Spirit F1 owner and Le Mans-winning Bentley team boss John Wickham dies aged 73

John Wickham, who co-owned the Spirit Formula 1 team of the early 1980s and oversaw Bentley’s 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours victory, has died aged 73 after a long illness.

Spirit F1 owner and Le Mans-winning Bentley team boss John Wickham dies aged 73

His role with the Spirit team, which brought Honda back into F1 in 1983, and the first of two stints at Bentley as team director of the organisation that triumphed at Le Mans with the Speed 8 LM-GTP coupe were just two chapters of a varied and successful motorsport management career spanning five decades.

Wickham, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2019, worked all over the world, in a variety of different racing categories and for multiple manufacturers in that time.

He was team manager at March Engineering when Marc Surer won the 1979 European Formula 2 Championship and at the Audi Sport UK squad when the German manufacturer claimed the British Touring Car Championship title at the first attempt in 1996 with Frank Biela.

He was also general manager, technical and operations, of the A1 Grand Prix World Cup of Motorsport throughout its four-season life between 2005 and ’09.

He returned to Bentley in early 2012 to mastermind the marque’s re-entry into motorsport with the Continental GT3 racer and was team manager of the factory M-Sport squad in 2014-15.

Long-time Bentley motorsport boss Brian Gush remembers a “master organiser who was always on top of everything”.

“That’s why I brought John back when we did the GT3 programme, because he was the ideal person to handle all the intricacies of FIA homologation,” said Gush.

Wickham’s motorsport career began at the British Automobile Racing Club as competitions manager before moving to Surtees to manage its F2 operations for the 1973 season as a 23-year-old.

Stefan Johansson, Spirit 201C Honda, in the pitlane with team manager John Wickham and designer Gordon Coppuck

Stefan Johansson, Spirit 201C Honda, in the pitlane with team manager John Wickham and designer Gordon Coppuck

After a further stint at the BARC, Wickham was back in the F2 paddock with March for 1979.

Contact with Honda while at the Bicester-based constructor resulted in an invite to set up a team focused fully on the marque’s F2 programme with the two-litre V6 introduced in 1980.

Wickham left March along with designer Gordon Coppuck to establish Spirit for 1982, narrowly missing out on the title that year with its Honda-engined 201 chassis driven by Thierry Boutsen.

Honda made its return to the pinnacle of the sport with a modified Spirit F2 car at the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in April, after which the team contested six of the final grands prix.

PLUS: The Spirit of '83 - Honda's first return

Honda had already started talks with Williams, which was running a Honda-engined turbo car by the end of the season and demanded exclusivity of supply for ’84.

Spirit limped through into the 1985 season with Hart power — and for one race a Cosworth DFV — before selling its Pirelli tyre deal to Toleman to pay off its debuts and subsequently closed its doors.

Wickham went to Le Mans for the first time in 1987 after joining the TOM’S GB squad late the previous year: he helped ramp up its activities in Formula 3, touring cars and sportscars.

A second stint in F1 followed in 1990 to 1994 when he negotiated the Japanese Footwork organisation’s purchase of Arrows.

He became a director of the operation and from 1991 team manager as well.

It wasn’t his last foray in F1: Wickham was parachuted into the fledgling HRT team for a brief stint ahead of its F1 entry in 2011; and then made another return with a short-lived management role at Lotus Renault GP late that year.

Two spells working with British entrant Richard Lloyd yielded Wickham’s greatest successes.

PLUS: Richard Lloyd - Remembering a racing pioneer and deal-maker

They set up the Audi Sport UK squad that won 15 BTCC races in 1996-98 and fielded the ill-fated Audi R8C coupe at Le Mans in 1999.

Tom Kristensen/Rinaldo Capello/Guy Smith, Bentley, centre,
Johnny Herbert/David Brabham/Mark Blundell Bentley, left,
Stefan Johansson/JJ Lehto/Emanuele Pirro, Champion Racing, right.
Le Mans 24 Hours, 14-15 June 2003

Tom Kristensen/Rinaldo Capello/Guy Smith, Bentley, centre, Johnny Herbert/David Brabham/Mark Blundell Bentley, left, Stefan Johansson/JJ Lehto/Emanuele Pirro, Champion Racing, right. Le Mans 24 Hours, 14-15 June 2003

Photo by: Mark Capilitan

After a year running a pair of Reynard LMP cars in the American Le Mans Series and at Le Mans for former Spirit and Footwork driver Stefan Johansson, Wickham was reunited with Lloyd at Team Bentley as the British marque made a bid for a first victory in the French enduro since 1930.

Initially an employee Lloyd’s Apex team, he transferred onto the Bentley payroll for the final year of the programme when Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith led home a 1-2 for the team.

After the Le Mans victory in 2003, Bentley quit motorsport and Wickham helped run British constructor Zytek’s LMP programme.

That led to a chance meeting with A1GP founder Sheikh Maktoum, which resulted in him becoming employer number one of the fledgling series.

He initially ran the test team for the Zytek-powered Lola one-maker racer, then put together the infrastructure for the series - including sourcing the giant base for all the teams in the Woodcote hanger at Silverstone - and subsequently ran the series on a day-to-day basis until its demise.

Wickham’s second stint with Bentley continued until 2017, but he was due to start working as a weekend TM for the Team Parker Racing Bentley squad in the British GT Championship in 2018 when he was struck down by illness, which was subsequently diagnosed as MND.

Charlie Whiting, FIA delegate and John Wickham, General Manager, Technical & Operations - A1GP

Charlie Whiting, FIA delegate and John Wickham, General Manager, Technical & Operations - A1GP

Photo by: A1GP

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