driver roster at Campos Racing speaks volumes for Adrián’s contribution to the development of young drivers in the second half of his career. Other than Gené and Alonso, here is a list of the other drivers who made it to F1 after racing with Campos:
- Vitaly Petrov and Lucas di Grassi, who together won Campos the 2008 GP2 constructor’s championship. The former achieved a podium in F1; the latter won the Formula E championship in 2017.
- Alexander Rossi, who raced a short stint with Manor before winning the 2016 Indy 500 on his first try.
- Rio Haryanto, who was voted Driver of the Day for all 12 of his F1 race entries with Manor.
- Lando Norris, multiple podium sitter currently leading McLaren’s charge back up the grid.
- Jack Aitken, who missed his final race with Campos to substitute George Russell at Williams in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
Of this list, only Aitken didn’t have time to prove himself (although, he didn’t embarrass himself either) in F1, but he has showed his talent across his junior career and his exploits in other motorsport categories. Other Campos drivers include 2004 F1 Reject of the year Giorgio Pantano, whose success in GP2 included two feature wins with Campos in 2007 before winning the title the following year; Álex Palou, who has a shot at the IndyCar title this season; and Roberto Merhi, whose first races ever in GP2/F2 were two years after his F1 stint, with Campos Racing.
Even out of name, it was Campos personnel who effectively ran the NEXTEV team in the first two seasons of Formula E, garnering them the inaugural drivers’ title for Nelson Piquet Jr. in 2015. Through a long professional partnership alongside Alejandro Agag, Adrián’s personnel were then given the running of Mahindra for the third year of the series.
It was therefore what Campos was able to do with those extra resources at his disposal that made him so likable; that he was able to give something back to the sport with what he had. After Formula 1 he used his money for what he was good at: management and investment. All the above personnel, in or out of the car, owe their jobs and their livelihoods to Adrián Campos, and if it wasn’t already clear, was made so upon the news of his death. For that, GP2 Founder and F2 CEO Bruno Michel may have the last word:
“He was present from the very beginning of the GP2 Series, eager to be one of the top teams, if not the best team on the grid … I am certain that everyone will rightly talk about his fighting spirit, his passion for racing, for drivers, and for everything that makes motorsport. That’s what he brought to our paddock and to our grids…
“Motorsport has lost a key member and one of its most dedicated supporters … We will dearly miss seeing him sitting on the pitwall, feverishly watching the screens. We will miss his boyish smile and his sense of humour … I know [the team] will have at heart to make Adrian proud and keep his tremendous legacy alive.”
Special thanks goes out to Campos Racing for giving us the privilege of using their fantastic library of photos for this article. I only hope this article does justice to the opportunity they have given me.
EDIT: Thanks also to Daniel Prieto for his work in correcting errors and omissions I made regarding Campos’s Minardi stint.
Sources: motorsportmagazine.com, grandprix.com, snaplab.net, elperiodicomediterraneo.com, statsf1, racefans.net, planetf1.com, automundo.com, Autosport YouTube, the-race.com, unracedf1.com, f1rejects.com, El Pais