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Among the long list of Formula One teams that are now consigned to history are many that can boast an illustrious history, with wins – and sometimes even championships – to their credit.

There is also one that, despite a quarter of a century of continuous presence on the grid, can be considered the team that nearly did, the one that touched on the edges of greatness yet never quite got the breaks.

Arrows, a name that fans of 1980’s F1 will know only too well.

Perhaps the founders of the team, an experienced quartet consisting of Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass and renowned designer Tony Southgate – plus an Italian businessman named Franco Ambrosio providing much of the finance – should have taken note of the ill-omens that came with the foundation of Arrows in 1978, for when they unveiled their very neat and tidy first chassis – the FA1 – rival team Shadow immediately sued for copyright infringement.

Arrows FA1

Arrows FA1 courtesy diseno-art.com and Stuart McCafferty

The four named founders had left Shadow the previous year to form their own team, and even the casual fan could see that the FA1 was a direct copy of the Shadow DN9, the car they had left behind.

Shadow DN9 F1 car

Shadow DN9A By Russell Whitworth (cropped from Shadow DN9A (John Grant)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The High Court upheld the claim, and the new team was unceremoniously banned from racing, unless they could produce a new car. This they did, in an astonishing 52 days.

Notably, it was named the Arrows A1, as Ambrosio had by this time been indicted for financial irregularities and would soon be jailed. Not a great start, then, but the new team was there at the second round in Brazil, ready to flex its muscles and show that a new team could be a contender.

Arrows A1 F1 car

Arrows A1 By David Merrett from Daventry, England (Arrows A1Uploaded by Sporti) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Early Promise

It could possibly be said that no team in the history of the sport had got off to such a problematic start.

They had signed the promising and likeable young Swede, Gunnar Nilsson, to lead the team. Tragically, Nilsson was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and never got to drive the car. He would succumb to his illness later in the year.

His replacement was the young Italian Riccardo Patrese, who was about to begin a career in the sport that began with him as the most controversial ‘wild child’ on the grid, and would close many years later with him regarded as the ultimate elder statesman and highly regarded ‘number 2’ driver.

Riccardo Patrese

Riccardo Patrese By Dijk, Hans van / Anefo / neg. stroken, 1945-1989, 2.24.01.05, item number 932-2367 [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

So far, then, not so good, but despite the many hurdles that had been put in their way, this gallant team of driven and determined men set about making a name for themselves. These were the days, of course, when a new team could buy an off-the-shelf Cosworth V8 and be competitive.

They only had the one car ready for Brazil – where Patrese duly qualified and finished in 10th place – albeit four laps down. For the next race, in South Africa, Patrese qualified an excellent 7th, only to be let down by an engine failure.

What is often forgotten is that the engine let go when Patrese was in the lead – in only the second race for the team – and quite comfortably so. The fact that, during its entire existence, Arrows would never win a Grand Prix makes this result historically even more galling for those involved.

All in all, then, the new Arrows team had made quite an impact in a short time, and certainly raised eyebrows during the ’78 season. Patrese would score points in a number of races – among them a fine 2nd place in the Swedish Grand Prix, a race famous for the debut, and finale, of the legendary Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’ which used a loophole in the rules so advantageous, that the team-owner Bernie Ecclestone would agree to never run the car again as he knew everybody would simply copy it, and the advantage would be eroded.

1979 and All That

Patrese had gained a reputation as something of a loose cannon among his peers, and was involved in a number of incidents where the blame was squarely laid at his door. The culmination of this was that fingers of blame were pointed at the young Italian as the cause of the start line accident that resulted in grave injuries to Ronnie Peterson at Monza in 1978.

The teams grouped together and barred Patrese from the next race at Watkins Glen. He – and the team – were incensed, as they believed (quite rightly, as is now accepted) that he in fact had nothing to do with the accident. It was an unsavoury moment that smacked of a witch-hunt, and had a profound effect on the young man at the time.

1979 saw practically every team copying the Lotus’s game-changing ‘ground-effect’ design from the previous year. Because the process involved was not yet fully understood, some teams got it right, and others got it wrong (Lotus, curiously, were one of the teams who went the wrong way).

Riccardo Patrese with his Arrows A1B at Imola in 1979

Riccardo Patrese with his Arrows A1B at Imola in 1979. By Gilberto Benni from Bologna, Italia [CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Arrows began the season with a ‘b’ version of the A1, but when the new A2 was introduced at the French Grand Prix, half-way through the season, it was clearly the most radical design F1 had seen in a long time. Low-slung, with a sharp nose and no front wings, long sidepods and a low rear wing, it really looked the part.

Arrows A2 F1 car

Arrows A2 By MPW57 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, it was a step too far, and was desperately unsuccessful in the hands of Patrese and new signing Jochen Mass. The problem was that it worked ‘too well’; the amount of downforce generated was simply colossal, and this meant the car handled very badly. Too much, then, of a good thing.

The A2 was replaced by the conventional A3 – essentially a copy of the Williams FW07 – for 1980, and this car would provide some fine performances. The best was a second place for Patrese at Long Beach. A revised A3 ran in 1981, and Patrese took pole position in the opening race and led until his engine began misfiring. Another potential victory for this popular team lost.

The End in Sight

Post 1981, the Arrows story is a curious mix of almost-there success and odd direction changes, including a strange link-up with a very dodgy Nigerian ‘Prince’, a brief dalliance with Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR organisation, a disastrous partnership with Porsche and another ‘nearly-win’ for none other than World Champion Damon Hill.

Damon Hill in a Arrows Yamaha A18 car leading the 1997 Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix

Damon Hill in a Arrows Yamaha A18 car leading the 1997 Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix. By Race27 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

However, small, independent teams were having trouble keeping up with the big boys and, despite some highly acclaimed cars in the later years – and a wealth of impressive drivers – the writing was on the wall in the early part of the 21st century.

By 2002, money was barely available, and the sight of both drivers deliberately trying NOT to qualify for the French Grand Prix was embarrassing for all involved in this once-determined and lively team. Arrows went into liquidation at the end of the year, with all attempts to revive the team unsuccessful.

Arrows holds the record for the most entries without a win – some 382 races – which is a testament to the fact that they were one of the last of an old breed, a team in F1 to race, and only to race.

Those involved can hold their heads high and say ‘we tried, and we tried our best’ and revel in the days when they did put in giant-killing performances, for that era of the sport is now well and truly in the past.