Sulaiman Al-Kehaimi showed up in the Formula 1 paddock for the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix with flair. He threw a massive race-weekend part in a mansion — said to be attended by none other than Cher herself — and promised a struggling Team Tyrrell that, as a Saudi Arabian prince, he had the money to buy a controlling stake in the destitute team. Except, he wasn’t a prince at all, and Tyrrell finally succumbed to failure.
(Editor’s note: This week marks the release of Racing with Rich Energy: How a Rogue Sponsor Took Formula One for a Ride by Elizabeth Blackstock and Alanis King. To celebrate a book that began as a blog on Jalopnik, co-author Blackstock is covering the history of some of F1's other questionable sponsors. These sponsors are touched on in the book, but not in depth. Racing with Rich Energy is available via McFarland, Amazon, Kindle, and Eurospan for international buyers.)
The Tyrrell team possesses one of the most fascinating stories in racing history. After realizing he wasn’t a racer, Ken Tyrrell used a keen eye for racing talent to start fielding promising drivers in the lower divisions of Formula 3 and Formula Junior. Even after partnering up with Elf, Ford, and Matra to break into F1, Tyrrell maintained a woodshed as his primary locus of operation — and it was in that woodshed that the team prepared a World Championship winning car for Jackie Stewart.
The team was largely a family operation, and it began to fall by the wayside in the mid-1980s. Ken Tyrrell just couldn’t afford to develop the turbo engines that had been taking F1 by storm, leaving the team as the final one using the once-revolutionary Cosworth DFV. The prognosis remained grim into the 1990s, despite a few podiums.
Enter Sulaiman Al-Kehaimi. This man swept into the Formula 1 paddock with the promise of a royal Saudi Arabian lineage and claimed he intended to buy a 51 percent stake in Tyrrell at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. He hosted a lavish party at a $50 million chateau in the south of France and invited superstar guests — including Cher — that he helicoptered to and from the track. His interest in the struggling Tyrrell seemed almost too good to be true, but the team was ready to negotiate.
Unlike some of the other sponsorship or ownership stories we’ve written about here on Jalopnik, this wasn’t anything of the sort. In fact, Al-Kehaimi’s schtick really only lasted for a few race weekends in 1996 before he moved on to other targets, leaving Tyrrell reeling as it tried to find enough money to continue to the next season. Now, the team was not just poor but embarrassed to boot.
Al-Kehaimi, for his own part, ended up being nothing but the son of an ambassador, not a prince. He was also, in 1998, taken to court on charges procuring valuable securities by deception, attempted deception, and theft. Al-Kehaimi was cleared of all charges.
At the end of the 1997 season, Ken Tyrrell was tired. He sold off the team to Craig Pollock, who was also building up British American Racing, and left the team soon after due to disagreements with Pollock for choosing Ricardo Rosset and his ample sponsorship money as a primary driver as opposed to Tyrrell’s choice Jos Verstappen.
Tyrrell chugged through that final 1998 season without scoring a single point. Its final race would be that year’s Japanese Grand Prix, during the course of which Rosset failed to qualify while his teammate Tora Takagi retired on lap 28 after a collision.
Ken Tyrrell died in August of 2001, having suffered from cancer and rapidly declining health during his last years in motorsport. But some of the Tyrrell legacy still lives on in modern F1. While BAR bought the Tyrrell team and entry, it sold Tyrrell’s equipment to Paul Stoddart, who took over the Minardi F1 team. In a complex web of sales and acquisitions, Tyrrell ultimately became Brawn GP and the current Mercedes F1 team.
For the Tyrrell name, though, it’s too little too late, and the downward spiral was only exacerbated by a fake sheikh.