Prologue: Once upon a time in the South (of France)
These were the words that Enzo Ferrari used to describe the British teams who built their own chassis, but bought engines and gearboxes off the shelf, assembled them into a racing car, and then had the temerity to beat the “grandees” in a straight fight. Cooper, BRM and Lotus were the original targets of his ire; how dare these British “men in sheds” triumph over Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati, who toiled night and day to build glorious Italian racing cars entirely of their own construction – chassis, engine, gearbox and everything in between?
But the “garagiste” system worked, and in later years, Brabham, McLaren and Williams would all join the same party to similar effect. Many smaller teams, not necessarily British, also tried their hands at building Formula One cars, and most did not last more than a few years in the sport. This is the story of what is probably the most literal interpretation of “garagiste” that ever dared to compete in Formula One – Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives, from the south of France.
Henri Julien was born on 18th September 1927, in the small Provençal village of Gonfaron. Little is known of his early life, though his teenage years were mostly spent during France’s occupation by Nazi Germany, and it is unlikely that they were enjoyable. Any interest in motorsport had to wait until after the War, and what first fired his enthusiasm was attending the nearby Grand Prix de Nice in 1946. A year later, aged only 20 and following a brief mechanical apprenticeship in nearby Toulon, he returned to Gonfaron to run Garage de l’Avenir – a typical example of a service station of the late 1940s, where the Peugeots, Renaults and the occasional Citroën Traction Avant that puttered around the regional roads of the day would be refuelled, serviced and repaired. It also provided the ideal setting to build his first racing car, in 1950 – a simple chassis with a 500 cc Simca engine, which he called the JH1 – just the job for a spot of local club racing. The JH2 followed in 1952, a similar design with a 500 cc BMW engine, offering some forgiveness to the Germans for their 1940s misdeeds. And in 1957, the JH3 was fitted with the relatively intoxicating power of an 850 cc Panhard engine. Throughout the 1950s, Julien raced these cars in 500 Racers and Formula Junior without much success, and at the end of the decade, gave up building his own cars. For the first half of the 1960s, he switched to competing in F3 events in cars such as the Lotus 22 and Alpine A270, but in 1965, with only meagre results to show after fifteen years of racing, he quit motorsport, and that should have been the end of the story…
…until Formule France was created in 1968.
1969-1977: Motor racing’s third division
“Se battre oui, mais ne pas oublier après de bien manger et bien boire.”
Formule France provided an excellent opportunity for Henri Julien to return to motorsport, this time solely as a constructor. Teaming up with Christian Vanderpleyn, the self-taught mechanic he’d taken on as a 14-year-old apprentice in the late 1950s, the duo formed their racing team in 1969: Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives. They would build their racing cars inside Garage de l’Avenir, alongside the regular road cars that were in for repair.
However, your kilomètrage may vary on which was the first car to have been built undisputedly under the AGS banner. What we know is, the new team entered the JH4 for the 1969 Formule France season, driven by François Rabbione. As you may expect, detailed results are hard to come by for a 50-year-old junior racing series; all we know is, Rabbione returned no tangible results. It has been speculated that the JH4 wasn’t a true AGS car, and was little more than a reworked version of Henri Julien’s 1965 Alpine F3 car that he’d raced himself; if that was the case, its age would go some way to explain its lack of performance. But certainly, the JH5 was the team’s own creation for the 1970 Formule France season – Rabbione and new team-mate Gérard Cerruti managed four points each, Cerruti getting his in one lump with a third place finish – the team’s first podium.
Details for the 1971-72 seasons are the most shrouded in mystery, with the few available sources giving conflicting information – again, due to the lack of rigorous documentation of the series at the time. Formule France renamed itself Formule Renault for 1971, and Formule Renault Europe for 1972, though it was still largely based in France. AGS’ cars for the 1971-72 seasons were numbered JH6, JH7 and JH8; it is not entirely clear whether the JH6 and JH7 were separate models in their own right, or whether they were the same model with different chassis numbers. François Guerre-Berthelot was the de facto works driver during this time, with few mentions of competing in Formule Renault Europe; he is more notable here as being AGS’ only ever F3 driver for two races in 1972, for which the JH9 was built. Henri Julien did not particularly like F3, and given that Guerre-Berthelot only qualified at the second attempt and finished 17th, saw no future for AGS in this category. Also at this time, AGS did fulfil their ambitions as a chassis supplier, as some JH5, JH6 and JH7 models were sold to Team Total to allow Alain Couderc and Marcel Gougeon to compete in 1971, followed by Christian Gonnétant and Gérard Bareyre in 1972, though not to much effect. Michel Cordrero was another privateer listed as driving a JH6 in 1972, also to no results.
Another driver worth highlighting during this period was Alain Jallot, who first competed for AGS in 1972 in the JH8 and was retained for 1973, driving the new JH10. During these two seasons he ran well at Monaco, scoring a third place in 1973, and continued with AGS in 1974, driving the JH11, the team’s first monocoque car. His performances produced the first verifiable season results since 1970 – 15 points in 1973 for 17th place in the championship, and 20 points in 1974 for 16th place. One AGS customer competed in 1973 – Michel Ogier in an old JH7, and three more followed in 1974 – Jean-Pierre Maillard on a semi-works basis and Jean-Pierre Lacoste and Daniel Pecqueur as privateers, all with the JH11; none of these troubled the scorers.
Strangely, the 1975 chassis was designated JH13, the JH12 having vanished into the Provençal ether. The results remained mediocre but at least all three drivers scored points – Christian Ethuin led the way with 18 points for joint 14th place, Xavier Mathiot scored eight points for 20th place, and one point was scored by a mysterious driver called “Steve”. Argument has raged ever since as to his real identity: was this the pseudonym of Didier Jaumont, a French lawyer who needed to hide his racing activities under a veil of secrecy, or was he Jean-Pierre Wielemans, a Belgian driver who would compete at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1977 and 1978 under that pseudonym? Evidence for the latter is found in the 1976 season, with Wielemans listed on Driver Database under his own name, driving the JH14, albeit to no point-scoring results. That year, Jean Ragnotti was the lead AGS driver, scoring 32 points for a final placing of 11th, the team’s best performance to date – though he had not visited the podium all season. Another first, if not for the team, but for the constructor, was Claude Michy becoming the first privateer to score in an AGS car, gaining five points over the course of the season.
Finally, a breakthrough came for AGS in 1977. Knowing this would be the final season of Formule Renault Europe, the 1976 JH14 was retained. Michy again drove a private entry, this time to 14 points and 15th place in the championship, but the star of the show was Richard Dallest. He’d competed for the previous three seasons in Martini (no relation to the alcohol brand) and Lola cars, never finishing lower than sixth in the final championship standings, and took on the challenge of driving for the Gonfaron “garagistes”. If anything, he was the driver they always needed, and over the course of the season, he brought the JH14 home four times in second place and three times in third, eventually finishing fourth in the championship with 125 points, his highest total in Formule Renault Europe, as well as AGS’ by a country 1.608 kilomètres. What he hadn’t managed, though, was a win – six of which had been taken by the season’s champion, Alain Prost.
After the 1977 season, Formule Renault Europe reverted to a national series, Formule Renault France. It wasn’t quite the end for AGS’ third-division chassis, as 1974 privateer Jean-Pierre Lacoste would compete in this series in 1979 with a three-year-old JH14; it was hardly surprising he only scored one point with it.
Ultimately, Henri Julien had chosen to do things the hard way in Formule France and Formule Renault Europe. Most other teams in the series bought a chassis, bolted in an engine and gearbox, fitted tyres, filled it with fuel, and raced; the dominant chassis at this level, throughout this time, was built by Martini. Julien wanted to be a constructor above all else, to be the one building the chassis that the other “garagistes” bought. It hadn’t quite worked out that way, as no AGS driver, works or private, had yet stood on the top step of the podium, but all the indications were that it was time to move up to the next level for the 1978 season. The technical duo of designer Christian Vanderpleyn and chief mechanic Jean Silani, who’d been recruited at some stage during the Formule Renault Europe days, could be relied upon to design and build cars to take on the higher categories – and in Richard Dallest, they’d found the right driver. Best of all, the bank account was healthy; former driver François Guerre-Berthelot was now in charge of finding sponsorship, and the cars in recent seasons had been prominently displaying the logos of Motul oils and GPA helmets. Best of all, the construction facilities had been upgraded; by 1977 the cars were built in an 80 m² corrugated aluminium shed situated behind Garage de l’Avenir, which also featured a patio where the team could enjoy a baguette and a glass or two of the local wine under the setting southern French sun, after a hard day’s work. Their mentality was best summed up in Henri Julien’s words at the top of this section, which I will now translate en anglais:
“Compete with others, yes, but do not forget to eat well and drink well afterwards.”
1978-85: Some success in the second tier
The European Formula Two Championship, and its immediate successor, European Formula 3000, are considerably better documented than French national series of the 1970s, so AGS’ eight-year stay at this level can be dealt with in greater detail. However, be warned that there are still some ambiguities.
For their first attempt at F2 in 1978, AGS built the JH15 chassis, now with a 2.0-litre BMW engine bolted in the back – the only other realistic choice was an equally unpatriotic Hart. Still, at least their determination to build their own cars would make them stand out against the crowd, as they had valiantly tried to do in Formule Renault Europe. Boxer, Maco, Toj, Alpine, Brabham, Nova and Martini would all make occasional appearances during the season, but the only other season-long competitor not to be lost in a flood of identikit March and Chevron chassis, was the four-year-old Ralt RT1 that had been designed to compete in several categories, and was used by a couple of smaller teams.
In deference to their sponsors, and possibly to extract a few more francs from them, the team entered under the official banner of Sol-Amor GPA Motul, and ran a single car for nine of the season’s twelve rounds. The Jochen Rindt Trophy at Thruxton was where Richard Dallest first turned a wheel for AGS in F2, and the team was given something of a rude awakening. In a field of 34 cars, Dallest qualified 25th of the 29 allowed to start – one place behind motorcycling legend Giacomo Agostini, who was trying his hand at four-wheeled racing – and finished stone dead last, eleven laps down, and was not officially classified. Worse was to come at the second round, the Jim Clark Trophy at Hockenheim, where he didn’t qualify. The team opted to miss the Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, probably deciding it was futile even to try it at this stage. José Dolhem took the car for the prestigious Pau Grand Prix, but he crashed out of the race, as he also did at Mugello. AGS skipped the sixth round, the Rome Grand Prix at Vallelunga, and returned for the seventh round at Rouen, where Dolhem missed the cut. Dropping the eighth round at Donington, Dallest returned to the car for Nogaro, where he recorded the first classified finish – 11th place after qualifying half way up the field. A crash at Enna-Pergusa, a 16th place finish and another failure to qualify on the series’ second visit to Hockenheim was a miserable way to round off the season. Two finishes, neither of them on the lead lap, no points, and three DNQs spelled a chastening first season in F2.
For 1979, the JH16 was more of a facelift of its predecessor than an all-new car, and AGS – now officially named as Ecurie Motul Nogaro on the entry list – cut their involvement to only five of the twelve rounds and can really be considered a part-time entry. José Dolhem drove the new car for the opening race of the season, the International Trophy at Silverstone, where he finished 14th – then handed it to Alain Couderc, who’d had a previous taste of AGS machinery in the 1971 Formule Renault season at the privateer Team Total. This time, he was the works driver and thanked his team by qualifying at Hockenheim – the team’s third attempt at the circuit in this category – and brought the car to an 11th place finish, equalling their best result. Unfortunately, his luck couldn’t last. The other three rounds the team attempted were the Jochen Rindt Trophy, the Pau Grand Prix and the season closer at Donington, but though Couderc qualified for all three races, towards the back of the grid, he never finished any of them – the first as a result of a six-car pile-up on the first lap, the other two with clutch trouble. In the time between Pau and Donington, the team tried a one-off experiment: the Aurora AFX British Formula 1 series, aimed at obsolete World Championship cars, was also open to F2 cars, even if they were mainly there to make up the numbers. The series made its only ever visit to France in 1979, with a round at Nogaro, and AGS jumped at the chance to compete, entering Couderc in the old JH15. While his F2 car would not have been expected to be competitive against a field of mainly year-old F1 cars with 3.0-litre engines and twice the cylinders, he might just have finished in the top ten, had he been able to finish.
After two years floundering in the wilderness, 1980 was where AGS – I mean, Ecurie Motul Nogaro – made their presence felt in F2. The JH17 was an all-new design incorporating the black art of ground effects, and Richard Dallest returned after a year spent sharpening his skills in European F3… as team-mate to Alain Prost. This time, even though there was still only one car, he’d be competing in every race. For the Jochen Rindt Trophy at Thruxton, it looked like business as usual, Dallest qualifying 17th out of 24 and then crashing, though a 10th place finish in the Jim Clark Trophy at Hockenheim was more encouraging, certainly given his last two attempts at this circuit. Real, tangible hope sprang forth at the team’s first attempt at the Eifelrennen – in a wet qualifying, which was no surprise to anyone, Dallest stuck the JH17 on pole position, which was a surprise, seeing as no AGS driver had ever looked likely to do that in F2. Better still, Dallest was the only driver to lap the fearsome Nordschleife in under nine minutes! If only the fuel pump hadn’t failed after three laps, who knows what fortunes could have followed. As it was, the team had to wait two more races for their day of glory. Dallest further improved the team’s best F2 finish to ninth at the Rome Grand Prix, but it was on their third visit to Pau that the breakthrough came in the most glorious possible way. Qualifying fifth, Dallest picked off his opponents around the Pyrénéean streets, including dominant series leader Brian Henton, and finally passing Siegfried Stohr to score the first ever victory for AGS – in any category, and on home ground. Toleman, who had built a monster of a car for the 1980 season and almost single-handedly smashed March’s stranglehold on F2, had to give way to their much smaller French rivals this time. Imagine the flow of champagne washing away the frustration of those early years…
Normal service for the season resumed at Silverstone, where Derek Warwick took Toleman back to the winners’ circle… and Dallest didn’t even start the race, citing engine trouble. He did at least have a couple more non-points finishes, eighth at Zolder and seventh at Mugello, before scoring another pole position and another win on the sand dunes of Zandvoort, just to prove that Pau hadn’t been a fluke; as at the Nürburgring, it was chucking down with rain for the whole weekend. At Enna-Pergusa, a track that didn’t suit the ground effect cars, AGS dusted off the old JH15, Dallest drove it to fifth place and thus the two-year-old car finally scored its first points. And after a puncture caused an early retirement at Misano, back in the JH17, the season ended with fourth place at Hockenheim, finally exorcising the painful memories of 1978. Overall, Dallest had scored 23 points in the 1980 season, sixth place in the championship, and those two victories had finally brought the good times to Gonfaron, proving that it is possible to build a winning car in a corrugated metal shed.
The balance of power shifted again as Honda joined the engine battle, and Toleman stepped up to F1 to take the thrashing of their lives at the highest level. March, Maurer, Minardi, Lola and Ralt would all be scrapping for a slice of the F2 cake that Toleman had left behind – and AGS also hoped to be in contention after a strong 1980. But so it is said, what goes up must come down, and Julien, Vanderpleyn, Silani, Dallest and the few others involved were brought firmly down to earth. The new JH18 wasn’t ready for the 1981 International Trophy, so Dallest had to drive the JH17 at a wet Silverstone. Not a problem, you’d think, as he’d won twice in similar conditions, but an accident with a stray wooden pole early in the race saw him crash out and injure his neck. Clearly struggling with the injury, when he first drove the JH18 at Hockenheim he lasted only one lap, then managed ten at Thruxton, back in the JH17. With the Eifelrennen coming next, Dallest was sidelined for the thrash around Germany’s most infamous widowmaker and replaced by Patrick Gaillard, who’d had brief F1 experience with Ensign in 1979, though with no more success than their other two drivers. He might have been AGS’ chosen driver for 1980 if he hadn’t crashed at a pre-season test, but here he was a year later with one chance to prove himself in the JH17 – which he almost did, only the oil pressure failed half way through the race.
A recovered Dallest took the JH18, only for the engine to fail on him at Vallelunga, and, rather more worryingly, the brakes at Pau – between which he’d scored a seventh place finish at Mugello. Dragging the JH15 out of retirement one last time for Enna-Pergusa saw Dallest finish ninth, with the JH18 responsible for a 16th place at Spa. At Donington, for the first time in F2, AGS were noted as entering two drivers – though maybe not by intention. They had only built one JH18, in which Dallest recorded a qualifying time good enough for 11th place on the grid – had he been able to start the race. Another ex-Ensign F1 driver was drafted in alongside him, who would later become a very familiar face on UK TV screens. This was Tiff Needell, AGS’ only ever British driver; while it is not certain which model he drove to 25th place in qualifying, for the race he took the JH18 in Dallest’s absence and guided it to an 11th place finish. At this stage, AGS had no points on the board; it was left to a returning Dallest to pull two fifth place finishes out of the bag in the final two rounds at Misano and Mantorp Park to end a very disappointing season with four points, and 17th place in the championship.
Looking to make a further impact, AGS built two new JH19 chassis for the 1982 season, intending to enter both in every race. Julien ringed the changes in the driving department, said au revoir to the faithful Richard Dallest, and hired Pascal Fabre and the recently-crowned 1981 French F3 champion, Philippe Streiff. We will not encounter these two names ever again in the future, oh no. The season once again opened at Silverstone for the International Trophy, and with only one JH19 available, AGS wheeled out the JH18 one last time. Everyone knew it was a lemon and Fabre duly crashed it, a fitting end to its racing service. Streiff, though, brought the JH19 to 10th place. At Hockenheim it was Streiff’s turn to retire, with Fabre taking the finish in 12th. Two points followed at Thruxton as both cars finished, a first for AGS in F2 – Streiff taking them with fifth, while Fabre trailed in 13th, a lap down. The Eifelrennen and Mugello both brought the same result – Fabre finishing 16th, even if he’d retired from the second race, he was still classified. Streiff retired from both races, with engine failure around the Nordschleife and a spin at Mugello. The team’s glory day came, once again, in mid-season – at the Rome Grand Prix, where their results so far hadn’t been stellar; Corrado Fabi won the race in a March, but Streiff and Fabre took second and third respectively, for AGS’ first double points finish – and double podium.
Yet again, though, they had to come back down to earth with a crash at Pau, a favourite circuit of theirs; Streiff’s engine failed after 14 laps… but that’s 14 more than Fabre managed as he didn’t even qualify. Spa was an improvement; AGS had previously had some fine results in Dallest’s hands in wet conditions, and the Ardênnes track took such a drenching that the race had to be stopped after 23 of the 30 laps, by which time Streiff had guided his car to fourth place for three more points. Fabre hadn’t, and was 19th and last. Hockenheim was best forgotten with a double retirement, Fabre breaking a driveshaft and Streiff with a blown engine. At Donington it was Fabre’s turn to see the cloud of white smoke behind him, as Streiff cruised to fifth place. A pleasant Swedish surprise at Mantorp Park was another second place finish for Streiff and sixth for Fabre, followed by another fourth for Streiff at Enna-Pergusa and eighth for Fabre; it was a welcome boost of twelve points near the end of the season. This year there was a 13th round, held at Misano, where Fabre finished ninth and Streiff crashed ten laps from the end. Overall, Streiff’s sixth place in the standings matched Richard Dallest before him, but he scored one point fewer and had yet to win; Fabre, with only five points, finished 15th.
At the end of the 1982 season, both Motul and GPA ended their long sponsorship association with AGS, requiring the “garagistes” to cut their cloth accordingly. This meant, initially, dispensing with the second car and Pascal Fabre’s services, and updating the JH19 to “B” spec rather than building an all-new car. The team’s name appeared on the 1983 entry list as Ecurie Armagnac Bigorre Nogaro, either as a means of attracting a few francs from the tourist boards of those three historical regions that were nowhere near Gonfaron, or advertising what was in Henri Julien’s glass at the end of a particularly testing day. Streiff headed to the first two rounds in Britain with no team-mate and a black and white car looking slightly bare, but drove it to fifth place at Silverstone, scoring points at the first opportunity, and ninth at Thruxton. The next two rounds in Germany didn’t go so well as his engine spluttered to a halt on the first lap at Hockenheim, and though he qualified fifth around the Nürburgring, he never started the race, for reasons which have been lost in the mists of the Eifel forests. Streiff would finally have someone to accompany him at the next race, as AGS coaxed Fulvio Ballabio over from Merzario to be their first pay driver. His primary job was to bring in sponsorship from his association with the Italian publisher Mondadori, who were mainly responsible for printing Mickey Mouse books in Italian. Julien handed Ballabio the unmodified JH19, put the effigy of Disney’s favourite rodent all over both cars, and hoped Ballabio would bring in more money than he might cost the team in repair bills. Initially, it looked like that might have been a dodgy move as the Italian crashed at his first race, at Vallelunga. Streiff finished fifth, though, so it wasn’t a wasted day. Ballabio then finished seventh around the tricky streets of Pau, proving he wasn’t a complete waste of time and francs (or lira), while Streiff hit some mystery trouble to retire but was classified tenth.
“It’s a season of two halves”, as cliché-ridden football commentators might say. For the first half of the season, Beppe Gabbiani took an early championship lead in a March-BMW, but all the indications were that the Ralt RH6/83-Honda combination was about to storm the castle. Ralt were an efficient and experienced constructor of lower formulae chassis by this point, did not sell their chassis to anyone else, and had exclusive use of the Honda engine for 1983. Streiff and AGS would do whatever they could to ignore the script. For F2’s first visit to Jarama, Streiff finished fourth, 21 seconds behind Ralt’s second driver, Mike Thackwell; Ballabio hung on to finish 12th. At Donington, Streiff went one better and finished third behind the mighty Ralts, for his first trophy of the season; Ballabio, this time, sat out the race with a mystery illness after qualifying. In a reversal of fortune at Misano, Ballabio scored his first points of the season with fifth place – not just his first points with AGS, as he’d never looked likely to score while at Merzario. Streiff retired with engine failure, but it would be his last retirement of the season as he and the team rallied for the last three rounds. Second place at Enna-Pergusa, getting the better of Thackwell this time, and two third places at Zolder and Mugello saw three more pieces of silverware in the AGS trophy cabinet, and Streiff’s best championship finish in F2, fourth place with 25 points. Ballabio even managed to get another points-scoring sixth place at Mugello to finish 17th overall with three points, all scored in an unmodified JH19 chassis, where Streiff had the uprated JH19B all season. Ballabio, something of a journeyman, didn’t disgrace himself but did not stay in F2 for the next season, going on to found Monte Carlo Automobile, Monaco’s first – and only – supercar manufacturer.
AGS retained Philippe Streiff to contest the 1984 F2 season with the JH19C, a further revision of the existing model. At least it had been given a new paint job in the patriotic Bleu de France, and featured prominent nationalised sponsorship from Gitanes and Elf, as well as IT firm Blanchet Locatop – so the bank balance looked just as good as the car. Silverstone was once again the first port of call, and Streiff lasted only 12 laps before the engine gave up. Fortunately, he had a better race in the Jim Clark Trophy at Hockenheim, bringing the JH19C home in fifth; he had a team-mate of sorts for this race, the Teutonically-named Frenchman, Hans-Peter Pandur, whose Team JPL had hired the unmodified JH19. Low oil pressure finished his race after six laps and he was not seen again for the season. Back in Britain for the Jochen Rindt Trophy at Thruxton, Streiff scored his first podium of the season – third place, behind who else but the near-unstoppable Ralt-Hondas, continuing where they’d left off at the end of 1983. Two identical engine retirements weren’t what Streiff or AGS wanted or needed at the Italian rounds, completing 46 of the 65 laps at the Rome Grand Prix and then falling three laps short at Mugello, for an 11th place classified finish. Pau was far better, though, as Streiff managed to split the Ralts to finish second, with Mike Thackwell winning and his team-mate, Roberto Moreno, in third. We will absolutely not be hearing from him ever again, oh no.
A second visit to Hockenheim for 1984 saw Streiff record his fourth engine-related retirement of the season, but what might have been an even more galling sight was that of his former underwhelming team-mate, Pascal Fabre, taking advantage of the Ralts’ horror show to score his first win in F2, driving a March-BMW for PMC Motorsport. Streiff, of course, had yet to stand on the top step in this category. If his two-year-old machinery was what was slowing him down, he was determined not to show it and took second place at Misano, though like Fabre’s win, this was helped by Moreno’s Ralt running into trouble. He had another team-mate for this race in Stefano Livio, who’d driven the first seven races for Merzario and was handed the old JH19 for an 11th place finish; there is evidence that he intended to continue for at least one more race, but this was his only appearance for AGS. Back to a single car, Streiff found a new way to retire at Enna-Pergusa, where problems with the clutch and gearbox sent him into an unrecoverable spin. A seventh place finish at Donington also yielded no points, but for the last round of the season, the Daily Mail Trophy at Brands Hatch, fortune finally smiled on Streiff, Julien, Vanderpleyn and company for all their efforts. A stereotypically British stormcloud deposited its contents so liberally all over Kent, that it required the race to be stopped until the rain eased, and the results were aggregated from two halves. Moreno was in the lead after the first 30-lap segment but hit trouble at the restart, and it was Streiff who ultimately triumphed. So confident had the organisers been of a Ralt victory that they didn’t have La Marseillaise to hand for the podium celebration, but it’s likely that the team sang it loudly and boisterously anyway between gulps of champagne. AGS had their third victory in the second tier, Streiff had his first, and he had also equalled his fourth position in the championship from the year before, with 27 points on the board.
However, this was the end of an era. Interest in F2 had declined, with depleting entry lists, and the hatchet job that Ralt and Honda had done on the competition over the last season and a half hadn’t helped, so for 1985, F2 was replaced by a new category, Formula 3000 – designed to be a lower-cost second-tier series where F1’s venerable old 3.0-litre V8 Cosworth DFV engines, and even some obsolete F1 chassis, could continue to compete for honours. The JH19C could soldier on no longer; a new set of rules required a new car, and AGS designed the JH20, still painted in the same shade of blue and covered in French sponsors, but shorn of the long, slabby sidepods and slightly crenulated nose of its predecessor, and no longer featuring the zeppelin-shaped air intake that was prevalent on all the four-cylinder F2 cars (as well as F3 until 2018). Attractive, it was; fast… the jury was still out. Some of the old F2 races had been retained, and the opening two races were very familiar: the International Trophy at Silverstone and the Jochen Rindt Trophy at Thruxton. AGS’ two crossings of the Channel were as fruitless as a vineyard in the Atacama Desert, as Streiff retired from both races with worrying breakages on the new car – the suspension at Silverstone and the brakes at Thruxton. He recorded his first finish of the season at the new Estoril round, but it was only tenth, and he was two laps adrift of the winner. Two further prestigious events from the F2 days followed, bringing some success, and points; Streiff finished fifth at the Rome Grand Prix and repeated that performance at Pau, even if he had to drop a lap there. Spa was a disappointment, though, as a second suspension failure threw him out of the race after only four laps. Another new venue for F3000, Dijon, was a second chance to shine on home ground, but all Streiff could manage here was ninth, a lap down. The Mediterranean Grand Prix continued as it had done before at Enna-Pergusa, where Streiff’s chances of a decent result were abruptly cut off after six laps due to a collision with Juan Manuel Fangio II, who wasn’t quite in the same league as his much more famous uncle.
As had been the case in previous years, though, the team picked up the pace for the last few rounds of the season and rescued themselves from a potentially pitiful position. Fifth place at the new Österreichring round was a decent return for Streiff’s efforts, but a return to Zandvoort, the site of Richard Dallest’s victory the last time F2 visited in 1980, saw AGS take another trophy as Streiff finished third. The eleventh and final round at Donington brought another fifth place. Streiff finished the season in eighth place in the championship with 12 points, eight of which had been scored in those last three rounds; overall, this was a much lower return than could have been expected. With the highly variable entry lists for each race for this first season of F3000, only seven drivers had competed in every race in 1985 – and Streiff was the last placed of those. Robbed of the Honda engine by the new regulations, Ralt were no longer the juggernaut they had been in the last years of F2, hence the clout of March had once again made itself felt, churning out chassis after chassis to around two thirds of the season’s total entries.
Surely it would be a better bet for AGS to compete in a series in which every team had to build their own chassis… right?
1986: Preparation for The Big Time
1986 was the year AGS would take their first steps on motorsport’s grandest stage – but they were going to have to spend some time properly preparing for it. For this reason, the team barely raced for most of the year; they gave up their place in F3000 and sold the two JH20 chassis to Équipe Danielson. This was a small team of privateers – exactly the kind who Henri Julien had sought as a customer team for his cars, and they had competed against AGS in Formule Renault Europe in 1976, running a Lola T410 rather than the near-ubiquitous Martini MK18, so it could be said they had experience of going against the grain. Danielson ran the JH20s on an occasional basis, giving one of them a few in-house updates – modified sidepods and a more substantial engine cover – but the increased bodywork area was never covered with any sponsors. Richard Dallest, who’d scored AGS’ first-ever win as a constructor at Pau in 1980, returned to motorsport after two years away, and – at the scene of that famous victory – dragged the updated JH20B to fourth place at his first attempt. His other three races were less successful – a 13th place at Spa, non-qualification at Imola and, after a four-race break, a final throttle-induced retirement at Le Mans’ Bugatti Circuit. Le Mans saw Danielson also field Alain Ferté in the unmodified JH20; he was eliminated on the second lap in an incident with five other drivers. Ferté took the JH20B for the season closer at Jarama, and a wheel hub failure saw him retire after nine laps. It was a disappointing end for Henri Julien’s second-tier cars, but he had bigger fish to fry.
There was the small matter of sponsorship and team management to sort out. The state-owned tobacco firm, Gitanes, had sponsored AGS for the last two seasons in the second division, but in F1 were indelibly linked with Ligier, effectively the French national F1 team. Instead, help came from Italy in the form of Mario Angiolini’s Jolly Club, who were mostly associated with rallying and had achieved success running various Lancias and the Fiat 131 Abarth. They would sort out the commercial side of the operation; Julien, Vanderpleyn, Silani and the others could concentrate on building the car. From this arrangement, AGS secured sponsorship from the Italian clothing company, El Charro (which, in some quarters, is erroneously thought to be Mexican, mainly due to the name) – and an equally Italian powerplant. Unfortunately, this was not a Ferrari engine – an expensive pipe dream at this stage – or even the Alfa Romeo used by Osella. 1986 was, really, the worst possible season for AGS to choose to launch their F1 adventure, as it was the only year to date when normally aspirated engines were banned from F1, forcing even the smallest teams to use turbocharged engines – and the only option available was Carlo Chiti’s anaemic Motori Moderni V6, as used by Minardi. Still, Chiti had been looking for a willing customer, and all AGS had to do was ferry a well-used engine from Faenza to Gonfaron, bolt it into their new chassis and they were good to go.
AGS’ first F1 car, dubbed the JH21C, first appeared at the nearby Paul Ricard circuit on 12th August 1986. It looked bulky and bulbous – and if anyone had been so uncomplimentary as to describe it as being cobbled together by men in a shed from pieces of an older F1 car that had been found in a skip, then they were certainly correct on the first point, and not entirely wrong on the second. If anything, this was something of a repeat performance of the JH4 of 1969. The Renault F1 team’s eight-and-a-half-season adventure had been shut down at the end of 1985, and they were selling off their old equipment. Julien pounced like a French Del Boy, but sources vary on what Renault parts he actually bought. Some accounts of AGS’ transition to F1 say that the JH21C was built from bits and pieces of the 1985 RE60, the car that convinced Renault that running their factory squad was no longer worth the expense for the diminishing returns; two third places courtesy of Patrick Tambay was the best that car managed. Other sources say Julien couldn’t afford the last model and had to make do with the older and cheaper RE40. This car, though, could – and should – have carried Alain Prost and Renault to both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in 1983, and was good for four wins at Prost’s hands and seven further podiums, four of which were scored by Eddie Cheever. What was the better choice – the older and more successful car, or the later but slower car? Either way, whatever Julien chose, his new Frankenstein’s Monster of a car was always going to be hamstrung by that engine.
Ivan Capelli, who was romping his way through F3000 that year, was signed to drive the JH21C in whatever races it could be entered for, but on the day of the test he was otherwise engaged with the upcoming Österreichring race meeting (which he would win) – and Julien needed an alternative driver. Richard Dallest was probably still in his address book, but he was 35 years old by now and was in the twilight of his motorsport career (and he would retire after a few F3 races in 1987). Another favourite from the F2 days, Philippe Streiff, had already graduated to F1 and had driven two races for two teams before the end of the 1985 F3000 season; he was now contracted to Tyrrell, his third F1 team. Help came once again from François Guerre-Berthelot, who was a good friend of former F1 winner Didier Pironi, whose legs had now fully recovered from the shocking crash that prematurely ended his attempt to be World Champion in 1982. He’d been thinking of a possible comeback, and Guerre-Berthelot talked him into taking the AGS test as the first step on that ladder. 70 laps of one of Paul Ricard’s short track layouts later, the car had its shakedown, Pironi finally had some time in an F1 car after four years away, and everyone left happy. A week later, during some F3000 downtime, Capelli got his hands on the JH21C, only for the asthmatic engine to let him down…
But despite the setback (and presumably a frantic call to Carlo Chiti), AGS appeared in an F1 garage for the first time on 5th September 1986, the Friday of the Italian Grand Prix – entered under the Italian name of Jolly Club SpA, but with a French racing licence. Monza was probably not the ideal venue for an overweight, possibly-three-year-old car equipped with the worst excuse for a turbo engine since Brian Hart’s faltering 1981 effort. 27 cars were on the entry list – but, fortunately for the new boys, all 27 would be allowed to start. In the end, that temporary rule change made no difference – Capelli qualified 25th, 2.9 seconds behind Huub Rothengatter’s Zakspeed, but well ahead of both Alfa Romeo-powered Osellas, 2.5 seconds clear of Piercarlo Ghinzani and 4.6 seconds clear of debutant Alex Caffi. In the race, Capelli dutifully trundled around at the back of the field, before a puncture forced him to retire after 31 laps, rather than the more likely scenario of the Motori Moderni engine failing. Nevertheless, it was a start… if not a finish – unlike Caffi, who would have normally been hit with a DNQ but took the Osella to the chequered flag, albeit slowly enough to be not classified.
Two weeks later at Estoril, 27 cars turned up for the Portuguese Grand Prix and again, 27 cars were allowed to start, thus easing any nerves in the battle of the backmarkers which AGS would once again be part of. Capelli again qualified 25th, though this time, Ghinzani got the better of him, albeit by only 0.4 seconds; Rothengatter was a little over a tenth behind and Allen Berg, restored to the second Osella, was 2.7 seconds further adrift. However, Capelli’s race didn’t last long – his gearbox broke after only six laps. And again, annoyingly for AGS and the other backmarkers, it was the driver who should not even have made the race who finished it – Berg was classified, seven laps down.
The AGS adventure for 1986 was all over after two races, as at this early stage the team opted to drop the far-flung races in Japan and Australia and prepare for 1987. But to conclude the 1986 season: what was the truth about the JH21C? What were its real origins? Evidence lies in the Manoir de l’Automobile, at Lohéac in Brittany, the current resting place of the sole JH21C, three decades after its appearances in F1. It is exhibited right next to an RE60B, the updated Renault used in the second (and less successful) half of the 1985 season, and the similarities are obvious; the air intakes on the sidepods, the front and rear wings, the suspension mountings and the nosecone (which was revised from the flat-ended RE60) are all the same shape. Maybe the conflicting sources can be resolved after all; was it possible to bolt the Motori Moderni engine into the RE40 monocoque, then clothe it in modified RE60B bodywork to create the JH21C? The chances are, only the mechanics will ever know for certain.
The saga continues in Partie G: Gonfaron au Niveau Plus Haut.
A comprehensive list of sources for all three parts of this article can be found on the Grand Prix Rejects forum.
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