Ahead of the 1999 season, a Nigerian prince became the co-owner of Formula 1 stalwarts Arrows. Before the campaign was over he had disappeared, leaving the team in the lurch and considerable confusion as to his motives.
Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, one of F1's great mysteries // PA Images
Having racked up almost seven decades' worth of of competition, Formula 1 has naturally witnessed the rise and fall of many weird and wonderful individuals. While we are legally obliged to note that most of the people who pass through the sport are upstanding sorts, in possession of their mental faculties and all the correct paperwork, it is also fair to say that there have been a dubious few whose motives and methods were not entirely honest.
Among the most interesting characters to tread the grand prix paddock was Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, a man whose true reasons for immersing himself in grand prix racing are still not entirely clear almost 20 years after his involvement both began and ended.
Let us travel back to 1999, a time when Lewis Hamilton was still racing go-karts and Bernie Ecclestone was a youthful 66-year-old. This was the season in which McLaren legend Mika Hakkinen secured his second world title for the Woking-based squad, though Eddie Irvine pushed him hard for it. We are more interested in what was happening at the back of the grid, however. Then as now, there was a struggling team with a striking orange and black livery and uncompetitive motors. Whereas in 2017 that team is McLaren, in 1999 it was Arrows.
By the late nineties Arrows were grand prix stalwarts of more than 20 years. Despite their longevity the team had not won a race and had been through their fair share of financial woes and ownership changes, including a stint under the stewardship of a Japanese logistics company. (It was during this spell that they fielded Taki Inoue, a man most famous for being hit by a course car on two separate occasions).
In 1996 they were purchased by racing stalwart Tom Walkinshaw, who pulled of an incredible coup by signing reigning world champion Damon Hill for the 1997 season. Though Hill came within a few kilometres of winning the Hungarian Grand Prix, the relationship was largely unsuccessful – not to mention expensive for the team – and the Englishman jumped ship for Eddie Jordan's outfit at the end of the year. In 1998 they returned to relative anonymity and continued to struggle financially.
But for 1999 there would be fresh investment from a mysterious African royal. Step forward Prince Malik.
Malik was educated privately in Britain, though no one is quite certain where, and claimed to be a prince of the Igbira people. It is likely that this was true, though given that there are at least 75 different royal families in his native Nigeria it's not quite the same as William Windsor showing up at the factory gates and promising to sink some of granny's money into your F1 team. Malik also claimed to have contested the Le Mans 24 Hours, which though not impossible lacks anything by way of proof.
Honest or not, Arrows found him difficult to ignore. Malik was promising an investment of some $125 million, which at the time could have transformed the team's fortunes, allowing them to sign better drivers and pay for competitive engines. Walkinshaw duly accepted and Malik came on board for 1999. He'd convinced banking giants Morgan Grenfell to help him in the deal, which gave him somewhere between 10 and 30 per cent of the team (numbers vary too much to be certain).
The 1999 Arrows was aesthetically striking, with the rear half retaining the previous season's black and white livery and the front painted bright orange in deference to Repsol, who sponsored new signing Pedro de la Rosa. These days it is considered to be something of a cult classic, though this has nothing to do with its on-track performances.
This did not seem to concern Malik, who proceeded to hire a pricey PR agency that he set the task of making him "as famous as Eddie Jordan". But while he was undoubtedly an attention seeker, Malik was not planning to simply sit on the pitwall and enjoy the perks of his investment. He claimed that he would raise funds through the creation of the T-Minus brand, which first appeared on the car's sidepods at the San Marino Grand Prix (there had previously been a strange countdown motif in its place). T-Minus planned to make money by launching an energy drink and selling re-branded products such as clothing and motorcycles. The fact that you have never heard of it should be a clue to its eventual success; the veteran F1 journalist Joe Saward later reported that T-Minus 'raised absolutely no money.' (However, it is worth pointing out that the author of this piece still has a can of the energy drink in a box somewhere, unopened, retained for posterity).
It wasn't just the business plan that didn't work: performances on the circuit were woeful, too. A high attrition rate allowed De la Rosa to score a point on his F1 debut – a distinction he shares with rather more illustrious names like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – but the Spaniard did not repeat the result all year. His teammate, the enigmatic Japanese driver Toranosuke "Tiger" Takagi, fared even worse. Ultimately, they scored only a single point in 1999.
By late in the season, with the reality of the situation dawning on the team, Malik was suddenly nowhere to be found. When he failed to complete the purchase of his shares by a pre-arranged September deadline, Tom Walkinshaw effectively retook control of the them and the T-Minus branding vanished from the car (replaced by Morgan Grenfell, who had backed Malik's purchase and eventually took Arrows to court). The Prince had left the paddock.
The rather sad postscript to this is that Arrows never really recovered from the false promise of investment. They soldiered on for another two and a half years, but ultimately shut their doors during the 2002 season. Walkinshaw's racing business also took a considerable hit; the man himself died in 2010, aged 64.
But while Arrows vanished from the racing scene, Malik did not. In 2008 he was in court on charges of stealing money that was given to him to develop the career of young NASCAR driver. Malik was cleared, but was not able to leave the Texas jail where he was being held as he was required to post bail of $35,000 in connection with a number of perjury charges for false statements he allegedly made during the lead up to his trial.
In January 2010 he was working for renewable energy company The Bridge, of which he was co-founder; a warrant was issued for his arrest after a Texan district attorney received claims that Malik had stolen over $200,000 during his probationary period. The outcome of this trial is not readily available, though as of 2017 he remains a mover in Nigeria's sustainability sector, working for Nigus Greenenergy.
What was Malik doing in F1? It is possible that he truly believed he could make the T-Minus venture work, that enough people would be willing to buy expensive motorcycles with the name of a brand they had never heard of emblazoned across the side. It is possible, too, that he simply fancied spending some time in the glamorous world of Formula 1, that he dreamed of strolling the grid with royalty and A-listers at the Monaco Grand Prix. Or perhaps his motives were more sinister; we cannot know, because Malik has never discussed his time in the sport. What we can take away from this story is the enduring truth of an old adage: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.