Stefan Grand Prix: A Tale of Persistence

Every few years or so, the FIA opens up a tender process to add potential new entries to Formula 1. CNC magnate and NASCAR team owner Gene Haas was the last recipient of an official FIA entry, which he wisely deferred until 2016 to give him time to build up his eponymous Haas team.

Over the entry process, the FIA checks the prospective teams’ finances and infrastructure to see if they’re in it for the long haul, and whether they’ll actually make the grid. Before 2009, the FIA used to require that new teams pay a $48m entry bond (which was repaid over the team’s first few seasons in the sport), weeding out the likes of the Fortis and Pacifics at the first hurdle.

zoran-stefanovich-040512

Zoran Stefanovic, the man behind the Stefan name.

Since 1996, one team has been persistent in its attempts to enter Formula 1, yet has never managed to climb any of the obstacles that the FIA has placed in between the dream of an F1 entry and the grid. For 21 years, Stefan Grand Prix has been submitting speculative entries to Formula 1; the brainchild of Serbian businessman Zoran Stefanovic, Stefan has long aimed to be Serbia’s first Formula 1 team despite its lack of pedigree (or involvement) in any other forms of motorsport.

 A former club racer in the erstwhile republic of Yugoslavia, Stefanovic recalled his first point of contact with the F1 circus, claiming to have “had talks with Bernie (Ecclestone) to host a Yugoslavian Grand Prix” in 1987 before the political situation in the Balkans turned sour.

After years of trying to form a racing team in the UK, Stefanovic’s first attempt to submit an entry came in 1996, ambitiously planning to get his Stefan Grand Prix dream onto the grid for the following year. Conceding that he perhaps didn’t exactly have the knowledge on how to make his dream a reality, Stefanovic sought advice from former Forti and Ferrari engineer George Ryton, with a view to commandeering the Brit’s services as technical director.

“Nothing’s confirmed one way or the other,” Ryton told Autosport in the September of 1996. “If he’s got the money and he’s serious, then we can do something. But, the timescale’s pretty tight, and so it all depends on the next couple of weeks.”

Yet, nothing was forthcoming. Ecclestone – then in charge of FOCA – never considered Stefanovic’s overtures as serious, and declined to meet the Serbian ahead of the 1997 season. Two new teams were entering F1 anyway in ’97, with one having its own part to play in Stefanovic’s next entry gambit.

The disastrous MasterCard Lola team never made it past qualifying in the opening Australian Grand Prix, failing to make the race and subsequently collapsing under a quickly-amassed debt. The bulky, underdeveloped T97/30 cars were abandoned, but Stefanovic had his eye on them to form the basis of an entry for the 1998 season with the intention of upgrading them. Again, Stefan’s plans were ignored, with Stefanovic’s lack of infrastructure coming back to bite him.

After an eleven-year hiatus from bothering the FIA’s inbox, Zoran Stefanovic was back for perhaps F1’s largest entry process ever in 2009. The global financial crisis cut manufacturer involvement in Formula 1, prompting the FIA to offer prospective new entrants the chance to step up to F1. Initially, this was sold on the basis that there would be a budget cap, but was scaled back to the promise of support from existing teams. Regardless, no fewer than fifteen applications were submitted, one from Stefan Grand Prix.

After Toyota quit the sport, Stefanovic had apparently secured not only the abandoned TF110 chassis, but access to the Japanese marque’s engines and facilities in Cologne. The FIA, who had allegedly provided preference to teams willing to use the new Cosworth engines, declined Stefan’s entry once more.

Stefanovic submitted a complaint to the European Commission, on the grounds that they were unfairly treated during the entry process. Nonetheless, the Serbian team carried on putting their plans into action – even without an entry to fall back on – and Stefanovic managed to persuade disgraced former McLaren engineer Mike Coughlan to join the cause; the Brit had been out of F1 for two years following his involvement in the Spygate scandal, and tentatively sought to return to the sport with Stefan.

Stefan released this photo of Mike Coughlan in their Belgrade offices...before they photoshopped him out later on!

Stefan released this photo of Mike Coughlan (second from left) in their Belgrade offices…before they photoshopped him out later on!

Stefan also had support from Stefanovic’s company AMCO, an engineering firm with apparent global links to the defence industry. With access to the Toyota facilities, Stefan’s engineers were able to build up one of the TF110 cars – redubbed as the Stefan S-01 – which was painted red in deference to the team’s Serbian links. Although the Toyota-penned car looked aggressive in its blood-red hue, things weren’t quite as rosy in the Stefan camp as Stefanovic was making out.

Still without an entry for 2010, Stefan attempted to conclude deals with USF1 and Campos Meta to join the grid. USF1, despite its forward-thinking approach of promoting the team via social media – no doubt influenced by investor Chad Hurley, who had been one of the initial founders of YouTube – was making little progress, and had nothing to show but a front nosecone and a few renders.

However, Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor were adamant that the team would make the grid, leading Stefanovic into talks with Adrian Campos. The former Minardi driver was much more receptive to the idea of a takeover, asking for $40m for the team and its entry. Stefanovic found this unreasonable, and although he hosted Campos in Belgrade a few more times, the two could not thrash out a deal.

The clock was ticking, and the start of the season was drawing nearer. Unable to conclude a deal with Stefan, Campos sold up to Jose Ramon Carabante’s Hispania Group as financial pressures began to hurt the Spanish team’s progress. Meanwhile, question marks were also beginning to appear over Stefan’s financial footing, and whether they could actually afford to be in Formula 1 at all.

Following some investigation by F1 finance guru Christian Sylt, it emerged that AMCO were not quite the Serbian industrial powerhouse that they had purported to be. Despite AMCO’s braggadocio over involvement with the German Bundeswehr and “launch service provider” Arianespace, both organisations denied any contact had ever taken place. Instead, AMCO had just one registered employee, and its 2009 income was reported as just over €3000, making a total profit of an eye-watering…€42.

With the financial situation, it was curious that Stefan was able to get that far; presumably, Stefanovic had some capital elsewhere, having been able to “fund” the team’s efforts to this point. Stefan had even worked out deals for drivers, and had acquired the services of former Williams driver Kazuki Nakajima. Nakajima even tested the TF110, albeit in a car-park following a wrangle with Bridgestone over tyres put an end to Stefan’s planned test at Portimao. A deal was also in the works with 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, as the Canadian presumably wished to denigrate himself further.

Hiring Kazuki Nakajima, Stefan carried out their first tests in the Toyota Motorsport parking lot.

Hiring Kazuki Nakajima, Stefan carried out its first shakedown in the Toyota Motorsport parking lot.

In March, the FIA categorically stated that – following the collapse of USF1 – no further entries would be handed out for 2010. This ended any late hopes that Stefan had of making the 2010 grid, even after they’d presumptuously sent freight out to the opening venues on the calendar.

Naturally, Stefanovic tried his luck again in 2011. Ambitious to the point of delusion, Stefan announced via a press release that “owner Zoran Stefanovic has today signed an agreement with the Mayor of Stara Pazova, located 25km from Belgrade, to build the Stefan Technology Park”, with the intention of creating a racing circuit on the same premises as the Stefan Grand Prix headquarters. Stefanovic did not mention any outside investment in the project, perhaps expecting to do the job with the €42 from AMCO.

Stefanovic at the launch of his 2011 entry attempt. Yet to have "been there and done that", he still has the t-shirt...

Stefanovic at the launch of his 2011 entry attempt. Yet to have “been there and done that”, he still has the t-shirt…

Ultimately, the FIA selected nobody from the newly-reopened entry process, which included serious names such as Epsilon Euskadi and ART Grand Prix, as well as a Jacques Villeneuve tie-up with GP2 team Durango. Stefan had made far less of an impact and, after being forced to return the TF110 back to Toyota, had no car or facilities to base an entry around.

As the new-for-2010 teams began to dwindle, the FIA once again started taking entry applications in 2014 for the following year. Once more, Stefanovic submitted his statement of intent, stating that “we have a strong and capable group of people with strong previous experience in F1”. Shortly after, Stefan’s entry was withdrawn, although Stefanovic refused to draw on any reasons why. Haas, the only serious applicant in that process, joined the F1 field in 2016.

One would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the last chapter in the Stefan GP story, but following the news that a pair of Chinese-backed applications had been submitted to the FIA for a 2019 debut, Zoran Stefanovic once again crawled out of the woodwork.

Attending the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix to meet Ross Brawn, Stefanovic confirmed to Autosport that he had set up camp in Italy for his latest attempt to join the grid, intending to base the team in Parma. Enrique Scalabroni, best known for his time at Williams and Ferrari (and on GPRejects.com, his tenures at Asiatech and Ikuzawa), was also confirmed to be involved with Stefanovic’s new setup.

Stefanovic’s persistence has to be applauded, and it’s admirable that he’s persisted with his two-decade-old dream of being a Formula 1 team owner. Despite his enthusiasm, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the FIA would suddenly grant Stefanovic an entry after 21 years, but maybe it’s different this time. We can’t wait to find out.

stefan_gp_zoran_stefanovic_01

Sources: pitpass.com, Autosport, F1technical.net, b92.net, Stefan Grand Prix Blog