Ponzi Schemes and Bin Laden: F1’s Most Unusual Sponsors

From shady financiers through to non-existent energy drinks and from fraudulent oilmen to adult magazines, we take a look back at some of the most unusual sponsors to grace Formula 1.

Bin Laden

Those little ‘Bin Laden’ stickers on the side of the Williams FW07 didn’t attract much attention… until 9/11 when F1 forums lit up with internet sleuths looking into the link between Williams and the world’s most famous terrorist.

The logos did refer to the bin Laden family, but had nothing to do with Osama himself. Rather they advertised the Saudi Binladen Group construction company, run at the time by some of the the sons of founder Mohammad bin Laden, a man who fathered 52 children including Osama.

Osama wasn’t involved in the company, which was one of a number of Williams Saudi sponsors that also included Saudi-Airlines and Albilad-hotels (the latter which was also part of the bin Laden group).

Andrea Moda

Italian shoe magnate Andrea Sassetti bought Coloni at the end of 1991 (Coloni never once made it out of pre-qualifying that year…) with the intention of competing in 1992 under the name of his Andrea Moda footwear brand.

The team turned up in Kyalami with Alex Caffi and Enrico Bertaggia and a pair of Coloni C4Bs painted black, only to be blocked from participating by the FIA who argued that Sassetti had only bought the assets of Coloni and not their entry.

After stumping up the $100,000 entry fee and missing round two in Mexico (because their cars weren’t ready), Andrea Moda made their debut at round three in Brazil with a Simtek-built chassis and two new drivers in Robert Moreno and Perry McCarthy.

The shambolic affair lasted half a season, finally coming to an end at the Belgian Grand Prix after poor McCarthy was sent out with a broken steering column and Sassetti was arrested for forging invoices. The FIA had enough and booted the team out for bringing the “Championship into disrepute”.


Jean-Pierre Van Rossem was an occasional heroin addict, politician and fraudster (that’s quite the CV…) who conceived Moneytron as a statistical model which could ‘beat’ the stock market to deliver returns for investors.

A flawed genuis, the larger-than-life Van Rossem convinced the likes of the Belgian Royal Family to invest in Moneytron. It sounded too good to be true and it was: Moneytron was no more than supercomputer coupled with a Ponzi scheme shuffling commissions from new members to old.

Van Rossem kept the plates spinning long enough to acquire 108 Ferraris and two Falcon 900 business jets. He also bought a stake in the Onyx team and would often be found in the Formula 1 paddock swigging from a can of Fanta, cigarette between his fingers. Despite promising results in 1989, Van Rossem soon lost interest and pulled his support the following year.

In 1991 he was sentenced to five years jail for fraud. In true Van Rossem style, he delayed imprisonment by forming libertarian political party ROSSEM and claiming political immunity.


Forti Corse’s graduation to Formula 1 from Formula 3000 was in financial free-fall by mid-1996 when the mysterious ‘Shannon Racing’ emerged as savior. On the eve of the Spanish GP it was announced that Shannon would take a 51% stake in Guido Forti’s team.

The FG03s were painted green and red in deference to Shannon, an Irish-registered company which was part of the Milan-based FinFirst financial group set up Herman Gartz, a shadowy Italian-German fraudster with alleged links to the Russian mafia.

After the deal was finalised on June 30, Shannon had six days to come up with the funds to complete the takeover. They failed to pay, and an ownership tussle ensued in the Italian courts. Meanwhile, debt continued to mount and Cosworth withdrew engine supply.

After an initial ruling in favour of Shannon, Forti wrestled control back of his crumbling team. But facing a $2 million fine from the FIA for missing two races, the team closed it’s doors, another fallen domino in Herman Gartz’s empire.


Rarely seen without his trademark square sunglasses and black hat, eccentric oil baron David Thieme was the man behind the Essex Oil Company, a one-man company which first appeared on Lotus’ sidepods in 1979.

The following year Essex took over as title sponsor, taking corporate hospitality to a new level with extravagant launch parties, a dazzling chrome, blue and red livery, and a VIP bus for guests to sip champagne trackside.

But trouble was brewing. Lean results and the banning of the double-chassis Lotus 88 were compounded when Thieme was arrested by Swiss police on fraud charges. The VIP bus and a $7.6 million jet were impounded and Thieme and Essex disappeared from F1.

Rich Energy

A bank balance of £581, a ZZ Top-bearded CEO, and a rarely sighted energy drink product are hardly the ingredients for a modern-day Formula 1 sponsor.

And so there was great cynicism when Rich Energy popped up as Haas’s 2019 title sponsor, with many questioning whether the product even existed. CEO William Storey responded, suggesting the accusations were the same as “saying man never walked on the moon, or Elvis is still alive”.

The odd can did find it’s way to race tracks (I was handed one on the way into the 2019 Australian GP), but there were other problems. Rich Energy was soon sued by Whyte Bikes for copying their logo, while at the British GP Storey took to Twitter to ‘sack’ an under-performing Haas by posting a bizarre image of himself behind the wheel of a milk float in Haas colours.

A group attempting to seize control claimed that the tweets where the “the rogue actions” of an individual no longer associated with the company. An outraged Storey declared there was a ‘coup’ against him, but it didn’t matter: Haas dropped Rich by the Italian GP.


After a difficult 1998 season, things looked up for 1999 when Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim (the third son of a Nigerian tribal king) with the backing of private equity firm Morgan Grenfell announced he would take a 60% stake in the team.

Arrows started the season with a ‘T-Minus’ countdown on their cars and promises of a “big surprise”. When the countdown finally got to 0 at Imola, a press release announced the launch of the T-Minus brand which had been “devised by Prince Malik to provide Arrows with its own exclusive F1 brand” (“WOW!” said no one).

Arrows went on to explain that T-Minus would “appear on a wide range of high quality products, from energy drinks and clothing, through to limited editions made by prestigious global manufacturers”, the latter allegedly including Ducati and Lamborghini.

The drinks were rarer than Rich Energy, and the Ducatis and Diablos never materialised. By September (by which time T-Minus had failed to generate a single dollar…), the Prince had failed to stump up the funds to complete his takeover, and he and T-Minus disappeared for good.

Southern Organs

David Morgan made a one-off appearance at the 1975 British GP with ‘National Organs’ emblazoned down the side of his Surtees, but it was in Formula Atlantic and Saloon Car Racing where Sydney Miller’s Southern Organs made their presence felt.

The group linked financiers with churches to provide them with expensive organs. If you think that sounds dodgy, it was. With 100 fake hire-purchase agreements signed, churches not receiving organs, and no one getting paid, authorities quickly cottoned on.

Miller and co-founder John Bellord fled to Priest’s Island, hiding in a bothy before holing up in a caravan until police located them. The pair were sentenced to six years in jail where Dave Morgan was amongst Miller’s visitors, later commenting that he was the most popular bloke in there.


Surtees’ 1976 sponsorship deal with the London Rubber Company’s Durex condom brand was so controversial at the time that it caused the BBC to pull the plug on Formula 1 coverage.

Driving around in a cigarette packet on wheels was completely fine… But condoms? Murray Walker later recalled how the BBC considered condom sponsorship to be “totally unacceptable for family viewing”.

At the Race of Champions in March, the BBC gave Surtees an ultimatum. Remove the logos or we won’t cover the race. Durex provided Surtees with a “decent sum of money” and so the stickers stayed and the BBC left.

A short highlights package of the British Grand Prix on ITV aside, Formula 1 remained off British television screens for the rest of the year until growing public interest in the Hunt-Lauda championship battle saw the BBC televise the Japanese GP.


Looking back now, it’s hilarious to think that at the same time as the BBC was trying to keep Durex off TV there was a Penthouse-sponsored Hesketh parading around – complete with a crudely painted image of a suggestive French maid holding a packet of Rizlas.

By 1976 James Hunt and Lord Hesketh had departed Hesketh leaving Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley  to continue on with Guy Edwards and Harold Ertl driving. Hunt and Hesketh had gone, but the team’s reputation for fun mate them a natural fit for Penthouse.

The men’s magazine remained with the fading Hesketh outfit before switching backing to Arrows where they remained until 1981.

Scott Russell

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