When Jean-Pierre Van Rossem launched his Moneytron machine, he did so with a massive claim: here was a supercomputer that could accurately predict the stock market and beat the capitalist system. Invest your hard-earned dollars in Moneytron, he said, and you will become infinitely rich. With his Moneytron earnings, Van Rossem became the majority owner of the Onyx Formula 1 team in 1989 – then things fell apart.
(Editor’s note: This week marks the release of Racing with rich energy: How a rogue sponsor took Formula 1 for a ride by Elizabeth Blackstock and Alanis King. To celebrate a book that started as a blog about Jalopnik, co-author Blackstock covers the history of some of F1’s other dodgy sponsors. These sponsors are discussed in the book, but not in depth. Run with rich energy is available through McFarland, Amazon, To light upand Europe for international buyers.)
If Jean-Pierre Van Rossem’s Moneytron machine sounded too good to be true, that’s because it was, and there were plenty of red flags that should have told potential investors it was. As a star economics student at Ghent University in Belgium, Van Rossem had already learned to rip off the system by charging other students to write their dissertations. MoneyWeek Reports. He was also a self-proclaimed Marxist who later studied market fluctuations under Nobel Prize winner Lawrence Klein.
Don’t let his background in economics fool you; Van Rossem was anything but a stuffy financier. Instead, he was the kind of man who established himself in the eyes of the world by publishing a guide to over 1,000 Belgian brothels (accompanied by a Michelin guide-style ranking for cleanliness, value for money- award, etc., according to his obituary on Independent), detailing his own sexual preferences in cartoon comics, writing novels, selling duplicate stocks, nursing a heroin addiction and, later, buying his place on an F1 team. He is also said to have built a refrigerated coffin to house his second wife, who died by suicide after meeting another woman, so he could keep her and see her again before he died.
“The spark came out of the idea” The temperature reported“when someone cut off the electricity to the grave.”
Of course, if his escapades didn’t quite tell you that he was a man of eclectic tastes, then perhaps his appearance could have revealed it:
As you can imagine, no one but Van Rossem actually seen the alleged Moneytron machine; he was locked in a room to which only Van Rossem held the key. But people still trusted this charismatic man, and enough wealthy people handed him their money that in 1989 he claimed to manage over $7 billion in assets, including the wealth of the Belgian royal family.
With all this money at his disposal, Van Rossem first invested in a Formula 3000 team, then carried his sponsorship into the ranks of Formula 1 with the Onyx team for the 1989 season thanks to driver Bertrand Gachot.
Prior to Moneytron’s funding, Onyx was quite successful in the junior F3000 ranks, taking seven wins during its three-year tenure and finishing second in the 1987 championship standings.
In a Sports car Van Rossem’s obituary, Onyx boss Mike Earl said he was “sad to hear he has passed away because without him we probably wouldn’t have made it to F1. He was flamboyant and unpredictable, but undoubtedly very smart and ultimately a nice guy if you sit with him away from the limelight.
After the 1987 F3000 season, Onyx began preparing for its introduction into F1. Paul Shakespeare bought majority shares in the team in late 1988 to provide him with the money he needed to continue developing a car; sponsorships from Marlboro and Moneytron bolstered the team’s finances.
But being a main sponsor wasn’t quite enough for Van Rossem; soon he bought Shakespeare’s shares, making him majority owner. With his money came young French driver Bertrand Gachot, who was paired with reliable veteran Stefan Johansson. By all accounts, Onyx Grand Prix was to be a success.
Unfortunately, the car only had just was ready to ship for the 1989 season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix, meaning there was no time for pre-season testing. As a result, the first six races of the season were something of a disaster; between failing pre-qualifying, retirements and disqualifications, it was not until July’s French Grand Prix that both drivers finished a race, with Johansson scoring points for his fifth-place finish. A podium later in the season in Portugal was the only other highlight of the season for the team. It wasn’t exactly a great start for a brand new team, but Onyx was confident that, despite the lack of results, they were still making progress.
That is, until Van Rossem started having really extravagant. Before the fourth race of the season in Phoenix, Arizona, Van Rossem purchased a $20 million Gulfstream IV business jet. Then, five races later, the press reported that he was interested in spending $40 million to fund Porsche’s F1 engine project; he then went on Belgian television to say that, if the deal with Porsche fell through, he would quit Formula One – a sport whose spending Van Rossem regularly bemoaned.
Then Van Rossem did the ultimate faux pas: He criticized the management of Formula 1. While Van Rossem asserted that he had no Actually telling a Belgian newspaper that Bernie Ecclestone was a Mafia boss or that FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre was a Nazi, Ecclestone had only to ban Van Rossem from the F1 paddock.
The team that once seemed so promising began to crumble at the end of the season and Van Rossem became more stingy with his financial donations. Crew chiefs Mike Earle and Jo Chamberlain both left the team, and Van Rossem, unable to secure an engine contract with either Porsche or Honda, retired from the sport before the 1990 season.
Without their wealthy benefactor, Onyx began to crumble. Half of the team was bought by former rider Peter Moteverdi, with Karl Foitek and Brune Frei sharing the other half equally. The new owners began the slow task of paying off bills from the previous season in order to acquire things like tires for 1990. Little money was invested in developing the car.
But things continued to fall apart. Onyx took on Foitek’s son Gregor as a driver to replace Stefan Johansson after two races; on the first lap Johansson destroyed two chassis, and after his replacement he sued Onyx for breach of contract. Amid rumors of broken parts, mismanagement and lack of funds, Onyx folded after the 10th race of the season, the Hungarian Grand Prix.
After selling his shares, Van Rossem disappeared in Belgium, where he was imprisoned for fraud after a bad check for $50 million. He was sentenced to five years in prison, noting during sentencing that “the good news is there will be one less capitalist in the world, the bad news is that’s me”.
However, after serving only a year in prison, the Belgian Parliament delayed his sentence because, incredibly, Van Rossem had founded his own political party (the Radical Transformers and Social Fighters for a More Honest Society; in Flemish, this acronym reads ROSSEM) and managed to get elected to Parliament. The country allowed parliamentary immunity, so Van Rossem was allowed to run freely.
Knowing that a prison sentence awaited him after he finished his term as leader of his libertarian protest party, Van Rossem published his brothel guide and interrupted his swearing-in ceremony in Parliament, shouting: “Vive la Republic of Europe”, an anti-monarchy cry. directed to the King of Belgium Albert II.
Van Rossem eventually returned to prison, serving time for forgery, money laundering, tax evasion and fraud. Inside he wrote his autobiography and remained one of Belgium’s most notable personalities until his death in 2018 at the age of 73.
Despite barely spending a year in Formula 1, Jean-Pierre Van Rossem has created a ripple effect that has both made and destroyed the Onyx Grand Prix team. The promise the team showed in 1989 has effectively been erased thanks to the benefactor who brought it to F1 in the first place, leaving the team and its passionate board of motorsport enthusiasts frustrated, broke and disenchanted. With nothing to sell, the once-promising Onyx died a frankly embarrassing death while Van Rossem went on to live a rich – and ridiculous – life.
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