The Legend of the Flying Donkey: AGS and the Team Which Would Not Die

Every April, the inhabitants of the southern French town of Gonfaron gather to decorate an effigy of a donkey. As the sun sets, the effigy is burned on a bonfire as the townspeople have a party. Perhaps in today’s busy, materialistic world it’s a strange or parochial custom, but its good fun—and a way of keeping a legend alive.

According to the legend, in 1645 the village had been preparing for the annual celebration in honour of their patron saint, St. Quinis. The party involved a procession through the streets of the village, and hence the powers-that-be ordered inhabitants to clean up their homes, and the road. One obstreperous individual refused to do so, declaring (to paraphrase) “that if St. Quinis finds the road too dirty, he’ll have to just fly over it”. However, the party passed off uneventfully and the incident was forgotten.

However, later as the lazy villager returned down the mountain on his donkey, it was allegedly agitated by some insects. The donkey ran over the edge of the ravine where (according to witnesses presumably overly fond of the local vintage) instead of plummeting to the ground, it apparently flew gracefully to the other side—depositing its lazy rider unceremoniously on his own… ass.

Hence, the story went out that St. Quinis had got his revenge by making the villager’s donkey fly, and Gonfaron became known as le pays où les ânes volent (”the land where donkeys fly”). A fanciful tale perhaps, but one which sums up the local character—what comes around goes around, and simple hard work and dignity are their own rewards.

Gonfaron isn’t far from Paul Ricard. In its modern iteration an unloved former host of the French Grand Prix, back in the 1980s it represented perhaps the apogee of French influence on Formula 1. With Alain Prost the driver of the decade, multiple other French drivers, and no less then three French teams to cheer on, it was a popular event on the sporting calendar. Few casual fans attracted by the event would have known however that for one of the teams competing, the Paul Ricard GP was not just a home event, but one virtually in their back garden.

That team was AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaise Sportives, to give them their Sunday name), one of those 1980s micro-teams like Coloni and Osella which made Minardi look like Ferrari. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unkind to suggest that their cars were not dissimilar to a flying donkey. However, while they may have dropped out of F1, AGS would not die—and like Gonfaron’s donkey, have become a well-loved part of the locality.

The roots of the team are found in local garage owner Henri Julien’s enthusiasm for motorsports – as early as 1950 he was racing his self-built cars in local events. However, it was not until 1968 that he founded AGS, along with his apprentice, Christian Vanderpleyn. Together, they developed the JH4, which proved reasonably competitive in the new Formule France category.

Ten years on, after some competitive showings but without ever achieving the breakthrough win, AGS graduated to European Formula Two with the BMW-powered JH15. As an independent team developing their own car against the massed ranks of Marches, Martinis and Ralts, results were slow in coming. Finally Richard Dallest won at Pau and Zandvoort in 1980, giving AGS their first wins as a constructor. In 1983, Phillippe Streiff finished 4th in the European F2 championship, and was victorious in the last-ever F2 race in Europe at Brands Hatch in 1984. As F2 was phased out and F3000 introduced, AGS began plans for graduation to F1.

From today’s perspective, the very idea of a largely unsuccessful junior constructor with next to no staff or money moving into F1 seems insane. But back in the mid 80s there was some merit in the attempt; if you could make a half-way decent car and run it reliably, there was always the chance of a point or two. Even larger teams had relatively poor reliability by today’s standards, and technological development was much slower. If you had a sensible designer, enough money to do a little testing, a hungry driver and a bit of luck, there was no reason why a tiny team such as AGS couldn’t get on the scoreboard.

And so it proved. Ivan Capelli qualified the first F1 AGS, the Motori-Moderni turbo JH21C, for both the races it entered at Monza and Estoril in 1986. While he retired both times, it was a marker for the future. Although the car was based on cast-off Renault parts (and looked it), already AGS had done better than many of its contemporaries. Developed over the winter the lashed-up car, now renamed the JH22 and fitted with Cosworth power, proved capable of regular qualification (if little else) in the hands of Pascale Fabre in 1987. By season’s end, however, he had been replaced by perennial F1 fall-guy Roberto Moreno. In Australia, he bagged a terrific 6th place to record AGS’s first World Championship point.

1988 showed further improvement. AGS F2 old boy Streiff returned to the fold, after some promising seasons with Tyrrell. While he failed to add to the team’s points tally, he helped transform the team from tail-end Charlies into a respectable mid-field enterprise. The high spot was lining up 10th at Canada, but elsewhere Streiff’s excellent qualifying record was ruined by bad luck and poor reliability. All this was undone when long-time designer Vanderpleyn defected to fellow F1 minnows Coloni, taking with him much of the team’s technical staff and management. Seemingly the politics at the cheap end of the pitlane were as merciless as those at the sharp end!

However, future touring car star Jo Winkelhock joined Streiff in AGS’s first two-car line up. Tragically, on the eve of the new season, AGS was dealt another body blow; testing at Rio, Streiff crashed the car heavily. Badly injured, he thankfully recovered but remained paralysed from the waist down (sadly, he would pass away in 2022). The injury to his friend caused Julien to take stock of his affairs. Disheartened, he sold the team to businessman Cyrile de Reuve.

At short notice AGS drafted in another perennial F1 backmarker, the underrated Gabriele Tarquini. Happily, he was nothing short of a revelation, and in his first six races finished an amazing 8th at Imola, 6th in Mexico and 7th at Phoenix. That point in Mexico was the first and last of the season, however. Winkelhock had failed to qualify the car in all his outings, and was replaced by Yannick Dalmas.

Things went from bad to worse. The new JH24 was a step back, and for the remainder of the season Tarquini could not qualify; Dalmas meanwhile failed to get past pre-qualifying. Off the track, things were taking shape though—previous Vanderpleyn loyalist Michel Costa returned to the AGS fold as Chief Designer, and the team moved into a purpose-built facility complete with test-track at Le Luc.

Things were little better in 1990, though. The definitive 1990 JH25 car didn’t arrive until the summer, and while it allowed Tarquini and Dalmas to at least scrape onto the grid more often than not, the best result was a flukey 9th for Dalmas. New white elephant HQ notwithstanding, it was clear that AGS were in serious financial straights now. Over the winter, a merger with fellow Gallic strugglers Larrousse was discussed but come Phoenix 1991, AGS rolled out the old JH25, with the ever-loyal Tarquini and a clearly wildly optimistic Stefan Johannson behind the wheels. Miraculously, Tarquini finished in 8th place, offering a lifeline, but celebratory dinner for the team involved a trip to McDonalds—paid for on de Reuve’s credit card. Meanwhile, the team’s lawyers sought legal protection from their creditors.

A state of impasse enlivened by Tarquini’s top-20 grid slot at Monaco ended with Patrizio Cantu and Gabriele Raffanelli acquiring the team. They brought back Vanderpleyn, repainted the cars, axed Johannson and recruited Fabrizio Barbazza. Sadly, the new JH27 proved equally uncompetitive and the Spanish GP saw AGS’s last, unsuccessful attempt at escaping the horrors of pre-qualifying. Finally, AGS’s simple hard graft had been swamped by their rivals money and sophistication.

But having already survived two crippling blows—Vanderpleyn’s defection (he would sadly lose his life in a road accident in 1992 while working for fellow minnows Fondmetal) and Streiff’s accident—AGS proved to be stronger than most reckoned. With a relatively modern F1 facility, on site test track and a motley collection of basic F1 cars, they were soon back in business—as the first race school to allow Joe Public the opportunity to drive a bona-fide F1 car.

From humble beginnings, this enterprise has grown, acquiring more modern F1 cars, building a two seater and becoming arguably the world’s leading F1 experience, right up until the death of Julien in 2013.

In 2019, AGS was taken over by Willy Collignon, the Belgian founder and owner of the First Motorsport really team. Today, not only does AGS offers driving experiences from Formula 4 to Formula 1, they organise and participate in historic racing events, and re-build classic racing cars—including the ex-Tarquini AGS JH24 and JH25, both now back up and running.

Thanks to that, the name Automobiles Gonfaronnaise Sportives lives on. Perhaps in today’s high-tech, high-finance F1 world AGS is a strange or parochial set-up, but its good fun – and it’s a way of keeping a legend alive.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on Chequered Flag Motorsport (an early predecesser to Champagne + Slicks) in September 2006. Reproduced with permission.

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