F1 team boss and Ron Dennis backer Tony Vlassopulos dies

A significant figure in future McLaren supremo Ron Dennis’s formative years as a team owner, and himself briefly the head of an F1 squad, Tony Vlassopulos died recently. He was 89.

F1 team boss and Ron Dennis backer Tony Vlassopulos dies

A barrister by profession, Vlassopulos was a circuit commentator at Goodwood, and some years later was put in touch with Dennis by John Phelps, the proprietor of an antiques emporium in Twickenham – Vlassopulos was a customer, and Dennis was dating Phelps’s daughter.

At that time, Dennis had just left Brabham to set up Rondel Racing to contest the 1971 Formula 2 season, and encouraged fellow ex-Brabham colleague Neil Trundle to join him, with up-and-coming Australian Tim Schenken as the intended lead driver.  

Vlassopulos told this writer for a story in F1 Racing in 2008: “Ron came over with Tim Schenken, and he gave me this very nice proposal. After that I spoke to my friends and they all said no – they could all have funded it 10 times over, but all Greeks [he had Greek heritage] are interested in is football and politics.

“I told Ron this, but then I heard myself saying, ‘Perhaps I could do it.’ Ron was very determined. I could see that this was a man who could go places.”  

Tim Schenken, Motul M1 Ford

Tim Schenken, Motul M1 Ford

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Vlassopulos brought on board Ken Grob, a friend of his from the insurance industry, while Phelps’s brother Dave took on the role of Rondel’s accountant.

Graham Hill also encouraged Rondel to run him in one of its Brabhams, and took a heat win for the team first time out at Hockenheim, before scoring a famous victory in the Easter Monday Thruxton round.

Rondel ran Brabhams again in 1972, with Carlos Reutemann joining the team for a parallel programme alongside his rookie F1 season, only for a broken ankle in a Thruxton shunt to derail his championship aspirations.

By this time, Dennis and Trundle were already preparing to turn constructors, and sponsorship from a French oil company meant their self-produced F2 car – designed by Ray Jessop, another ex-Brabham man – was named the Motul M1 when it appeared in 1973.

On the car’s second race outing at Thruxton, Henri Pescarolo headed home fellow Frenchman Bob Wollek for a Motul 1-2. During that season the team also ran world champion-to-be Jody Scheckter, future Le Mans winner Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, and exciting Welsh talent Tom Pryce, but it was Schenken who scored the Motul’s other victory, on the Norisring street circuit.

Schenken was slated as Rondel’s driver for the planned graduation to F1 in 1974, but the oil crisis struck and Motul shifted allegiance to BRM. Dennis, in financial trouble, sold his Feltham premises to Hill, whose own F1 team was getting established.

Together with Trundle, Vlassopulos and Grob rescued the F1 project, renamed it Token (the ‘To’ from Tony and ‘ken’ from Ken) and moved to a smaller workshop in Walton-on-Thames.

Schenken, who had rejoined former Brabham boss and designer Ron Tauranac at new F1 team Trojan when the Rondel project collapsed, remembers: “Tony could obviously see a future with Rondel, and was, as far as I am aware, the first to provide financial support to the team.

“He and his wife Sue were very hospitable, inviting me to their house for the odd dinner. This was always fun as Tony was an enthusiastic motorsport fan, so the conversation centred around this.

“I also spent the odd day on his boat, which he kept in Monte Carlo. He purchased it from Peter Sellers and retained the same crew – the captain had lots of amusing stories!”

Pryce’s manager Chris Meek had got involved to sponsor the new team, and Pryce was to give the Token RJ02 its debut – and his own in F1 – in the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone. The car, with teenaged future club-racing folk hero Ian Flux as a mechanic, only just made it to the track in time to qualify, but Pryce ran respectably until being sidelined by gear-linkage failure.

Tom Pryce, Token RJ02

Tom Pryce, Token RJ02

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Pryce then qualified a superb 20th out of the 32-car field for his world championship bow in the Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles, but failed to finish, and Token was not selected as an entrant for the following Monaco GP.

Vlassopulos also had a Formula 3 team named Ippokampos Racing and, in an inspired move, put Pryce behind the wheel of his March 743 for the Monaco support race – to the chagrin of its regular driver, Buzz Buzaglo. Pryce dominated against a quality field, and was now an F1 hot property. He eventually joined Shadow.

Token reappeared at the British Grand Prix, where David Purley failed to qualify, and for the German and Austrian Grands Prix with Ian Ashley at the wheel. It was Ashley who gave the team its only finish as an F1 constructor: 14th at the Nurburgring.

With Ashley’s sponsors electing to buy a Brabham, the Token project was sold to Safir Engineering for 1975. The renamed ‘Safir’ appeared in the Race of Champions and International Trophy with Tony Trimmer driving, but without success.

Vlassopulos kept some involvement for the 1975 F1 season by sponsoring James Hunt and the Hesketh F1 team for some races, before his formal involvement in the sport ended.

shares
comments

Related video

Renault says bad days were key to 2020 progress
Previous article

Renault says bad days were key to 2020 progress

Next article

Podcast: What MotoGP team boss Brivio will bring to Alpine

Podcast: What MotoGP team boss Brivio will bring to Alpine
Load comments
How F1 teams and personnel react in pressurised situations Prime

How F1 teams and personnel react in pressurised situations

OPINION: The pressure is firmly on Red Bull and Mercedes as Formula 1 2021 embarks on its final double-header. How the respective teams deal with that will be a crucial factor in deciding the outcome of the drivers' and constructors' championships, as Motorsport.com's technical consultant and ex-McLaren F1 engineer Tim Wright explains.

How getting sacked from Benetton made Mercedes' Allison Prime

How getting sacked from Benetton made Mercedes' Allison

He’s had a hand in world championship-winning Formula 1 cars for Benetton, Renault and Mercedes, and was also a cog in the Schumacher-Ferrari axis. Having recently ‘moved upstairs’ as Mercedes chief technical officer, James Allison tells Stuart Codling about his career path and why being axed by Benetton was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Formula 1
Nov 28, 2021
The remarkable qualities that propelled Kubica’s F1 comeback Prime

The remarkable qualities that propelled Kubica’s F1 comeback

It’s easy to look at Robert Kubica’s second Formula 1 career and feel a sense of sadness that he didn’t reach the heights for which he seemed destined. But as Ben Anderson discovered, performance and results are almost meaningless in this context – something more fundamental and incredible happened…

Formula 1
Nov 27, 2021
The humbling changes Ricciardo made to deliver for McLaren Prime

The humbling changes Ricciardo made to deliver for McLaren

From being lapped by his own teammate in Monaco to winning at Monza, it’s been a tumultuous first season at McLaren for Daniel Ricciardo. But, as he tells STUART CODLING, there’s more to the story of his turnaround than having a lovely summer holiday during Formula 1's summer break...

Formula 1
Nov 26, 2021
The potential benefits of losing the F1 constructors' title Prime

The potential benefits of losing the F1 constructors' title

As the battle continues to rage over the F1 2021 drivers' championship, teams up and down the grid are turning their attentions to the prize money attributed to each position in the constructors' standings. But F1's sliding scale rules governing wind tunnel and CFD use will soften the blow for those who miss out on the top places

Formula 1
Nov 25, 2021
The invisible enemy that's made Hamilton's title charge tougher Prime

The invisible enemy that's made Hamilton's title charge tougher

After winning his past few Formula 1 titles as a canter, Lewis Hamilton currently trails Max Verstappen by eight points heading into the final double-header of 2021. Although Red Bull has been his biggest on-track challenge, Hamilton feels that he has just as much to grapple with away from the circuit

Formula 1
Nov 24, 2021
Why F1's inconvenient penalties have to stay Prime

Why F1's inconvenient penalties have to stay

OPINION: Quibbles over the length of time taken by Formula 1's stewards over decisions are entirely valid. But however inconvenient it is, there can be no questioning the importance of having clearly defined rules that everyone understands and can stick to. Recent events have shown that ambiguity could have big consequences

Formula 1
Nov 23, 2021
The mistakes Red Bull cannot afford to repeat in F1 2021's title fight climax Prime

The mistakes Red Bull cannot afford to repeat in F1 2021's title fight climax

OPINION: Red Bull has had Formula 1’s fastest package for most of 2021, but in several of the title run-in events it has wasted the RB16B’s potential. It cannot afford to do so again with Lewis Hamilton motoring back towards Max Verstappen in the drivers’ standings with two rounds remaining

Formula 1
Nov 23, 2021