10 March 2019

DIY racing. Fascinating F1 Facts: 100

In the movie Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear makes an apposite remark as he and Sheriff Woody are hurtling through the air (as you do). "This isn't flying," Buzz says, "this is falling - with style."

We all know that humans cannot fly. Nor can most animals and there are plenty of adynata, in different languages, which make this point that some things are impossible. The English say that "if pigs could fly" or "when Hell freezes over", the French talk of chickens growing teeth. The Italians talk about "when donkeys fly".

Flying donkeys seem rather unlikely, but each spring in the village of Gonfaron, in Provence, there is a festival to celebrate a flying donkey. There seem to be several different versions of the legend but one involves a grumpy old man refusing to tidy his house when a religion procession was due to pass by. The old boy remarked that if Saint Quninis didn't like his house, he could always fly over it. Some time later, the same old fellow was out riding his donkey on the steep hill to the north of the village. The donkey was bitten by an insect and took off at high speed, throwing off the rider and charging over a cliff and into a deep ravine. It wasn't flying, it was falling (probably without much style) but the villagers were amused: Saint Quinis had taught the old man a lesson - and a donkey had flown.

Still, history relates that nothing is impossible in Gonfaron… In the middle of the village there used to be the Garage de l'Avenir. Today it has been converted into a bakery, but it was once a wheelwright shop, belonging to the Julien family. When Henri Julien was born in 1927 the family had already converted this into a garage and the youngster grew up with cars all around him. He learned to be a mechanic with his father and then at various dealerships in nearby Toulon but at 19 discovered his real passion when he went to see the 1946 Grand Prix of Nice.

He decided that he would become a racing driver. He didn't have the money to buy a car and so he decided to build one himself a special basd around a 500cc Simca. He called the car the JH1 and he competed in local events. The following year he built a second special, which was lighter than the original and powered by a BMW engine and there followed a series of cars with Panhard engines which he raced in Formula Junior, even taking part in the Monaco race in his Julien-Panhards in 1959 and 1960. Finally, in 1965, he retired from driving. He was 38 and it was too late for him to go further.

For three years he ran the garage but the arrival of Formula France in 1968 presented an opportunity and so for 1969 he set up Automobile Gonfaronnaise Sportive and began building AGS racing cars, the first being the JH4. These were raced by Gerard Cerruti and Francois Rabbione and in 1970 at Pau, driving the new JH5s Cerruti finished third and Rabbione fourth. The series became Formula Renault in 1971 and the JH6 was raced by Francois Guerre-Berthelot and in the years that followed there were different versions of the car for Formula Renault and for Formula 3 and Richard Dallest delivered strong results in 1977 and Julien decided that he would try Formula 2 in 1978. Two years later Dallest won two races at Pau and at Zandvoort. The 1981 season was disappointing but for 1982 Julien took on two youngsters – Philippe Streiff and Pascal Fabre – and both scored points with Streiff sixth in the championship. He was fourth in 1983 and again in 1984 but finally managed to win a race at the very last round of the European F2 Championship at Brands Hatch. The relationship continued in 1985 in the new Formula 3000 but Julien had by then set his sights on Formula 1 and dropped out of Formula 3000. He acquired an old Renault chassis, rebuilt it with a Motori Moderni engine in the back and the JH21C made its first appearance at the Italian GP with Ivan Capelli driving.

It was revamped in 1987 with a Cosworth engine and the clothing firm El Charro funded Fabre although at the end of the year Julien put in Roberto Moreno an in Australia he finished sixth, scoring AGS's first F1 point.

The 1988 JH23 was a new car but it was very unreliable and at the end of the year, Julien suffered a big setback when his two designers quit to join the new Coloni team and Julien had to go into 1989 with a modified old car. Sadly, when testing in Brazil, Streiff crashed heavily and suffered neck injuries which left his paralysed. Julien decided it was time to quit and sold the team to the flamboyant Cyril de Rouvre.

Julien went back to his roots, building 500cc specials in order to set new speed records. He died in 2013, at the age of 85 and in recent years the village has named a street in his honour...

It is a little-known fact that there was another AGS racing car that had nothing to do with Julien. It was called the Atelier Guérin Special and was built by Pierre Guerin in Grenoble. It was raced on hillclimbs in the 1950s by a Monsieur Allonso…

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