RetroGP Gone but not Forgotten
The David-and-Goliath story of AGS Formule 1
The humble beginnings of the AGS Formule 1 team can be traced to the garage of team owner Henri Julien in the sleepy French village of Gonfaron. Henri’s little team excelled in Formula 2, blossomed briefly in F1 but faded away almost as quickly as they arrived.
The backyard garage was filled with tiny home-made 500cc F3 cars, Formula Junior and Formule Renault. It won the French F2 title in 1980, ’81 and ’82 with Richard Dallest and Philippe Streiff.
Founded in 1968, the AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives) marque was always going to be a privateer operation and is one of those David-and-Goliath sagas against a backdrop of professional, international motorsport.
Henri’s Garage de l’Avenir filling station (above) stands on the main road of Gonfalon. Behind it, the collection of backyard buildings to the rear of his house is where the racing cars were built. Henri wanted to race, but with no money to buy a car he simply built his own.
In 1968 Henri built a spaceframe chassis powered by a Renault Gordini engine for Formule France. He christened the team AGS.
In 1978 AGS entered the European F2 Championship with the JH15 chassis but track success was not achieved until year two when Richard Dallest scored wins in the JH19, at Pau and Zandvoort.
Dallest remained with AGS for 1981 and won the French F2 crown. in 1982 he was replaced the by Philippe Streiff and Pascal Fabre. Streiff was in the points often enough to also clinch the French F2 title. With some excellent results in 1983, Streiff finished fourth in the European F2 series, the team aided by the financial input of wealthy Italian F2 and sportscar racer Fulvio Ballabio.
For F2’s final year, AGS and Streiff were the underdogs to the dominant Ralt-Honda team with Mike Thackwell and Roberto Moreno. AGS took third at Thruxton, second at Pau and Misano, and Streiff’s first F2 win in the Daily Mail Trophy at Brands Hatch. Race organisers were so unprepared for Streiff’s win in a French car that they didn’t have a recording of La Marseillaise for the podium presentation.
AGS graduated to F1 in 1986. Their first offering, the JH21C, was designed by Henri and Christian Vanderpleyn “on the kitchen table”. Didier Pironi agreed to test the car even though he had been retired for 4 years but it took until Monza to get race-ready. Ivan Capelli managed one practice lap before the engine exploded, but the AGS crew worked on the car until just before the paddock gates began to close before the warm-up. Repairs were completed in the pits.
Capelli qualified 25th out of 27, and was going well until lap 31 when a puncture stopped his progress. At the following race around Estoril the gearbox lasted just six laps, and Henri ‘pulled the plug’ on the last two international races that were too expensive to get to. Henri however, drew on the positives “The advantage with us being a small team was that you could quickly adapt and make changes, unlike the big factory teams like Renault where there was a lengthy decision-making process and it often took them weeks to make a modification that we could do in a weekend.”
Capelli left for March, so AGS hired its one-time F2 pilot Pascal Fabre for 1987. The JH22 was a reliable car, despite being heavy but with Fabre at the wheel it failed to qualify on three occasions, Fabre was replaced by Moreno for the Japanese Grand Prix and at the season’s finale in Adelaide, scored the team’s first world championship point with a 6th place. Streiff was back in the team for 1988, to drive the new JH23. Normally-aspirated cars were midfield runners against the turbo engined cars, and Streiff’s best result was eighth at Suzuka. Again, Henri remained upbeat, “it was a good year, as we were fighting with the established teams and drivers. When someone like Nelson Piquet deliberately blocks your driver because he feels threatened you know it is going well”.
For 1989 AGS used the Cosworth DFRs but Streiff had a career-ending accident during pre-season tyre testing. The team also ran cars for Gabriele Tarquini and Jo Winkelhock with Tarquini coming sixth in Mexico. After failing to pre-qualify on a number of occasions Winkelhock was replaced by Yannick Dalmas, who did no better. Optimism faded with a succession of DNPQs.
As sponsorship evaporated the team were only just hanging on. Henri decided enough was enough, selling his team to industrialist Cyril de Rouvre. Henri was appointed team consultant. After a run of DNQs, Dalmas’ ninth at Jerez was as good as it got.
AGS relocated to the new facility at Circuit du Var in 1990 but the JH25B was much the same as its predecessor. Stefan Johansson, Tarquini and Fabrizio Barbazza, seldom made the grid. Rouvre hit financial difficulties, and sold AGS to Gabriele Rafanelli and Patrizio Cantù in 1991. The last AGS, the JH27, designed by Vanderpleyn and Mario Tollentino was introduced at Monza for Tarquini but again the team was not competitive. Following the Spanish GP the team finally closed its doors on it’s short F1 career.
Today, AGS is a thriving corporate entertainment centre at the Circuit du Var, a mile or so from Gonfaron, near Saint-Tropez, where successful execs and wannabe racers get to lap F1 cars in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Henri Julien died in 2013 at the age of 84
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