Motorsport is rarely without an assortment of curious and questionable characters, and that is particularly true of those involved in buying advertising space on these high-speed billboards.
During the British Grand Prix we were all watching, with jaws agape, the incredible spat between the Haas F1 Team and its title sponsor Rich Energy. This certainly isn’t the first such example – nor will it be the last – and we’ve decided to take a look at some of the more fascinating shady sponsors and ‘investors’ who have graced Formula 1’s landscape…
Before we do so, it’s worth acknowledging that everyone – except it seems, the Haas team itself – could predict that its tie-in with Rich Energy was going to end in tears.
Rich Energy’s (now ousted) CEO, William Storey, shared a number of similarities to his sponsor forebears who have appeared with great fanfare and disappeared with an equal measure of disgrace.
Here are some ‘red flags’ that F1 team principals and sponsorship hunters should look out for when a person, or company, comes offering big dollars to put their logos on your car:
- They have crazy hair and/or crazy facial hair
- No one has ever heard of, seen, or bought their product
- The person, their backers, or their investors have questionable connections
- The product or company seeking sponsorship has an unknown or unclear ownership structure
- The sponsorship funds are being borrowed
- The person or their product has no logical or historical ties to motorsport
- The person is from Nigeria (yes, seriously!)
- The person claims to have royal ancestry
- And most obviously: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…
10. Dmitry Mazepin
The jury is still out on this Belarus-born Russian billionaire father of Formula 2 Championship racing driver Nikita Mazepin, who has bankrolled his son’s racing career thanks to his role as the core shareholder and chairman of Uralchem Integrated Chemicals Company (Uralkali) which specialises in mineral fertilisers.
Mazepin Sr. has been implicated in a number of major corporate scandals, including allegations of strong-arming rival outfits, stock market manipulation and making political attack videos against his opponents.
Mazepin Sr. and Uralkali were, along with Rich Energy CEO William Storey, among several parties who made bids to take over ownership of the Force India Formula 1 team when it fell into administration in mid-2018. Perhaps ironically, it was another billionaire father of a racing driver, Lawrence Stroll (father of Lance) who clinched the deal.
Mazepin later openly criticised the bidding process, alleging that he had never been contacted by Force India’s appointed administrators once he had submitted his bid.
9. Ted Ball & David Ashworth
Ball and Ashworth were the directors of Landhurst Leasing, a company that counted Bob Geldof and Terry Venables among its clients. Their company operated as a lucrative luxury car leasing business, either leasing the cars directly to wealthy clients or buying the cars and leasing them back.
Landhurst was financed by a number of banks, led by the Guinness Mahon merchant bank as well as several Swiss and Canadian banks. By the early 1990s, its turnover exceeded £30 million a year, although it continued to rely on loans from its syndicate of merchant banking backers to keep clients afloat after arrears on leases started to build up.
Ball had dreams of becoming a major player in Formula 1, and loaned £1 million to the Japanese Middlebridge Group owned by billionaire Koji Nakauchi to finance its purchase of the Brabham team in 1990. This was itself a breach of Landhurst’s covenants with its banks; Ball and Ashworth falsified the company’s financial records to hide the initial loan they had given to Middlebridge.
A further £7.5 million in loans was financed by Landhurst, but only in exchange for backhand cash payments directly to Ball and Ashworth amounting to almost £500,000.
Landhurst went into administration in 1992 and an investigation by Arthur Andersen found that over £50 million of the £121 million Landhurst owed to its banks was irrecoverable. A further investigation by the Serious Fraud Office led to criminal charges being laid against Ball and Ashworth, who both ultimately pleaded guilty and were given lengthy jail sentences.
The Brabham team, which owed over £6 million to Landhurst, collapsed before the end of the 1992 season.
8. Andrea Sassetti
The slick-haired, sunglasses-wearing Italian earned his fortune as a shoe designer. In 1992 he bought the assets of the failed Coloni team and attempted to enter that year’s World Championship season, later with a three-year-old design study that BMW had commissioned from Simtek when it was considering its own F1 entry.
The car was terrible, but somehow Roberto Moreno managed to get the thing on the grid at Monaco (pictured below), but usually the team regularly failed to pre-qualify and is widely considered to be the most hopeless outfit ever to have graced the F1 paddock.
The team’s second driver McCarthy barely managed a lap in the other car, ostensibly because Sassetti no longer wanted the British driver in the team and regularly stonewalled the Briton’s attempts to escape pre-qualifying. The FIA grew sick of Sassetti’s actions and threatened the team with expulsion if it didn’t make a serious attempt to enter McCarthy’s car – the team sent him out with a damaged steering rack in Belgium as a response.
By now Sassetti was being accused of forging invoices to suppliers and the team was turned away from the gates at Monza before the FIA banned it altogether for bringing the sport into disrepute with its “(failure to operate a) team in a manner compatible with the standards of the championship”.
7. Shannon Group
It was looking increasingly likely that the backmarker Forti Corse outfit would be forced to close its doors before it had seen out its second season of Formula 1 racing. The team’s 1996 budget had taken a major hit with the off-season departure of pay driver Pedro Diniz to Ligier, leaving the Italian team to delay the development and release of its new car.
By the Spanish Grand Prix, a deal had been negotiated for an entity known as Shannon Racing to buy a 51% stake in the team. Shannon Racing – which had sponsored seemingly half of the German Formula 3 Championship grid in 1995 – was an Irish-registered company funded by Italian financiers. It all seemed totally legitimate…
The yellow Forti cars were repainted green in deference to the team’s new owners, but as sure as night follows day the promised money never materialised.
Forti couldn’t pay its engine bills to Cosworth, with the team’s few available engines now running out of mileage. Both cars mysteriously retired from the French Grand Prix with ‘engine troubles’. By the British Grand Prix, one of its driver’s managers had told journalists how many laps each car would complete in practice before pulling off to avoid the risk of a blow-up.
With neither car attempting to qualify at Silverstone, its cars were unassembled and didn’t even run at the next Grand Prix in Germany. Attempts by Forti to wrest back control of his team failed, and he was forced to shut down the operation altogether. A once highly successful feeder series team was consigned to history.
6. The Venezuelan Government
The more cynical readers could rightly argue that almost every national government that has bankrolled a Grand Prix on home soil could theoretically feature on this list, but the headline effort has to go to the Venezuelan government under the controls of long-time socialist dictator Hugo Chávez.
There was a time when Venezuela’s economy boomed as the world’s fifth-largest oil and natural gas exporter. The government-owned PDVSA firm’s logos rapidly began appearing as sponsors of several of the country’s leading racing drivers, most notably IndyCar driver E.J. Viso and Formula 1 graduate Pastor Maldonado.
While he did romp to the 2010 GP2 Series title, Maldonado’s five-year stint in Formula 1 owed far more to the hefty millions being pumped in to the likes of Williams and Lotus’ coffers than his own performances on track. A single race victory was the highlight in a career littered with countless accidents.
Added to that, receiving sponsorship from a government under an increasing cloud of corruption and human rights abuses was not a good look for Formula 1, even by its often questionable associations.
In 2013, Chávez died but the policies he’d enacted caused a financial crisis in Venezuela and its economy to collapse. Despite continued hyperinflation and food shortages, PDVSA still continued its F1 sponsorship until the end of 2015. Without PDVSA’s backing, Maldonado’s colourful F1 career came to an end.
5. David Thieme
Bedecked permanently in square sunglasses, a fedora and goatee, David Thieme was a hard character to miss. After first making his money in executive aircraft interiors, he set up the Essex Overseas Petroleum Corporation in the early 1970s which proved a well-timed move in the oil boom that was to follow.
The company was headquartered in a room of the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo in Monaco, operating as a one-man show and making over $70 million a year in profit according to some sources.
His Essex brand backed factory Porsches at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, and that year its logos also appeared on the Lotus F1 Team’s cars after striking up a friendship with team boss Colin Chapman (who was himself no stranger to shady deals with his later involvement in the De Lorean scandal).
In 1980 Essex became the team’s title sponsor; Thieme went all out with a launch at the Royal Albert Hall and hired Michelin-starred chef Roger Vergé to cook for motorhome guests in an era when corporate hospitality at Grands Prix was in its infancy.
His run came to an end when he was arrested in 1981 at Zurich Airport amid accusations of fraud to the tune of $7.6 million from the Credit Suisse bank. While he was never implicated – it is rumoured that TAG CEO Mansour Ojjeh stumped up his $150,000 bail – the Essex empire collapsed and Thieme vanished from public view.
4. Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim
Malik’s true reasons for immersing himself in Grand Prix racing remain unclear to this day. The Arrows team, which had still not won a race in over 20 years of F1 competition, fronted the 1999 World Championship season announcing it had been partially bought out by a Nigerian prince.
Team principal Tom Walkinshaw had clearly not heard of the Nigerian email scams that had been doing the rounds for years. Malik claimed to be a prince of the Igbira people, privately educated in Britain (no one was entirely sure where) and to have previously contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans (where no such record exists).
Promising an investment of some $125 million which would have transformed the backmarker outfit’s fortunes, Walkinshaw duly accepted Malik’s offer which came with the assistance of a loan from banking giants Morgan Grenfell to buy a minority take in the team.
Malik hired a pricey PR firm and claimed he would raise further funding through the launch of the T-minus brand, which would launch an energy drink (sound familiar?) and sell re-branded products such as clothing, motorcycles and luxury cars. That you have never heard of it will give you an indication of its eventual success…
Malik hadn’t stumped up the funds by the promised September deadline and disappeared from the paddock altogether, with Walkinshaw taking back control of the team. The outfit never returned to truly competitive form and eventually shut its doors midway through the 2002 season.
While Arrows had disappeared, Malik did now. In 2008 he was on trial for stealing money given to help develop the career of a young NASCAR driver – while found not guilty, he couldn’t afford the $35,000 bail to get him out of jail. Two years later he was arrested again over allegations that he had stolen over $200,000 while the co-founder of The Bridge renewable energy firm.
3. ‘Rainer Walldorf’
In mid-1992 a company called Comstock purchased a majority shareholding in the Larrousse F1 team. The key figure in the deal was a man called Rainer Walldorf – a man who actually went by the name of Klaus Walz.
Walz presented himself as a dealer of exotic luxury cars, but the authorities would later conclude that he was actually the mastermind behind a vast international network dealing in stolen supercars as well as a figure implicated in four particularly grisly murders.
The Comstock business plan looked decidedly suspicious, with its ‘investment sponsorship’ scheme projecting it would pay back its investors in full after five years while giving sponsors free exposure in the interim.
News of his misdeeds became apparent just weeks after the deal was announced when the French media reported that Walz’s villa on the Cote d’Azur had been raided by a large group of the gendarme.
The most commonly accepted story goes that before he agreed to his arrest, Walz asked if he might be able to collect something from his study desk. The police agreed, and it turned out that the something he was referring to was a live hand grenade. He proceeded to give the cops the choice of either being blown to smithereens with him, or that they could be handcuffed to the furniture while he made his escape with the chief of police as his hostage.
They voted to be manacled to the woodwork while Walz, his hostage and a suitcase filled with $500,000 in cash took off into the country. He was intercepted by an accomplice, leaving the poor police chief shackled to the getaway car’s steering wheel while Walz threw the grenade into a nearby chicken pen…
Just a month later, he was cornered by German police in a hotel. After a nine-hour standoff, he refused to surrender and shot himself.
2. Jean-Pierre van Rossem
Perhaps this flamboyant Belgian, with a wizard-like mop of long grey hair and beard, was the inspiration for Rich Energy CEO William Storey?
Van Rossem was one of the most unusual wheeler-dealers to have graced Formula 1 during his brief foray as the owner of the Onyx Formula 1 team in 1989. Among many stories surrounding him are that he wrote a guidebook to Belgium’s brothels (complete with a Michelin Guide style rating system) and that he had his first wife cryogenically frozen to later revive her if a cure for her cancer could be found.
After studying economics at university, van Rossem shot to fame as a supposed stock market guru. He claimed to have built ‘Moneytron’, a supercomputer with modeling that could predict the movements of the stock market and deliver untold riches. No such computer actually existed, but his con artistry built him a slew of wealthy clients and enough cash to buy an enormous collection of cars, a superyacht and two Falcon 900 private jets.
He and his Moneytron branding appeared on the cars operated by the new Onyx team for the 1989 season, and shortly after he bought out the operation. Despite his incredible wealth, van Rossem seemed less inclined to pump much of it into the team. He also made increasingly controversial remarks to the press, once allegedly describing F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone as a Mafia boss and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre as a Nazi during the Belgian Grand Prix.
Ecclestone banned van Rossem from being able to attend any further Grands Prix. Despite Stefan Johansson claiming a fluke podium finish at the Portuguese Grand Prix to help the team finish a fine tenth in the Constructors’ Championship standings in its debut season, van Rossem sold the team to Swiss car collector Peter Monteverdi in 1990.
Van Rossem was later arrested and sentenced to five years’ jail for fraud, but not before successfully seeking election to the Belgian Federal Parliament to attempt to gain political immunity. He died in 2018, aged 73.
1. William Storey
William Storey, a hairy biker-lookalike computer consultant with a background in sports marketing, is the man (formerly) fronting the Rich Energy drinks group. Storey and the company have so many red flags that it simply beggars belief that the Haas F1 Team would have signed a deal to be sponsored by them.
So little is known about Rich Energy: Storey reportedly co-founded it with an anonymous Austrian scientist who had developed an energy drink formula in 2009, but it took a further six years for the company itself to exist. The drinks are not available in any retail premises, but can apparently be purchased online.
Controversy surrounding Rich Energy began to surface with its left-field bid to with sponsor, and then buy, the Force India team during its period of administration in mid-2018. The administrators and presiding judge flatly rejected the team’s bid and openly questioned its finances. Storey denied the claims multiple times (mostly through Twitter, his favourite communication platform), claiming that Rich Energy had sold over 90 million drinks and had £4 billion in endorsements.
Storey then approached Williams and offered to sponsor it, and despite being in desperate need of financial investment, Williams rejected them. Off to Haas, where it was announced that it had signed a three-year title sponsorship deal with the American team starting in 2019.
In May, Rich Energy became embroiled in a court case after being sued by Whyte Bikes over apparent trademark violation due to the similarities between the two companies’ logos – the motorcycle company eventually won.
In July, Storey posted on Rich Energy’s Twitter account that it was terminating its contract with Haas due to “poor performance”, adding that its aims “to beat Red Bull and being behind Williams in Austria is unacceptable”, as well as that “the politics and PC attitude in F1 is also inhibiting our business”. Haas’ lawyers swiftly issued Storey a bill for nearly $50 million in lost future earnings for the early termination of its sponsorship contract.
Later the company’s shareholders clarified that the offending tweet was “clearly the rogue actions of one individual [which] have caused great embarrassment”.
The back and forth continued as Storey and his co-directors waged war on the company Twitter account during the British Grand Prix weekend. It was embarrassing and unseemly for all concerned, although the entire chain of tweets have since been deleted.
In the end, Storey was forced out of his role in a boardroom coup. Rich Energy was renamed ‘Lightning Volt’ although no rebranding has actually occurred. The sorry saga continues…
Images via Autoglym, DNPQ, Grand Prix 247, Haas F1 Team, LAT, Red Bull, Reddit, Speed Magazine, WheelsAge