Formula One is full of bizarre chapters throughout its 67 year history, none more so than the failed attempt by Phoenix Finance to get onto the grid in 2002. Today marks the 15th anniversary of a team who turned up to race – only to be barred entry by the FIA.
And probably, with good reason.
Phoenix Finance – who for a while went by the name of DART Grand Prix – was a cashed up British Banking and Finance organization, who were attempting to get onto the grid in 2002. Charles Nickerson was Managing Director of the Phoenix Group and spearheaded the push to get into Formula One, after his good friend Tom Walkinshaw agreed to assist them in their quest. But was it all that simple?
Walkinshaw himself had actually been mooted at a potential buyer of the recently defunct Prost Team but that notion was met with huge confusion. Walkinshaw’s own team – Orange Arrows Racing – was in an uncomfortably sticky financial situation itself, with a rather large court battle looming over the fact that Walkinshaw had dumped Jos Verstappen in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen.Despite this, Walkinshaw had actually started negotiations with the liquidators of Prost to agree terms – then suddenly enter stage left Phoenix Finance, who were named as the buyer on the official documents.
Those official documents also contained the details of the sale, clarifying that Phoenix Finance were buying the assets of the team, not the actual team itself. The team was to be relocated from France to England where it was hoped that new sponsors could be found and a team base could be built. What wasn’t written in the documents was the suspicion that if all else failed, the entire operation could be melded into the Orange Arrows Team – solving a lot of issues for Walkinshaw and securing the USD$12 million in TV money from the previous season. This suspicion was never confirmed by either Walkinshaw or Nickerson but many in the Paddock – including Minardi owner Paul Stoddart believed that this was the intention all along, despite appearances.
So whilst the Australian Grand Prix was in progress, Nickerson began to assemble his squad and equipment, ably assisted by Walkinshaw and staff members from the now defunct Prost Grand Prix, along with engineers from Arrows. The plans were to race for the first time in Malaysia, using the 2001 spec Prost AP04 chassis. However, with an engine deal so hard to come by at such short notice, a deal was struck to run the Prost with a modified Hart V10 engine that had been designed for the Arrows team – back in 1998.
So yes, that’s a year old chassis and four year old engine – that had been designed for a whole other car. But that wasn’t the only problem for Phoenix.
To show that they were serious about competing in Formula One, Phoenix had sent a team representative to Melbourne with two nose cone assemblies for the AP04, allowing them to be submitted for scrutineering. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t pass. To rub extra salt into the wounds, Bernie Ecclestone didn’t hold back when asked for his opinion of the whole situation and was quoted as saying:
‘They’ve bought nothing in Formula One. All they have bought is some show cars. They can forget it. They’re wasting their time thinking about racing in Malaysia.’
Problems then arose with the FIA, who couldn’t fully establish whether Phoenix were the Prost Team under a new name, or a brand new team chock full of old Prost (and Arrows) assets. With the team having arrived in Malaysia and the equipment (including two of the Prost AP04 chassis) being impounded at customs at the behest of FOM, the team were denied entry into the Paddock.Even Tarso Marques and Gastón Mazzacane were unable to answer questions from the press, having been selected as drivers for the team – but never actually having driven – or seen – the car.
The dream of Phoenix Finance Racing was dangling by a thread.
After a series of meetings and plenty of confusion, Phoenix Finance entry into the 2002 Formula One Season was rejected, on the grounds that they did not buy Prost Grand Prix in its entirety – making it a brand new entry into Formula One. As they were a new team, they were indeed liable to pay a USD $48 million bond to enter the sport – something that Phoenix was unable to raise after buying the remnants of Prost.
Nickerson argued that Phoenix had indeed bought the team and several ‘other assets’, meaning that they had every right to race and therefore, did not need to pay the USD $48 million fee required. The FIA did not agree, stating that Formula One Team entries could not be bought or sold to the highest bidder (or anyone for that matter) and that the matter was closed.
“As such Phoenix will not be allowed to compete in the championship at any time this season and will therefore not be on the grid in Malaysia.”
Nickerson chose to appeal and took the FIA to the High Court in the hope that his team could race in 2002 or even 2003 with an updated car and engine package. However the High Court ruled in the favour of the FIA that team entries could not be bought or sold. It was the end of the road for Phoenix Finance Racing.
As far as Walkinshaw’s role in whole sorry tale, we will never know. Was he acting in good faith on behalf of his friend Nickerson? Or was Walkinshaw hoping to benefit by closing down the Arrows Team and folding it into Phoenix, once the deal was done – thereby saving himself from massive debt. What we do know is that the Orange Arrows Formula One Team folded at the end of 2002, huge debt and a court settlement for Jos Vertsappen being the main reasons. The rest, we will never know as Walkinshaw passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer.
And so the chapter closed on what was probably one of the most expensive forays into Formula One for a team that never actually appeared. In a way, it was probably for the best for no matter how hard they would have tried, it would have been a massive struggle for the team to get onto the grid in the first place in Malaysia – and then to race with a year old chassis and a four year old engine… well, you can imagine the results.
Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, a Phoenix can’t rise from the ashes.