Ricardo Londoño: when the Medellin Cartel entered Formula 1Written by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Nikos Arvanitis
Colombia’s modern political, financial and social history was marked by the constant battle of Colombian governments to overpower the action of drug dealers – a battle that cost the life of thousands of public officials and people at cartels, exceeded the national borders and designated as the most famous person of the country the notorious Medellin cartel leader, Pablo Escobar Gaviria.
Date of 1st publication: 18/07/16
The income of cocaine trafficking outnumbered the Colombian GDP on an annual basis and reasonably, “narcotraficantes” were pursuing the legalisation through investments in all social, cultural and sport activities of the country.
Escobar himself, as a motorsports addict, ran at domestic races, funded the construction of circuits and supported economically the career of local drivers – one of them was a guy of his age, Ricardo Londoño, known as “Cuchilla” (which means Blade).
Londoño was born at Medellin at August 8th, 1949 and was the best Colombian driver at domestic level in the ‘70s.
The absence of economic support made every thought of a career abroad a midsummer night’s dream, the situation though changed when drug dealers, with Escobar in front, turned to motor racing.
It was the best chance for him to have a better knowledge of his powerful fellow citizens and he took advantage of it by getting friendly connected with Escobar, his cousin and the cartel’s mastermind, Gustavo Gaviria and Ochoa brothers, Fabio and Jorge Luis.
The international career was now a realistic case: the ensure of a racing seat at the American championship IMSA in 1979 cost a few for the barons’ financial data and it also assured a great chance of demonstration of the fake mask of their business activity (the establishment of companies in every sector was the main way to legalise all those billions which came through the export of cocaine, because they appeared as companies’ income).
Thus Londoño drove a Porsche 935 at Sebring 12 Hours race and Daytona 250, in his first exploratory season.
In 1980 he started at IMSA, but soon he jumped at Can-Am where he raced with a prototype Lola Chevrolet T530.
He responded immediately to the demands of the American circuits, but he aimed at the other side of the Atlantic – while his compatriot Roberto Guerrero was racing successfully at British Formula 3, Londoño went to Great Britain with a checkbook that could secure him right away a driving seat at a supportive event.
Aurora Series was a championship where the participating teams used single-seaters that raced in the past at Formula 1 and Londoño had any problem to secure his participation at the Silverstone race.
Behind the wheel of a damaged Lotus 78 that was lacking stability, the Colombian managed to finish 7th, a result that overcame every ambition of the team owner, Colin Bennett.
The return to America for the 1981 was short – because Bennett, who had in the meantime become co-owner of the Ensign F1 team, recommended to the other owner Mo Nunn to offer the only N108B to Londoño for remuneration for the Brazilian GP.
If the opportunity of demonstration of the fake mask of the Medellin cartel’s business activity was great at American constitutions, the same chance in Formula 1, the world’s most renowned motor racing event, could be “the shot of the century”.
The deal closed in a blink of an eye and Londoño tried the car for the first time on Wednesday before the race, in a test that took place for the familiarization of the drivers at Jacarepagua circuit, which returned to the Formula 1 calendar after 2 years of absence.
Here starts the background story of the case.
Londoño had a place secured for the race, but he had not possessed the necessary superlicence, and the licensing those years did not have delimited context. As a rule, the refusal to grant the superlicence was justified by the lack of experience or competitiveness of the driver.
But in case the competitiveness was crystal clear, there was no excuse.
In this case, Londono’s best lap time in the Wednesday test was extraordinary in every aspect: behind the wheel of a non-competitive car he was only 4 seconds slower than the fastest driver, Carlos Reutemann and better than Nelson Piquet, Rene Arnoux and many more.
The presence of three people who accompanied the Colombian driver at the paddocks at the front-page of a big American magazine, which included them at the 9 most wanted criminals worldwide, strengthened the suspicions of the origin of the money – just the connection between criminal activities and the Formula 1 would harm the sport’s prestige, so it should be avoided at all costs.
For that reason, an unimportant accident in the test where Londoño and Keke Rosberg were involved was the reason he was not granted the superlicence: Mark Surer, who was in Brazil, hoping he could finally secure a place for the next race, got unexpectedly in the place he had lost at the previous race, when the lack of funds made Ensign look at another driver.
The return out of nowhere at Ensign for the Swiss was marked by an incredible performance: starting 18th, not only did he manage to finish 4th, but also he made the fastest lap of the race, taking full advantage of the wet conditions.
Londoño never tried to enter the grid again: he made some appearances at Formula 2 and then he came back to America, where he took part occasionally in endurance races until early 1986.
Ironically, his fellow citizen Roberto Guerrero ran next year with Ensign, but in this case the origin of the money his sponsors brought was not in doubt.
But for Londoño, the suspicions turned out to be true: Colombian authorities confiscated property of approximately 10 million dollars at early 2000 as product derived from drug trafficking and on July 18th, 2009 he was assassinated with his two bodyguards, in a murder that was attributed to differences between him and another drug baron.