1987: We all live in a red and white striped submarine
If 1986 had been a brief dip in the paddling pool, then in 1987 it was time for AGS to climb onto the Olympic diving board, take the plunge and hope for the best in a full 16-race season where all the odds were stacked against them. At their two race meetings in 1986, rumours flew around the paddock that AGS had a mere seven staff – and those rumours had some merit. Those seven were: overlord Henri Julien, designer and engineer Christian Vanderpleyn, chief mechanic Jean Silani, his subordinates Gérard Moreau, Philippe Leloup and Christian Martel, and PR guru Frédéric Dhainaut. Sure, there was a pit crew to consider, as well as the not entirely insignificant matter of a driver, but never let facts get in the way of a good story…
The 1987 season eased one of AGS’ major problems. Normally aspirated engines were once again allowed, this time with a capacity of 3.5 litres, so the hopeless Motori Moderni turbo was dumped in the skip it had been taken from and replaced with a Cosworth DFZ, the enlarged version of the venerable DFV. The new chassis wasn’t really new at all – with a bit of freelance help from Michel Costa, the team revised the JH21C into the JH22, which had a less hunchbacked engine cover and new sidepods that tapered smoothly to the rear of the car, and also didn’t need the sidepod-mounted air intakes common to the turbocharged cars of that era; the vents for the radiators, though, resembled the serrated pattern of a washboard. Both visually and under the bodywork, the JH22 was still as bloated as its predecessor.
Jolly Club had retreated back to Italy but the main sponsor had stayed on, so for this season the team officially entered as Team El Charro AGS, and traded the number 31 for 14. To an outsider this may have looked like an upgrade, but F1’s notorious case of triskaidekaphobia meant this number was mostly reserved for one-car teams, usually a harbinger of red ink on the balance sheet. Ask a moribund BRM, Interscope, Fittipaldi, Ensign, ATS and Zakspeed how it worked out for them. Ivan Capelli had jumped ship to the reconstituted March team, back after a four-year hiatus, so Julien turned to one of his old F2 drivers to wrestle the unwieldy JH22 around the season’s 16 tracks. Unfortunately, it was not Philippe Streiff, who was still contracted to Tyrrell – it was his 1982 team-mate, Pascal Fabre, who had delivered rather less in the way of good results. But he was available, and better still, he was French.
Talking of Tyrrell, they were the only team to contest the 1987 season with the style of overhead airbox that would become universal by mid-1990, a restrained but efficient version of the gigantic chimneys that had been banned in early 1976. AGS initially arrived at the season opener in Rio de Janeiro with only the standard slots cut into the engine cover, but by the time qualifying started, the team had decided they too needed some way to shove the air forcibly towards the engine. Unfortunately for anyone uncursed by blindness, this was a hideous periscope-shaped device with a rectangular opening that further compromised the already aesthetically-challenged JH22, and would not have looked out of place on an early 1970s Lotus 72. Not that the JH22 could ever have hoped to emulate that car’s success, though; Fabre stuck it in 22nd place on the 23-car grid, with 21st placed Alex Caffi, now signed for a full season at Osella, a second ahead of him – and with a yawning chasm of 13.6 seconds to Nigel Mansell’s pole time. Capelli, at his new team, qualified last, 3.8 seconds behind Fabre, but was in a converted F3000 chassis, and never started due to a lack of available engines. In the race – in that it ever could have been described as a race for AGS – Fabre did at least bring the car home in 12th place, six laps adrift of Alain Prost and even two laps behind Streiff in 11th.
Thus was the precedent set for the season.
The F1 circus moved to Imola, and the entry list grew to 27 as the new Larrousse team arrived with their solitary Lola-built car, Ligier sorted their engine deal out, and Osella entered a second car for debutant Gabriele Tarquini. We will absolutely not be hearing from him ever again, oh no. Fabre qualified 26th, 10.3 seconds off pole but still a whopping 7.3 seconds ahead of Tarquini, who was still allowed to start due to the enforced withdrawal of Nelson Piquet, who’d crashed heavily in first qualifying. Whether or not Osella were really trying with Tarquini’s car, at least this meant Fabre had someone to race against – along with Minardi’s Adrián Campos – until Tarquini and Campos retired on laps 26 and 30 respectively, both with gearbox trouble. Fabre trundled on to the chequered flag, in 13th place, six laps down, and classified behind Warwick and Caffi who had both run out of fuel. Spa was more of the same, in qualifying at least – Fabre was again not quite last, this time beating Caffi in the once-more-solitary Osella by 4.7 seconds but still a massive 15.3 seconds away from the pole time. In the race, he failed to finish for the first time, the car’s electrical system packing up after 38 laps. This was still just far enough to be classified as a finisher, in 10th place.
At Monaco, the JH22 was given a makeover – and not necessarily a good one. The car’s sidepods were now festooned with red stripes that joined in a V-shape on the nose. Striking, it was, pretty, it was not – but if it helped AGS to be noticed on TV every time Fabre was lapped, then there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And the chances are, it worked – qualifying slowest of all for the first time in the season, Fabre saw race winner Nigel Mansell lap him seven times, on the way to another race finish, this time in 13th place.
The trans-Atlantic trip to the smashed city of Detroit didn’t yield much to shout about – Fabre was dead last on the grid again, 3.1 seconds behind the nearest challenger (Campos, this time), and threw the car into the unforgiving concrete wall in Sunday warm-up; but though he bent it, the mechanics mended it and Fabre was cleared to start the race. He finished, again, five laps down, and two laps behind Jonathan Palmer in the normally aspirated Tyrrell. The next race was at home – properly at home for AGS, for of the three French teams, they were based closest to the Paul Ricard circuit, where the JH21C had first been unveiled and tested less than a year earlier. It made little difference, as even round the recently-shortened circuit with only half the Mistral straight, Fabre still qualified 26th and last on the grid, 8.2 seconds off pole. If it was any consolation, the five normally aspirated cars occupied the last five places on the grid – Capelli in the March, Alliot in the Larrousse, Palmer and Streiff in the Tyrrells, and Fabre. But as was common by now, turbo car after turbo car (plus Capelli and Alliot) steadily dropped out, and by the end of the race, Fabre had once again finished – in ninth place, six laps down, and classified behind two cars who had retired late in the race, but it was his and AGS’ best result to date; no doubt the wine flowed freely back at Garage de l’Avenir afterwards.
Silverstone, in its pre-1991 configuration that prioritised horsepower above all else, saw the same scenario as Paul Ricard – the normally aspirated cars in the final five grid places, all well adrift of every turbo car except Caffi’s Osella. But something was different about the JH22; the sidepods had been revised, trading the washboard style of radiator vent for a conventional huge gap – and the periscope airbox was finally confined to the spare parts bin, traded for a flat, but still effective design akin to those seen on some of the early 1980s Cosworth-powered cars – and which didn’t obscure El Charro’s Futura Black logo on the rear wing. If it did the car any good, it didn’t show, as Fabre qualified last again, 1.5 seconds behind Capelli, and he was left to drone around at the back of the field, joined only by those cars who had hit trouble – Alessandro Nannini in the Minardi, and Martin Brundle in the Zakspeed. But once again, Fabre brought his car to the finish; again, he was ninth. And at this stage of the season, he was the only driver to have scored seven classified finishes out of seven (despite Spa), a record which not even the mighty Williams, McLaren or Ferrari could boast.
This was, in a way, good news for AGS. Choosing the Cosworth DFZ ahead of the Motori Moderni turbo saw them entered for the two subsidiary championships for normally aspirated cars that would only exist for the 1987 season. Just by virtue of scoring these seven classified finishes, Pascal Fabre was second in the Jim Clark Cup for drivers with 32 points (five third places and two second places), with AGS also second in the Colin Chapman Cup for constructors – obviously also with 32 points. With two cars, Tyrrell were devouring the competition in the Colin Chapman Cup, with Jonathan Palmer leading the Jim Clark Cup with 42 points. Any improvement in the AGS, or a deterioration in the reliability of the Tyrrell, could – possibly, if improbably – have turned the tide towards the tiny team from Gonfaron…
Of course, it wasn’t to last. Hockenheim, another power circuit, would have seen the normally aspirated cars occupy the final five places had it not been for Caffi’s Osella limping to a time 25 seconds off the pace. Fabre started 25th, last of the five, but in the race his string of classified finishes was finally broken. Maybe because of the strain of the flat-out thrash in the German forest coming straight after Silverstone, the Cosworth engine screamed enough after 10 laps. But two weeks later, with a fresh engine installed – or at least one not quite as wrecked – the Hungaroring offered a less vicious test for the underpowered normally aspirated cars. Even so, Fabre once again qualified last, 1.6 seconds behind Piercarlo Ghinzani in the Megatron-powered Ligier, and 9.6 seconds away from pole. The less strenuous race saw him finish once more, five laps down, two laps behind Ghinzani, but ahead of Nigel Mansell who’d watched one of his wheels work itself loose. Palmer, Streiff and Capelli all finished ahead of Fabre – and thus he became the first (and only) driver ever to score three points for fourth place in the Jim Clark Cup.
The Österreichring was another circuit where power was paramount. As if to ram this point home, all the Cosworth-powered cars were more than ten seconds away from Nelson Piquet’s pole time, and once again Fabre was last of them all, 17.2 seconds slower than Piquet and even 5.3 seconds behind 25th-placed Streiff. For those looking for a comparison to the present day, only 14 cars were within 107% of pole, and Fabre’s time was 120.7%. But, these were the days of 26-car grids, and Fabre started anyway. He probably wished he hadn’t bothered. This was known as “the race of three starts”, and it was at the second of these that Fabre was involved in a multi-car pile-up – sparked, amazingly, by a slow-starting Mansell. If there was anything AGS didn’t need, it was a heavily damaged car and a huge repair bill – but he probably came off the least worst of the backmarkers as he was parked at a jaunty angle on top of Capelli’s rather more wrecked March. AGS had one spare car, sporting the periscope airbox which would be seen for the last time ever – which Fabre took for the third start. But, as if the universe was dealing him and his team revenge for Spa, finishing seven laps down in a 52-lap race saw him not classified – hence no points in the Jim Clark and Colin Chapman Cups!
Then came Monza, where the combination of Pascal Fabre and the AGS JH22 would finally be called to account for their sluggardliness. Getting the car to the finish was all very well, but this was provided Fabre could even start the race in the first place. Since Spa, only 26 cars had entered each race meeting, thus guaranteeing a slot on the grid for all of them. At Monza, the entry list increased to 28 cars, courtesy of two Italian teams: Osella ran a second car for Swiss driver Franco Forini – and Coloni, with five years’ experience in F3 and F3000, launched their tentative F1 adventure on home soil with Nicola Larini driving. Both drivers were debutants, one was in a car that had barely had a shakedown – and both dumped Pascal Fabre and AGS to the bottom of the timesheets for his, and the team’s, first DNQ in F1. Forini was the lucky driver to make it into the race, 1.9 seconds ahead of Larini, who didn’t – but Larini was still almost a second clear of Fabre. Back to Gonfaron went the team, tails between legs – and the same happened at Estoril two weeks later. Coloni didn’t compete this time, but 27 cars on the entry list meant one would not qualify, and again that was Fabre, beaten to the final grid slot by Forini. It was close – only 0.3 seconds – but no cigar for AGS.
For the last European round at Jerez, the entry list was back up to 28 cars, with Coloni returning for a second attempt at a race. This time, both Fabre and Larini exacted revenge on the Osellas, who were sent packing back to Turin on the Saturday afternoon. It was close; Fabre was 0.3 seconds ahead of Larini, who in turn beat Caffi by under a tenth; Forini, this time, was nowhere. On race day, any amusement gained by having someone to race against evaporated when Larini’s suspension broke after eight laps. Two laps later, Fabre’s clutch failed and he was out as well. Coloni dropped out again to focus on getting their 1988 car ready for a full season, as AGS had done a year before, and Osella discarded their second car. However, Larrousse, who were more competitive than Osella, fielded a second car for the first time, in the hands of Yannick Dalmas. We will absolutely not be hearing from him ever again, oh no. 27 cars entered the Mexican Grand Prix, one of them would have a trip across the Atlantic completely wasted, and Henri Julien, Pascal Fabre and the rest of the AGS crew must have feared it would be them. They were, unfortunately, right. New boy Dalmas obligingly beat his team-mate, while Caffi just scraped onto the grid in the sole Osella, leaving Fabre, a second behind him, out in the cold for the third time that season.
Time ran out for the reliable, but slow, French driver. Earlier in the season, PR man Frédéric Dhainaut had been to the Pau Grand Prix, scene of some of AGS’ greatest races in F2. There, he had been impressed by Roberto Moreno, who had previously attempted F1 once, failing to qualify on a one-off appearance for Lotus in 1982, substituting for Nigel Mansell. Since then he’d been sharpening his skills in F2, IndyCar and F3000. Moreno could have joined AGS in time for the Mexican Grand Prix, but with the normally aspirated cars choked by the altitude, more than likely figured it wasn’t worth it. But at Suzuka, he was handed the JH22 for the first time… and failed to qualify, half a second behind Streiff in the Tyrrell. Fortune briefly smiled on AGS, as it did not on Nigel Mansell; his huge crash in qualifying put him out of the race (and the World Championship), thus Moreno was invited to make up the numbers, officially promoted to 26th place. Electrical gremlins sidelined the car after 38 laps, but that was 38 laps more than he’d expected to cover.
While everyone at AGS must have been ready to conclude that it was more the car that was at fault than Pascal Fabre, for the season closer in Australia, Moreno beat the turbocharged cars of Campos and Caffi in a straight fight, qualified 25th and gave them one last ray of hope. The Adelaide street circuit had a habit of breaking car after car, year after year, and the 1987 race was no different. Eight cars of the 26 reached the finish line – and Moreno was one of them, but agonisingly, had finished seventh. It was the team’s best result, but was so near, and yet so far, from their first point. Until, that was, the scrutineers took a look at Senna’s brake ducts, after he’d finished second in his final race for Lotus. They didn’t like what they saw, threw him out of the race and moved all the other finishers up one place in the official classification. So, at just beyond the 11th hour, Roberto Moreno scored the first point for AGS, and suddenly the ugly, stripy, bulky JH22 was beautiful and elegant in the eyes of the team’s few staff. As a bonus, that point promoted AGS to 12th in the Constructors’ Championship, ahead of March who had also scored one point, but had only one ninth place to AGS’ two – which meant the much-maligned Pascal Fabre’s efforts earlier in the season had helped earn that place. Furthermore, being in the top 13 teams for that season guaranteed that FOCA would pay the team’s transport expenses for 1988 – a bonus denied to Minardi, Osella and Coloni.
The chances are, no sooner had the plane touched down from their sojourn Down Under than they were all brought down to earth again with a bumpy landing that even a Ryanair pilot would consider rough. Despite having their logo plastered all over a car that had been guaranteed to be seen on TV every time Mansell, Piquet, Senna or the other frontrunners went hurtling past (at least in 13 of the 16 races), El Charro pulled the plug on their sponsorship. If the eyes of the team and those of TV viewers worldwide were to be spared the garish livery from now on, it was a different story for Henri Julien’s wallet. What F1 gives with one hand, it inevitably takes with the other.
1988: Orange car not so bad
AGS had a few issues to sort out over the 1987-88 close season – they desperately needed a new car, a new sponsor, and – ultimately – a new driver. With El Charro no longer on board, Henri Julien tried to obtain financial support from the government, but French nationalism demanded a French driver, and Roberto Moreno was not. Hence, Julien turned to his most regularly successful driver from F2, Philippe Streiff, who had been released by Tyrrell after two seasons and replaced by Julian Bailey (great move, Ken!) Sponsorship came from the French civil engineering company, Bouygues – who, interestingly, had recently moved into telecommunications and bought a 25% stake in TF1 – the TV channel with the rights to broadcast F1 in France.
As for the car, the all-new JH23 was the spearhead of AGS’ upcoming second full season. Even in its plain white testing livery, it was a much more elegant design than its predecessor, with a narrower nose, lower sidepods, and some rounding off of the harsh, sharp edges around the engine cover. Christian Vanderpleyn and Michel Costa trimmed every ounce of fat that they could from the chassis. There was, however, one noticeable retrograde step. Whereas other teams running normally aspirated engines – initially, Williams and March – joined Tyrrell in adopting the overhead airbox, AGS were one of the teams who chose to omit this design completely and leave the air intakes fed passively, which had only been the case with the JH22 very early in its life. As the engine cover was lower than on the JH22, this meant the JH23 was left with a worryingly exposed and very flimsy-looking roll bar, bolted to the top of the chassis body. Never mind that other cars from better-funded teams – such as the Arrows A10 (designed by no less a genius than Ross Brawn) – would be racing with a similarly precarious design, this is a detail which would absolutely not come back to bite AGS, or particularly one of their drivers, in any way in the future. Oh no.
One potential fly in AGS’ glass of red wine was the expanding entry list. Brabham ducked out of F1 for a year to regroup, but Larrousse and March had both increased to two cars, Coloni had joined for a full season, and there were four further new entries, two from EuroBrun, and one each from Scuderia Italia and Rial. 31 cars into 26 grid slots meant five would be missing out every race, and one of the new cars (which included Coloni) would be eliminated after first practice. AGS didn’t have to fret about this pre-qualifying routine, as it was known, though if they’d been forced to use the old JH22 for another season, then they may as well not have bothered turning up…
The JH23 ran competitively for the first time at the season opener in Rio de Janeiro, with its white livery enhanced by some orange ovals, courtesy of Bouygues. Hope sprang eternal from first practice as Streiff placed 23rd, which improved to 19th in qualifying proper – the best performance from AGS to date. The race was a different story, as Streiff dropped to the back within a few laps, and was scrapping with Tarquini, now driving for Coloni, before his brakes failed after 35 laps – not something that had ever happened to the JH22.
At Imola, the JH23 showed off its new livery – a very dark blue, which looks black in the vast majority of pictures, with some orange panels, no doubt at the behest of Bouygues. Looking as distinctive as its predecessor but a lot easier on the eye, Streiff qualified the newly-painted car deep in the midfield, in 13th place. His eventual reward was a tenth place finish out of the 18 classified finishers, two laps down, but ahead of Riccardo Patrese in the Williams-Judd, and a whole lap ahead of Campos and Alliot, still with Minardi and Larrousse but both now Cosworth-powered. Around the streets of Monaco, where power deficits to the soon-to-be-outlawed turbos mattered less, Streiff went one place better than Imola and qualified 12th – counting Thierry Boutsen, in the Benetton with the superior Cosworth DFR engine, amongst those he had beaten. Any joy amongst the team from just down the road would be short-lived, as a throttle control rod broke on the formation lap, and sidelined Streiff before the race had started – at an event where a points finish was a realistic target! Worse still, the next race was at high-altitude Mexico City, where the turbo cars would be expected to hand out one final pants-down thrashing to their normally aspirated subordinates. As if to hammer that home, the underperforming Satoru Nakajima, who had failed to qualify at Monaco in the powerful Lotus-Honda, took sixth place on the grid, and the only turbo car to be eliminated was Larini’s FA1L-ing Osella. Streiff knuckled down and dragged the JH23 to 19th place on the grid, followed by a respectable performance in the midfield ahead of… well, one turbo car, the Zakspeed of Piercarlo Ghinzani. He finished 12th in the end, of 16 classified finishers, four laps down.
Then came Canada. Whatever Streiff and the AGS team had for lunch on the Friday must have worked wonders. Following a 13th place in first practice, Streiff then put the JH23 into sixth in second practice, within sight of the all-conquering McLaren-Hondas – a little over a second behind Prost, and within a second of Senna. Proving this was no fluke, Streiff’s superb performance continued and he qualified 10th, splitting the Williams-Judds, and with Nakajima in the second turbo Lotus two places further back. In the race, Streiff found himself fighting for position with the other Lotus, that of the reigning World Champion, Nelson Piquet. TV audiences all over the world watched the basic Cosworth-powered car from the tiny garage in southern France swarm all over the back of the Lotus, clearly faster in the corners, but the power of the Honda turbo engine resisted on the straights. And all this was for fourth place! Streiff, though, let his exuberance get the better of him and was soon seen limping back to the pits with his front right wheel waving up in the air, and the suspension bent out of shape, after a brush with the wall. Piquet cruised home to pick up that fourth place, while Streiff, whose team would have been ecstatic with two points, scored nothing.
Nevertheless, the F1 circus moved onto its final visit to Detroit, another street circuit with unforgiving concrete walls. With the advantage of the turbos severely reduced, it was potential cash-in time for the normally aspirated cars – and Streiff once again set about qualifying well, this time putting the car in 11th place. Three places ahead of him was Nelson Piquet, who faltered at the start and the two combatants from Montreal locked horns again. This time, Streiff made a decisive move on the three-time World Champion – but as before, it couldn’t last. Having further overcome another turbo car, the Arrows-Megatron of Derek Warwick, Streiff again bashed the wall, this time breaking his rear suspension, putting him out of seventh place after 15 laps. Whether he could have gone on to score points in the 63-lap race when he’d only covered a quarter of the distance is pure conjecture, but had he stayed where he was with the two Williams cars both retiring in front of him, that would have been fifth place and two points…
The next few circuits were unlikely to suit the lower-powered normally aspirated cars, but even so, Streiff still put in some respectable qualifying performances – 14th at the team’s home race at Paul Ricard, and 16th at Silverstone, where his car was even more disadvantaged. Between those two races, he managed to complete rather less than a race distance – only 20 out of the 80 shortened laps at Paul Ricard, where a fuel leak scuppered his day, and a mere eight at Silverstone, where the sight of his rear wing hanging backwards at an unwanted angle spelled disaster. This was unseen on TV; examining the lap charts, Yannick Dalmas was running less than a second behind Streiff – but didn’t have to visit the pits, which implies he didn’t need a new nosecone, didn’t hit Streiff from behind, and the AGS’ rear wing is more likely to have collapsed of its own accord.
This should have been quite worrying for AGS. The JH22, and Pascal Fabre, had been miserably slow, but reliable. The JH23, and Philippe Streiff, could have had five points if all the cards had fallen their way, but were sitting on a blank scoresheet with only two finishes, four mechanical failures on the car, and two crashes on Streiff’s part. At this midway point of the season, the FIA reassessed the teams required to pre-qualify – and if ever there was a case to be made for the team to send anyone the finest wines available to humanity (or as fine as their budget would allow), here it was, and the recipient was to be Roberto Moreno, keeping himself busy by winning in F3000. AGS were lying in 16th place at this point, ahead of only EuroBrun and Zakspeed. However, the results which determined the teams required to pre-qualify from this point onwards, also took into account the results from the second half of the 1987 season. Hence, it was Moreno’s point in Australia that rescued AGS from pre-qualifying, as the team’s next best result was Streiff’s 10th place at Imola, and that would not have been enough.
The team soldiered onto Hockenheim, a third circuit in succession where they would be mercilessly swallowed up by the turbos. This time, the race weekend wasn’t completely terrible as Streiff qualified 16th, still 1.7 seconds away from the danger zone, and the car lasted 38 out of the 44 laps of flat-out, engine-stressing blast through the forest before the throttle broke; Streiff hadn’t been in any position to trouble the points scorers. The Hungaroring should have been another chance to shine – but both Streiff and the AGS mechanics forgot to pack the Brasso (or couldn’t smuggle it through the Iron Curtain). Streiff put the JH23 in 23rd place on the grid, which would have been a cause for celebration the previous year, but not now – this was his worst qualifying performance of the year. In the race, after eight laps, he had to pit for a new nosecone following a tangle with Nakajima. The mechanics obligingly changed the tyres as well, and a few corners later, Streiff was forced to retire as his left front wheel made a valiant bid for freedom, and rolled across the track; Andrea de Cesaris and Philippe Alliot could count themselves lucky not to be hit by it.
With six retirements in succession, so came the exodus in the three-week gap before Spa. Bouygues weren’t happy with the team’s recent performance, even though Streiff had qualified for every race and given their orange oval logo some decent airtime while scrapping with Piquet at Montreal – and all this was being shown, in Bouygues’ home market, on a TV channel that they owned a 25% share in! It would come as no surprise that they withdrew their sponsorship, and some reports suggest that they were rather more enthusiastic about putting their logo on the JH23 than they were to pony up the cash for the privilege of doing so. If this was a severe hit on the team’s finances, then the departure of Christian Vanderpleyn must have been a body blow to Henri Julien. After all those years working together, after all those cars they’d worked on to attempt to take on the big boys in whatever series they were competing in at the time, the Belgian had decided that he would jump out of AGS’ frying pan… and into Coloni’s fire. How Enzo Coloni could have made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to transfer to a team that was still mired in the pre-qualifying battle (and would fail to clear that first hurdle six times in the 1988 season), only those directly involved would know. But he must have been a smooth talker, because Michel Costa and Frédéric Dhainaut defected to the Italian squad around the same time. Fortunately, long-time AGS associate François Guerre-Berthelot, the team’s “handyman” whether in an official capacity or otherwise, stuck around to smooth out the bumps in the road ahead.
The team arrived at Spa, with the JH23 bereft of the Bouygues logo and the orange panel on the nose; the plain ultra-deep-blue car retained only orange text in the number 14 and the smaller sponsors on the sidepods. As with so many backmarkers before and since, AGS would finish the season with a multitude of smaller sponsorship deals. And, having qualified a credible 18th under the circumstances, Streiff kept his head, and the car kept itself in one piece, to score the team’s first finish since Detroit, in 10th place. Monza, another circuit that threw all the aces the way of the turbo cars, was another race weekend to forget, Streiff qualifying 23rd, and seemingly heading inexorably backwards towards the danger zone. But, having made the race, 31 laps of the 51 available was enough to destroy the clutch. Estoril was an improvement, both in qualifying, with 21st place on the grid – and on race day, where Streiff once again brought the car to the chequered flag, in ninth – finally, he had matched former F2 team-mate Pascal Fabre (for AGS at least!), in a considerably better car. He finished two laps down, on the same lap as Arnoux in the Ligier, three laps ahead of Tarquini’s Coloni and five laps ahead of Larini in the Osella FA1L.
Possibly out of sheer bloody-mindedness and to show the F1 world that they were far from beaten, AGS ended the season with more of a flourish than could be expected. Streiff put the car in 13th place on the grid at Jerez, and if this reminded them of better days earlier in the season, he was closer to the pole time than at any stage before, including the amazing effort in Canada. At 2.9 seconds away from Senna, he was even closer to the mighty McLarens than Piquet had been at Imola when qualifying third. Not bad for a team in dire straits, that. It wasn’t to last in the race, as the engine let go after 16 laps, possibly overcome by the excitement of the Saturday. Suzuka wasn’t so great for qualifying, Streiff taking 18th place, but as if to take a leaf out of Pascal Fabre’s book, he carefully guided the car around the formidable circuit to bring it home eighth, staying out of trouble, and maybe hoping to attract the attention of a wealthy Japanese benefactor. And not only was this AGS’ best result of the season, it lifted them into 13th place in the Constructors’ Championship – ahead of Coloni, so AGS could have considered this sweet revenge for the Italians poaching three of their best staff. It would also ensure the FOCA travel money once again if they could avoid being beaten at the last gasp in Australia.
The teams who were behind AGS at this stage were Coloni, Ligier, Osella, EuroBrun and Zakspeed. Osella eliminated themselves from this competition as Larini, relegated to pre-qualifying at the halfway stage, fell at this first hurdle – and Coloni dropped in qualifying proper, as did Bernd Schneider in one Zakspeed. Streiff put the AGS in 16th, and during the race, over the course of 69 laps, Larrauri, Arnoux, Modena and Ghinzani all retired, to leave only Stefan Johansson, driving for Ligier, as the driver who could deprive AGS of their pot of FOCA gold. He was running behind Streiff, but… the JH23’s electrical system packed up after 73 laps. Streiff was a classified finisher, in 11th place, which meant Johansson needed to finish seventh for Ligier to overhaul their French rivals (and it was complicated; one 8th, one 9th, two 10ths, one 11th each, but AGS had a 12th place and Ligier a 13th!) The Ligier spluttered to a halt after 77 laps, out of fuel, was classified ninth and so AGS retained their 13th place in the Constructors’ Championship.
1988 had been a much more competitive season for AGS than their faltering first attempt, qualifying for all 16 races and even troubling the top half of the grid. But ultimately, they hadn’t scored any points – there had been ten retirements, and had Streiff managed to score the four or five points that he’d promised in the two North American rounds, that would have seen them ninth in the Constructors’ Championship, Bouygues may not have walked out mid-season (though who knows how many francs they actually sent to Gonfaron), while Christian Vanderpleyn and his two defectors may not have thought that the grass was greener on Coloni’s side (which, now that Coloni were outside FOCA’s payroll, it probably wasn’t).
But great potential doesn’t translate to success, and the wolves were howling at the doors of Garage de l’Avenir.
The saga concludes in Partie S: Sans Henri, Sans Garage, Sans Avenir…
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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