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Automotive heir lays foundation to Ensign marque



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Rikky von Opel


Ensign-Cosworth MN01 (N173)




1973 Italian GP


Let's run a few names by you.

We'll start off with Pedro Diniz.

Ah, you'll say, rich kid paying his way into F1. Now let's take Andrea De Cesaris. Oh well, you'll add, another rich kid whose Marlboro Italia backing got him to a top level. Then try labeling Elio De Angelis.

Yet another rich kid getting his break through dad paying the bills? Well, yes and no. The Italian piano man didn't finish third in the F1 World Championship twice by single virtue of a substantial cash flow. And what about triple champ Nelson Piquet reaching the top, doing so despite his parents' good fortune and without their knowledge and support?

It's fair to say this group of drivers has more in common than just a wealthy family. All these heirs to a business empire have proved their doubters wrong in due course. Over the past few years, Diniz has turned out a worthy contender and has embarrassed his established team mates regularly. After shaking off his wild habits Andrea De Cesaris became one of the team managers' safest bets. And because of their unquestionable talent De Angelis and Piquet were never even confronted with their backgrounds.

Now enter Rikky von Opel. Born of Opel fame in New York City, residing in the Liechtenstein tax refuge, he would be fair addition to the group. Opel's dismal F1 record may not even compare favourably with Diniz's, but both men not only share a multimillion dollar background but also a racer's edge. Opel even shares a similarity at the other end of the scale. Just as Nelson Piquet, Opel started off his racing career with a pseudonym to keep his family from knowing about his dangerous outdoor activities. But where the Piquet name stuck, Opel shook off his "Antonio Bronco" nickname quickly when his racing career gathered pace - the smell of success probably made his career choice less of an embarrassment to the Opels!

The automobile heir quickly charged through the ranks. In 1970 he shone in Formula Ford, while the following year he was up into F3, winning the Lombard North Central Championship on his second try in 1972, beating Tony Brise and Andy Sutcliffe. The title was the result of teaming up with Morris Nunn's little Ensign team, which brought out its Iberia-sponsored works car for Rikky. The two got along so well that that the Liechtenstein youngster pulled out his checkbook and asked Mo to design him a Formula 1 car. Nunn penned a straightforward chassis - a monocoque in front of a DFV driven by a Hewland FGA400 gearbox - which remained in service long after Opel had parted from the team.

Halfway through the 1973 season Nunn's first F1 design, the MN01 (also dubbed N173), finally debuted at the French GP at Ricard. Inexperience showed in the first few races but soon Opel proved he was more than just a playboy racer. At Zandvoort he qualified a magnificent 14th, only to be thwarted by a suspension pick-up failure, preventing him to take the start in what became a black race for the sport. The new kids on the block had to skip Germany, but in Austria Rikky did fine by qualifying 19th and driving a fighting race until his fuel pressure dropped. Here, at Monza, he scored the best grid position from where he actually started a race: 17th. The North American races turned out to be a nightmare for the fledgling team, but hitting the back row of the grid twice was small pickings compared to the ludicrous rain-hit event in Canada and the death of Cevert at the Glen.

For 1974, team and driver were back together in the second chassis of the original design, the N174/MN02, which served all the way up into 1976. But after a disastrous Argentine practice in which Opel couldn't get the car to his liking, he quit the team with immediate effect and gifted his stock to Nunn. Rikky wasn't out of action for long, however. At the start of the European season he got the chance to hop into the second works Brabham. This was a pay driver seat which in the first three races of the season had occupied by Richard Robarts (who ironically had succeeded Opel as the Lombard North Central F3 champ). When Robarts' backing fell through, it was up for grabs for the well-funded Opel. Alas, the pukka works BT44 was too much for Rikky to take, as he just could not get the right amount of speed out of it, although he did finish 9th twice. After a non-qualification in his sixth outing at France he suddenly packed up and left his seat to Carlos Pace, who was to get a lot more out of it.

Meanwhile, Morris Nunn decided to continue his F1 operation, having found some backing from Hong Kong entrepeneur Teddy Yip to finish the 1974 season. The year was by no means sensational, Vern Schuppan and Mike Wilds unable to convert the car into a midfield contender. For 1975 there was promise when Dutch security company HB Bewaking paid for the Dave Baldwin-designed N175/MN04 (MN03 was never raced) which Gijs van Lennep debuted in France and got him a point in his last GP before his recovered countryman Roelof Wunderink returned to the team.

A row between Nunn and HB's Hoogenboom brothers (who had paid all the bills) saw the Dutchmen leave, nicely taking the MN04 along after it nearly came to assault and battery at the Ensign workshop. In 1976 this car was unfittingly entered as a Boro 001 for reigning European F3 champion Larry Perkins, while Brian Henton even took it out for two ridiculous appearances in 1977. What was presented as the first Dutch F1 car proved to be an outdated embarrassment - and it wasn't even Dutch in the first place.

Nunn continued in F1 until 1982 but the team remained a back-of-the-grid outfit throughout its F1 existence. Its best year probably was 1977, with Gianclaudio Regazzoni and Theodore-run Patrick Tambay getting the neat little N177s (chassis MN06 through MN08) into the points on several occasions, although Chris Amon's indian summer of 1976 in the N176/MN05 may also stand as Ensign's best - Chris' amazing 3rd on the grid in Sweden gave the team its best qualifying position ever. Nunn's departure from the highest echelon of motorsport was a sad affair however, its obsolete N181 design sold on to Yip to become Theodore N183s as late as 1983.

From his start in CART, Mo Nunn did what he has always done best: acting as a race engineer, allowing talent to shine. And rather successfully so. After taking Emerson Fittipaldi to the 1989 Indycar title at Patrick Racing, Nunn became the kingpin of Chip Ganassi's CART outfit. There he has been a key factor to the team's three straight Champ Car titles. The respective 1999 performances of his former protégé Alex Zanardi and Ganassi new boy Juan Pablo Montoya shed some true light on Nunn's significance to the team. Former CART dominator Zanardi failed to impress in F1 while his Colombian rookie replacement stormed towards Ganassi's fourth title in a row before Mo decided to start his own team. One is inclined to admit that Morris Nunn is the true CART champion of the past decade…

Reader's Why by David Martin

Rikky von Opel, 4th generation descendent of Opel car company founder Adam Opel, founder of the, and heir to the family fortune, dabbled in motor racing during the first half of the 1970s. Obviously the brevity of the Opel name and the money that went with it was of some concern to Rikky, as he started his career in Formula Ford under the pseudonym Antonio Bronco, which seems a little unlikely for a German descended resident of Liechtenstein! He showed some talent and by 1972 the pseudonym had disappeared, and von Opel was racing Formula 3 in Britain. He found some measure of success during the '72 season driving for the Ensign team, winning the Lombard North Central Championship and finishing runner-up in the Forward Trust Championship.

In 1973 Ensign decided to move up into Formula 1, bringing von Opel with them as both driver and financial backer, and managed to make the last eight races of the season with a single car. The teams, and von Opels, F1 debut at Paul Ricard certainly was not the worst witnessed. Von Opel qualified the car last on the grid, but finished, placing 15th, down three laps. The next outing, at Silverstone, improved on the qualifying performance in France by putting the Ensign 21st, ahead of names such as John Watson. Jackie Oliver, and Graham Hill. The race went less well, von Opel finishing a distant 6 laps down on winner Peter Revsons McLaren. These first two races marked the only finishes for the team during the 1973 season. Zandvoort provided what was probably the highlight of the season, qualifying a creditable 14th on the 24 car grid, but von Opel was unable to start the race because of a cracked chassis. The damaged Ensign was not entered at the Nürburgring a week later but returned for the Austrian Grand Prix, qualifying 19th and retiring after 34 laps with fuel system problems. The photograph, taken at Monza, also saw a good qualifying performance with von Opel starting 17th, but the Ensign expired after only 10 laps with an overheated engine. Canada saw von Opel start 25th and was not classified, running a huge 12 laps behind at race end. Watkins Glen, a weekend marred the death by François Cevert during practice, proved to be the least competitive race of the season for Ensign. Von Opel qualified a very distant last, some 6 seconds behind pole sitter Ronnie Petersen, and he was forced to retire on the opening lap with a jammed throttle.

Von Opel returned in 1974 to contest the season opener in Argentina for Ensign. Unfortunately the year-old N173 was uncompetitive and he could do no better than qualify last, a gigantic 7 seconds off the pole pace, and the car was not started in the race. Nothing was seen of Ensign in the paddock again until the 5th race of the season at Nivelles, with Australian Vern Schuppan, who later went on to win at the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1983, at the wheel of the new N174. That aborted attempt in Argentina marked the end of the association between von Opel and Ensign. The 1974 Spanish GP at Jarama saw von Opel return to the fray, this time in a factory Brabham, the team under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone. Von Opel was badly out-qualified by team-mate Carlos Reutemann, and retired from the race after 10 laps with an oil leak. A mid race retirement at Nivelles was followed by a DNQ at Monaco, a pair of 9th places at Andersdorp and Zandvoort, and another DNQ at Paul Ricard. After the French Grand Prix, Brazilian Carlos Pace replaced von Opel. Those mid-season appearances for Brabham were the last by von Opel in a Formula 1 car, bringing a short and unremarkable 14-race career to a close.