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An epic tale of Ensign

Submitted by on November 6, 2013

1977 tambayNot many Formula One teams were lucky enough to number Chris Amon, Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Tambay and Jacky Ickx among their drivers. Then again, very few teams suffered Team Ensign’s appalling long-term bad luck. Ensign was a team that deserved better.

A strange summer, 1976. The English weather was glorious. So was the battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt (have you seen Rush yet?) And all I could think about was my final exams.

I was in a void. Birmingham’s examiners wanted their pound of flesh: I didn’t make it to too many race meetings that year. What was worse – many times worse – was that the man whose career I had previously followed with such enthusiasm, Graham Hill, had been killed in that plane crash over Elstree in 1975.

I looked around. I wanted to support a British F1 team. Graham Hill’s own patriotism deserved that. And I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon by supporting a team that happened to be successful. It was to be the underdog for me (and there was to be no shortage of that). My gaze halted over the entry list at Team Ensign.

Ensign never won a grand prix. It only managed as high as one fourth. It is now a good time to look back on why this team became one of my sporting obsessions for seven summers.


Arriving in F1

1973 Von OpelWalsall and Liechtenstein do not usually trip off the tongue together. The former produced Morris (Mo) Nuffield Nunn. He had never actually been to a motor racing meeting until 1963, when he was 24. A Cooper-Climax, bought from a showroom for £850, followed and, three years afterwards, an F3 seat during what is generally agreed to have been the golden age for that formula.

By 1967, Mo had made pole position at the Wills F3 Trophy Race at Silverstone. As he was in a Lotus as a privateer, one Colin Chapman inquired as to whether Mo was going to win. After hearing that all those Brabhams in the rows behind would be blown off by Mo, Chapman advised him, ”You do that.”

Mo did that, and approached Chapman after the race. How did you get on then? was Chapman’s greeting. Mo reckons he was being put in his place…

Next year, Mo signed as the Lotus F3 works driver. Staff shortages meant that he was invited to the factory to assemble his own car. Chapman said hello to him in the workshop – and the two never said a word to each other for the whole season! Communication or not, in his last F3 race Mo went out and beat James Hunt and Francois Cevert.

A works drive for 1970 was eagerly awaited but it didn’t happen. Mo started to realise that his avenues for advancement as a driver were closing fast. He was 32, and there was not much sponsorship to choose from. And there were few drives in F1 – put cynically, a driver had to be killed to produce a vacancy.

So there was Mo, 32, with marital and offspring responsibilities. And no work. Assets comprised £800 in savings. But there was one light-bulb moment. Becoming a constructor was the way forward, aided by a batch of 1 inch square steel tubing. The design of an F3 car frame unfolded on Mo’s garage floor, rather than on a drawing board (let alone via a modern CAD program).

The paper-free car was finished at the end of 1970 and taken to Silverstone for a sort-out. Within ten laps the circuit’s F3 lap record was broken. Wins followed the following year.

Which brings us to Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein had yielded Rikki von Opel, who was not short of a few bob – or racing talent for that matter. While it may not have been convenient for Rikki to have met Mo in Walsall, an admirable substitute for a boardroom came in the form of Rikki’s Grosvenor Square flat in London’s Belgravia. Complete with liveried servants and what has come to be known as a power breakfast. Mo was to run Rikki in F3 (for £9,000) and the effort was by no means unsuccessful.

The team’s victories quite naturally led to a surge of confidence. At the end of 1972 (this time the boardroom was Rikki’s Rolls Royce with Mo driving to Thruxton racing circuit) both wondered about the new season. F2? F5000? And then: What about F1? Mo ventured. It was agreed. Rikki was to pay the team costs, Mo to draw a salary.

F1 debut

Amid many comments on the new car were those of Denis Jenkinson in Motor Sport. The Ensign was “way beyond schedule” in July 1973, even if it was “only seven months after the first drawings were complete.” It was “a very professional job” but, above all: “Ensign is derived from N for Nunn, and sign, and as Mo comes from Walsall one can only imagine what a Nunn sign is!” Batmobile was another term used, referring to a tail section damaged in Canada.

Between the team’s first race, in France, and the end of 1973, there was almost no success. Rikki stayed with the team for the start of 1974, when the new MN02 promised an end to the suspension problems of the previous season. By now doubts had set in, and Brabham attracted Rikki’s attention. Rikki in 1974, to his credit, left Mo but with the cars and equipment to keep Mo in business: he had bankrolled the whole thing.

By the Belgian GP Vern Schuppan had qualified in the (for Ensign) stratospheric position of 14th. The car had now changed its green-with-yellow piping for the orange of Teddy Yip’s colour scheme.

(Indonesian-born Theodore “Teddy” Yip had helped to develop Macau into a thriving tourist destination, not least by being the (groan) driving force behind the Macau GP. His Theodore team went on to shock the F1 establishment by winning the 1978 BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone with Keke Rosberg. He was to play a major role in Ensign’s activities).

A long association had begun. Still no success – although Vern finished 12th in Sweden, where he was only supposed to have started if someone else had dropped out on the grid! Even this piece of enterprising initiative failed to sway Mo, who believed his driver lacked commitment.

First point

1975Hong Kong gave way to Holland in 1975. An alarm manufacturer, so appropriately named H B Bewaking, produced its version of going Dutch: Dutch drivers only and Mo’s holding to be reduced to just one third of his own company. Roelof Wunderink was too slow for sponsor or owner, so Gijs van Lennep took over.

In Germany, miracle of miracles, Ensign scored its first point, Gijs at the wheel. Even now, Mo was not satisfied. Gijs had qualified 23rd and finished seventeen places higher but without overtaking a soul. It was this that had cheesed off Mr Nunn.

The Dutch problem continued for Mo, culminating in H B Bewaking’s withdrawal from sponsoring him. Mo was owed £28,000, and was still determinedly suing for it in 1980. In fact, for all the concern with finances, the Dutch operation was still racing. The driver was Larry Perkins, who also seemed to have difficulty in raising money. This explains why his shoe-string effort over six races dispensed with such ephemera as hotel rooms.

Chris Amon arrives

1976 AmonEventually, the sponsors saw the light and we, the admiring hordes, were rewarded with a real charger. Frustrated with the Tecno and his own design, and away from F1 for several months, Chris Amon joined Ensign.

Some must have laughed at Chris Amon’s return. Not Mo: “He’s incredible. We move the wing by a notch, and he can tell. We’re not used to that!” As for drivers being abstemious, don’t you believe it. After Austria, Chris ordered some schnapps. Mo: “Is he always like this? We’ve never had a driver who smoked before, let alone drunk.”

Pete Lyons, summing up the 1975 season in Autosport, was firmly of the opinion that Ensign had to be taken seriously as a future challenger in F1. Whether or not Mo and Chris were broke (as the reports said) they were all set to laugh back in 1976.

Some years after Team Ensign ceased racing, Nigel Roebuck singled out Mo Nunn as a subject for one of his Motor Sport Legends articles. Some F1 teams run out of money halfway through the season. Some, as the money runs out over the years, unveil their latest challenger from the factory rather than from a glamorous hotel. In 1976, the Ensign factory was the only place available for the year’s unveiling. And Nigel Roebuck the only journalist. Mo, Nigel and Chris comprised the entire launch – except when Mrs Sylvia Nunn interrupted proceedings by ringing up and asking Mo to pick up a pack of frozen peas on the way home.

Nigel Roebuck recalls that Mo was wearing a jacket with the logo of Duckhams, his former sponsor. Valvoline was the present sponsor. “Do you think they’d mind?” was Mo’s innocent reply to Nigel’s suggestion that Duckhams was inappropriate.

Chris served notice of intent very early on – a race-long battle with both Brabham-Alfas in Spain was quite rightly rewarded with a fifth place. This was in the N176 Ensign, a neat and elegant car whose lines, captured in a Michael Turner painting, contrast with the “go-faster” stripes of its Martini-sponsored opponents.

Gross under-funding could be overcome. Chris was fastest (yes, fastest) on the first day of practice at Monaco, and third on the grid in Sweden. Autosport’s British GP preview described Ensign as “the shaker of the season.” Mention was also made of those condescending souls who suddenly knew that car and driver had always been potential winners.

Whether or not there had been disagreements behind the scenes, Niki Lauda’s terrifying crash in Germany was the catalyst behind Chris’ retirement. Chris expanded on this in a feature in the June 2008 Motor Sport. He had “ended up in catch fencing at Zolder like a parcel” and at Anderstorp “the front suspension broke and put me in the barriers, hard.” Contrary to reports that he stopped his car by the side of the track when Niki Lauda crashed, Chris drove back to the pits and quit the race meeting. Replying to a reader of Motor Sport in 2004, he had been “appalled by how long it had taken the marshals to get Niki out of his car. How long would it take for them to get to me?” Chris had been determined to retire at the end of 1976. His comment was “I can’t trust the car, and I don’t want to drive it here. That was the end of our relationship.”

Ickx Nunn 1976 HollandMo now turned to youth (sort of). Hans Binder drove in Austria but retired, and a certain Jacky Ickx turned up for four races (two retirements, a 10th and a 13th).

Little had been achieved in terms of points (just the two at Jarama) but Chris had often put the other Ford runners in their place, not least, in Autosport’s opinion, those teams that had more motor-homes than Ensign had engines. Mo and Chris undoubtedly gained pleasure from such humiliations, and who can blame them? The present author’s good taste in motor racing was shared by Quentin Spurring of Autosport, who gave Chris a top-ten single-seater rating. Ensign was now firmly on the map.

Best year for the lot

1977 ReggaeSharing the same spot in the top ten was Clay Regazzoni, so who better to drive for Ensign in 1977? “Reggae” liked Ensign and Ensign liked “Reggae.” Ensign fans enjoyed the happiest year of them all. Our favourite car wasn’t just a regular fixture; it gained respectability.

Almost unbelievably, it had taken Clay seven years before he drove his first Cosworth DFV-powered car. He didn’t miss V12 power and he didn’t miss Ferrari politics, either. Clay had never forgiven Enzo Ferrari for moving Carlos Reutemann into the Ferrari team despite assurances to the contrary. Ensign’s far less stressful atmosphere was also appreciated by one scribe who delighted in chats with Clay over cups of tea. Such dialogues were preceded by Clay’s request to the team caterer: “Sylvia, please put off the kettle.” This truly was a hospitality unit.

The first points came in the first race, Clay finishing sixth in Argentina. Several disappointments now registered, including a “totally predictable” accident in Spain between Vittorio Brambilla and Clay (gospel according to Barrie Gill, International Motor Racing, 1978). Things looked up in Sweden and France with two sevenths on the trot. A revival?

For Clay, perhaps, but something didn’t quite work out. Teddy Yip entered an Ensign in France for the talented Patrick Tambay. It was just that Patrick turned up but the Ensign didn’t.

Silverstone was bad as far as Clay was concerned. He failed to qualify. By Germany the pressure must have been getting to Clay, who qualified a mere 22nd and then went off on his own German Grand Prix, taking out three cars.

1977tambaycarHere, Patrick won his first point. No problems with pressure. In fact, Teddy Yip’s threat to take Patrick’s car away unless he signed for his team in 1978 got what it deserved. The rest of Patrick’s 1977 was spent with Teddy Yip’s Ensign. Patrick’s 1978 was spent with McLaren.

A team called Ferrari was also impressed with Patrick. In Austria he had been racing two drivers called Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann. A meeting with Enzo Ferrari was a possibility but Marlboro explained that if he came to McLaren Patrick would have a world champion to learn from (James Hunt) and that Ferrari was moving to Michelin tyres and that his Ferrari team-mate was Carlos Reutemann. Patrick signed for McLaren, and realised that one Gilles Villeneuve had been in the running for McLaren but if he spoke to those nice people from Ferrari they might be looking for a young driver…

In Holland, wonder of wonders, Ensign broke the psychological barrier – more than two points in a season! Three Ensigns, no less, started. Brian Henton in an older car spun, Clay retired, but Patrick doubled the team’s score with a fifth place. It would have been a tremendous third but for a few drops of fuel on the last lap.

Patrick led Clay by three points to one. Clay took the hint in Italy, qualified seventh and finished fifth: three-all. That Patrick even took part in that race is a tribute to his bravery. At Lesmo a wheel collapsed. The car went into the guard-rail, then overturned and reduced its roll-over bar to a display of sparks. Battered it may have been, but Patrick had survived the shunt of 1977 totally unscathed. Engine failure after nine laps was no reward.

Clay continued his run with another fifth (in the States) and Patrick scored another two points in Canada. Ten points for the whole season. OK, 85 fewer than Ferrari but then in Mr Gill’s opinion: “it has taken Ensign this long to approach a truly stable financial position.” The sponsorship came through Clay’s efforts. His Tissot and Castrol connections were even proudly displayed on the front cover of an Autosport supplement supported by Castrol to mark the re-opening of Donington Park circuit in 1977.

Tambay 1977 JapanClay received an end-of-year report from Mo some years later in Nigel Roebuck’s previously mentioned assessment: “He wasn’t as talented as Chris, but all his motivation was intact, and we had a marvelous time together in 1977.”

The drivers’ prowess was duly praised. Ensign had gained respectability. So where did it all go wrong?

The even more difficult years

1978 DalyWe were never to enjoy such a splendid season again or to score as many points. Clay went off to the Shadow team (and scored fewer points than he had with Ensign). When this piece of news got out, Mo declared: “Well, it’s amazing. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I’ve spoken to Ickx, Ongais, Neve, Binder, Pescarolo, Jabouille, Rosberg, even Kessel.” That made eight. Even more amazing, eight drivers did race Ensigns in 1978.

Danny Ongais and Lamberto Leoni opened the batting, which meant it was back to Jacky Ickx for round five. At least he was classified in one of the races in which he participated. In 1993, Lamberto Leoni had looked to something less perilous – power-boat racing since you ask (!)

Derek Daly joined Ensign in France and stayed for seven out of eight races. The race he didn’t make was Germany where a rising Formula 3 star called Nelson Piquet made his debut.

Reflecting Reggae’s requests for Sylvia Nunn to put off the kettle, Vintage Motorsport described Ensign as “a mom and pop organization driven by passion that could barely pay the light bill let alone the driver” when interviewing Derek for its My Favourite Race series.

(Derek had chosen the 1982 British GP where he finished 5th. I was at that race and remember Derek Warwick in a Toleman(!) overtaking Didier Pironi in a Ferrari along the South Bank!. Derek actually described Ensign as a great environment in which to start in F1).

I had decided by this time to launch my own investigations into what was going wrong. I took a look into the Ensign pit during practice at Brands Hatch. In fact, I was so distracted by the opportunity to watch the Ensign pit that I failed to ask a young driver standing nearby and giving out autographs whether he would sign my programme. Name of Gilles. I’ve been kicking myself ever since…

And so it went on: two races for Harald Ertl, one for Geoff Lees, and one for Brett Lunger who managed a 13th in the USA. At the very last race, Canada, Derek Daly finished sixth. Eight drivers for one point.

Before anyone else asks, yes, it did get worse in 1979. Mo had been looking forward to the new season. He was to have a new chassis, which was to reward his and Derek’s consistent performance. The only cloud would be Goodyear’s failure to select Ensign as part of its special supply programme for nine teams. Tyre problems only? We should have been so lucky.

1979 DalyThere was no money to develop the now-compulsory ground effect, but there was one claim to fame. Sal Incandella singled out the N179 for special mention in his “The anatomy and development of the Formula One racing car from 1975.” The N179 demonstrated “the importance of adequate radiator exit ramps.” For all the wrong reasons. “The idea was to obtain a truer wing section by placing the oil cooler and a massive water radiator in front of the driver, sloping forwards from the dashboard area. At the time the layout looked good.”

Inadequate exit ducts plus too much air equaled over-heating. A rebuild as early as round 4 (Long Beach) didn’t stem the tide.

Derek drove the first seven races. Or rather, he finished the first two races in the now somewhat ancient N177, and then failed to qualify in three of the four races in the new N179. Even going back to the old car failed. Derek did escape to Tyrell for a few races, leaving Patrick Gaillard with three DNQs out of five entries, and Marc Surer with two out of three. Six starts in sixteen races – and three finishes. Points in 1979? No such good fortune.

1980 UnipartStill some kept their faith – and not just enthusiasts. After Germany, Unipart rang Ensign, saying they were interested in sponsoring a car. Mo nearly fell off his chair. He acquired the skills of Ralph Bellamy from Fittipaldi, Nigel Bennett from Lotus, and Gary Anderson from McLaren. The first two designed the N180.

All it needed was a driver. Mo talked to Mario Andretti and Carlos Reutemann (who “seemed a very mixed-up guy”). A fed-up Clay Regazzoni beat a fed-up Patrick Tambay to the drive by five minutes. Talk about the return of the prodigal son(s).


1980 Tiff at ZolderHow sadly it all turned out. Nigel Roebuck’s appreciation in his book “Grand Prix Greats” says quite simply of Clay: “What he has faced since 1980 has put more call on his courage than the ten seasons of Formula One which went before.”

Having qualified 23rd, “Reggae” was running fourth at the time of his accident at Long Beach. Described as cutting through the field like a rampant bull in one account, the crowd could see the fire that a driver written off by some as a has-been could still exert. According to some eye-witnesses the engine blew; officials said the car was heading for the corner at the end of Shoreline Drive silent but with no lack of pace. At a “three-figure speed” the Ensign went into Ricardo Patrese’s parked Brabham, then into the tyre wall, and then a solid wall. Clay was not pulled out until 20 minutes had passed.

Clay’s own account states that he got no resistance after pumping the titanium brake-pedals being used for the first time. He had to lose speed extremely quickly and changed from fifth to third, which is how the car was found. “For about ten minutes I lost consciousness. Then I remember terrible pain in my hips.” It is amazing that Clay even survived.

In an interview a few weeks later Mo estimated that Clay hit the parked Brabham at 155 mph, and discounted the idea that he did so deliberately. The brake pedal was found broken in the wreckage, and this was regarded by Mo as the most likely explanation for the brake failure. Clay lost the ability to walk (to which he eventually became reconciled) and motor racing lost one of its greatest chargers.

Clay always produced one race in the year when nothing was going to stop him. Although only the fourth race in the year, Long Beach would surely have been that outstanding race for 1980. Clerk of the Long Beach course Burdette Martin recalls that Clay himself contacted Burdette, telling him that he would not be suing either the circuit or the organisers: a sensitive gesture from a fine man at a very difficult time.

For what it was worth, Geoff Lees and Tiff Needell tried to pilot the Ensign (twice each) and Dutchman Jan Lammers scored no points in eight appearances. Tiff qualified 23rd at Zolder, Mike Thackwell having turned down the drive. His co-debutant, Nigel Mansell, qualified a mere 24th. How differently their careers turned out.

Tiff’s experience of Belgium 1980 featured in Motor Sport’s series My Only Grand Prix in October 2003. His 23rd at Zolder was in the dry – in the wet he qualified 14th. Ensign being a one-car team, Tiff could not convince Mo that he was under-steering. Clay had never complained about under-steering, quite the opposite in fact. Tiff was blunt, “Well, it’s bloody under-steering now.”

Tiff got to hum the Grand Prix theme tune on the grid and to dice with his schooldays hero, Emerson Fittipaldi. His race lasted 12 laps but Tiff was “hugely delighted” as for the person who does even one grand prix “it makes a huge difference.”

At season’s end, there was a 200-mile test. The monocoques were going soft, twisting and seizing the steering rack.

Jan failed to qualify for the next four races. This year my own in-depth insight consisted of watching the Saturday practice session at Brands Hatch. The London Green Line bus got me to the circuit in time to learn that Jan had failed to qualify.

It was at this meeting that I encountered for the first and only time a souvenir of Ensign interest. Unipart had produced a red-white-and-blue sticker depicting my object of worship with a Swiss helmet at the wheel. Tactlessly or not, it was still on sale.

Oh, and there were a couple of posters of Jan in Autosport, and even one from Mopar (of Derek Daly in 1978 when they had been supporting him, but it is the thought that counts). Ensign’s 1980 was thoroughly miserable.

Fourth and fastest lap

1981 SalazarOne point in three years. I suppose those who have followed this saga so far must be wondering why I didn’t go off and support Williams, Brabham, McLaren or Ferrari. I did think about it but loyalty kept getting the better of me. In fact, throughout Ensign’s campaigns, just when I thought I could escape, someone would turn up and drive a blinder.

People were surprised to see Ensign even arrive on the grid in 1981, having survived the withdrawal of Unipart sponsorship. Poverty, though, was no stranger to Ensign. Indeed, Nigel Roebuck opined that Ensign spent less on everything than some teams did on their PR staff’s travel bills.

Marc Surer was the brave volunteer. Ensign’s best-ever finish was the result. Qualifying 18th in Brazil may not have been a good omen but nine pilots had the courtesy to allow Marc through (voluntarily or otherwise) on lap 1. Prost, Rosberg and even the experienced Jarier were then overtaken. Ensign was in the points on lap 29. John Watson spun off on lap 35: Marc was up to fifth and celebrated with fastest lap (you read that correctly) next time round. This was a manoeuvre which helped to haul in de Angelis, who succumbed on lap 49.

1981 Surer BrazilIt was the finest day in Ensign’s history, a fourth place and fastest lap for the only time, and just 14 seconds from Patrese and the podium. Faith was restored. Motor Sport interviewed Marc in November 2003: “That fastest lap was the highlight of my career. It showed that I could do it.”

The money must have been useful, too. Ensign’s policy was now to run a driver who paid for the privilege. The team saved a whole £40 at Monaco, when engineer Nigel Bennett arranged that if Marc qualified in the top 15 Ensign would pay for the car’s new anti-roll bar. Marc started 19th but finished sixth, £40 down or not.

Where finance did bite deep was after Monaco, as Marc could no longer raise the money to stay with Ensign. A fourth, a sixth and a fastest lap. Weren’t they enough? Was it to be the same old story?

Mo found a South American for the rest of the season, Eliseo Salazar from Chile. Needless to say, I made the annual pilgrimage to the British Grand Prix to see my favourite team reduce the opposition to quivering wrecks. Er, well, not quite.

Many spectators must have pondered which country a particular flag in the customary parade of flags represented, and, if they recognised it as Chile, what it was doing there if they was no Chilean driver in the race itself. In the race programme, incidentally, Mr Roebuck now believed that Ensign’s budget wouldn’t keep some teams in stickers, rather than PR travel.

Eliseo proved a pleasant surprise. Mo’s initial scepticism changed for the better, particularly after sixth place in Holland. All in all, for a team that looked to have died a slow, lingering death from under-finance Ensign and its fans (should that be fan by this stage?) enjoyed a super 1981.

One light touch came at a subsequent racing car show. A company called Grand Prix Sportique bought up pistons and cylinders from worn-out grand prix engines. Top of the range was a component from Jacques Laffitte’s 1979 Brazilian winner.

A Chris Amon 1976 piston was a mere £25 but Marc Surer’s epic 1981 Brazilian piston was £30. My enquiry discovered that this had gone to a Swiss gentleman. Now that’s patriotism for you.

Last laps

1983 GuerreroRoberto Guerrero was 1982’s one and only Ensign driver, Mo having followed his fortunes since F3 and sponsorship from Café do Colombia and Caribu jeans only being enough for Ensign. He came from Columbia (South America, now that’s a surprise) but South Africa 1982 was not the best place to make one’s Formula One debut.

Guerrero 1982 ItalyWhen the drivers locked themselves away for the night Roberto was singled out for special attention. Mo brought Roberto’s girlfriend along to enhance the psychological pressure to get drivers back to work, duly noted in Niki Lauda’s To Hell and Back. Tearfully and sadly they (Roberto and girlfriend) stared at each other, “enough” in Mr Lauda’s words “to make strong men weep.”

It all backfired on Mo, who withdrew the Ensign in a fit of pique. What now appalled Roberto was that no driver offered him any assistance. He had been dumped by the people whom he had supported. Mo did reconsider but it was too late; Roberto felt that he could not go against all the other drivers.

1983 Guerrero auto cvrRoberto was interviewed in Autosport in February 1983, and the two still had arguments about South Africa. If you think that Ensign defied the laws of gravity in surviving, it also defied belief in that it had a law case on its hands over Roberto’s employment.

Columbian journalists had plenty to pick on – the South African strike, the boycott by certain teams including Ensign at San Marino, the DNQ in Brazil, and no tyres for practice at Monaco. Here, Roberto had to point out that racing tyres could not be purchased at any filling station – not least as the supplier, Avon, had chosen to withdraw from grand prix racing. This public relations exercise must have accounted for one description of Roberto as a “communicative” driver.

The plaudits for Roberto fell thick and fast. At Long Beach only Lauda was neater. Roberto was one of the most gifted Formula One drivers for a long time. By the end of the season he was the most impressive newcomer. Still didn’t score any points, though. Best was an eighth at Hockenheim without a clutch.

One more cruel piece of luck came at Las Vegas when the engine blew in the warm-up lap. Roberto had out-qualified both Lotuses and both Alfas.

For myself, I finally managed to see an Ensign race at the British Grand Prix. I didn’t see much but at least I saw four laps before Brian Henton “punted” Roberto. Autosport’s “gold standard” this time? Briefcases rather than stickers or PR travel.

Believe it or not Ensign had somehow competed in ten seasons in Formula One. 1982 was the last for Ensign, because Theodore and Ensign merged in 1983 to become Theodore. A new car, the Nigel-Bennett-designed N183, was available and Teddy Yip’s money provided some stability.

Roberto stayed on alongside Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto, who finished the Ensign guide to South America and sixth at Long Beach. The rest, however, was disappointing. By the end of 1983 commentators could see that Theodore was falling apart, with Teddy Yip disillusioned and Mo quitting.

The last race was the European Grand Prix. No-one turned up for South Africa. It was a very sad end. And not just for the team – Roberto never drove in F1 after 1983, and Johnny never again in F1 after 1984 (incidentally, the Café do Colombia N183 was up for sale in Autosport in 1995, having been driven from 1991 with some success by Geoff Farmer).

Ultimately Ensign was financially wound up. Maureen Magee, whose photographs grace this essay, was in attendance at the unhappy winding-up meeting.

In retrospect

1975 EnsignMo describes himself as probably the only team owner who left F1 poorer than when he entered it. In fact, Nigel Roebuck in a Fifth Column piece in Autosport (August 1991) stated that “Quite a few, on the other hand, have prospered exceedingly from Formula 1, some of them for doing it spectacularly badly.”

Was it worth supporting such an unlucky team, one which displayed a miraculous sense of survival where many others in a similar situations had sunk without trace? The results, on the face of it, do not suggest so.

For me, however, the answer is still yes. Ensign was under-funded but that is no disgrace. It is a tribute to Mo Nunn that an engineer of the calibre of Dave Baldwin could look back to his design of Chris Amon’s Ensign: “That was incredible. Morris Nunn had two or three mechanics, me on the drawing side, and the facilities of one or two good machine shops – and the team went grand prix racing!” Team Ensign fully deserved support.

Regazzoni 1977 SwedenEnsign brought in some extremely talented young drivers. Patrick Tambay is perhaps the best example (Nelson Piquet had a one-off race only) and Marc Surer never let the side down. Chris Amon proved in an Ensign that he was a great driver to the end, and Clay Regazzoni’s 1977 season saw some fine driving. Tempting it may be to say that Ensign should have packed up after Clay’s accident, no-one would begrudge the team its highest placing and solitary fastest lap the year after.

Clay himself made a form of come-back in 1996 at Monza when he raced a converted Porsche 911 twin-turbo in the Global Endurance GT championship. This was precisely to show that disabled drivers could compete with able-bodied drivers. One Pescarolo was punted into retirement after seven laps. Reggae was left looking forward to the next round at Nurburgring.

For seven years from 1976 I strained to hear the name Ensign on the lips of the TV commentators. Perhaps it is just as well that Mike Brearley’s Middlesex and Sir Elton John’s Watford were able to keep my spirits up during the DNQs.

One writer wondered why Ensign even bothered year-in year-out. Anthony Pritchard in his Directory of Formula One Cars 1966-1986 wrote that, “Sadly the Ensign name was not missed” but another writer decided that Ensign was the sort of team that must never be allowed to die out. Unsurprisingly, I incline to the latter view; a certain Frank Williams took several years to become a world-beater.

Since Ensign withdrew, many of its leading lights (Mo himself and Roberto Guererro) have gone off to North America and achieved (at last!) the fame they truly deserved.

Mo has written that his only possession when arriving in the States was his Barclaycard. He signed on for Patrick Racing in 1989; Emerson Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 in a non-works Penske. Another move followed. In 1992 Mo joined Chip Ganassi’s team – he played a major part in four consecutive championship wins between 1996 and 1999. The 1997 and 1998 champion was Alessandro Zanardi, and when he left Mo informed Chip Ganassi that he would retire.

Chip informed Mo that there was this chap called Montoya who needed to be observed at testing. Juan-Pablo’s performance inspired Mo to stay on. The fourth championship ensued.

As for retirement, Mo went out and formed his own team – in 2003, for example, Mo ran teams in both CART and IRL.

Meanwhile, and more sedately, Sylvia Nunn became an enthusiastic landscape gardener back in Staffordshire. Her labours were even shown on BBC’s prestigious Gardener’s World.

As for myself, in 1993 I found a new F1 team to support – Minardi (and yes, I know what you are thinking). Since the demise of Minardi after 2005 I no longer support one particular car or driver. In 2013, Motor Sport interviewed Giancarlo Minardi. I thanked them for this in a letter that was published, pointing out my loyalty to Ensign and Minardi, and describing myself as the longest-standing jinx in Formula One.

My own objective appreciation of the individual Formula One cars and drivers increased after Ensign disappeared. I had certainly learnt that motor racing was not just about the winners. In any case, if I do go off and cheer on a wining team, no-one can say I haven’t served my apprenticeship.

I still miss the team – even if I never did find out what an N-sign actually was!

-Michael Schwartz


(Photography by Maureen Magee)

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