• Bruce Cox


Throughout the course of his long career, American author and journalist, Joe Scalzo, has displayed an uncanny knack for unearthing stories about the more colourful and eccentric characters in motorsport. Both of those words perfectly describe Jean-Pierre Van Rossem who made a noisy entrance to Formula One in 1989 and very soon made an even more noisy exit!

Formula One racing these days is a respectable corporate enterprise, and no longer makes room for strange creatures like Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, a bizarre Belgian who described himself as a “beursgoeroe” (a stock market guru) but whose own father labeled him a psychopath, which seemed a far better title. Van Rossem, it may be recalled, was the curiosity who, in the late 1980s, was warmly welcomed for planning to join Formula 1 by sponsoring Team Onyx.

In some ways, Mijnheer Van Rossem, who died in 2014, was admirably respectable. In other ways, eccentric would be a better description. The color of his hair was dignified banker’s grey – though it hung halfway down his back. He dressed in correct evening dress, doing so in the daytime as well as nights. Guarding against the chill, even in the heat of a Brussels summer, he was seldom seen without his white winter shawl. He wore a starched white dress shirt, which he never bothered to tuck in but allowed to freely flow over his formidable beursgoeroe belly. Finally, fleshing out this fascinating sartorial portrait, Van Rossem day and night wore a pair of amber-tinted aviator’s glasses.

Van Rossem was born in Bruges in 1945 and raised in Brussels, but his formative semesters were spent in Ghent at the University, which acquainted him with Karl Marx. The philosophy of Marxism so inflamed him that he grew an anarchist’s beard and, in 1968, set off to promulgate it worldwide, first hurrying to Paris to riot with the rest of the students in the Days of Rage, then heading out to Moscow and Red Square to fire off a complaint about how the comrades in Russia were distorting the true message of Marx.

Next, Van Rossem took his crusade to America aided by a scholarship to the prestigious Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. There he discovered computers, stocks and bonds, and the brutal backs-to-the-wall world of the U.S. futures market. All his goals shifted violently and, veering from Marxist to predatory capitalist, he returned to Europe to become a self-proclaimed stock market guru with his own Moneytron investment scheme.

So confident was he in his beursgoeroe abilities that he openly bragged that this scheme would some fine day earn him the Nobel Prize in economics. And many people believed him - even the Belgian Royal Family. Not surprising in that the scheme was already making him so enormously rich that he was opening his own Ferrari salon. At one point he was said to have owned 108 Ferraris as well as two Falcon private jets and a superyacht.

On a rather different level be became hugely interested in slot car racing, purchasing a raceway in Chicago and hosting two major slot-racing meetings in 1988 and 1989 to which he flew in top competitors from around the world.

His next step was motor racing for real, joining Formula One’s 1989 season tournament, where he was, not surprisingly, immediately welcomed as the tourney’s most exotic new member. Laying on some bodyguards, and firing up a few of his Testarossas, he showed up at Monte Carlo as team sponsor of Onyx. This was in spring and the team did feature on the podium that season when Stefan Johansson finished third in the Portuguese Grand Prix. But by winter Van Rossem was already gone, no longer wanting anything to do with F1 - allegedly after having dug up some dirt on the F1 head honcho of the time, Jean-Marie Balestre. Going public with the dirt, Van Rossem sped one of his Testarossas into Paris, to the Hotel Ritz, where he conducted a hysterical press conference in which he excoriated and libeled Balestre by the hour.

By now Van Rossem had courted and married Niki Annys, a siren of what exists of jet-set Flanders, but it was only after the nuptials that Niki shared with Jean-Pierre her macabre secret. This was her opinion that the dead could be restored to life, providing they were refrigerated and not thawed out until the passing of, say, half a century. When Niki died of cancer not long after the marriage, Jean-Pierre set out to honor her wishes but he got into a big fight with the city fathers of Brussels who he claimed were reneging on their promise to allow Niki’s custom-made ice block casket inside the city’s medieval cemetery.

Not long after this, Jean-Pierre surfaced anew, in Antwerp, where he called a standard hysterical, Van Rossem press conference, announcing good and bad news. The good news was that the world had one less capitalist and the bad news was that it was himself. He moaned that he was broke and had lost all his Ferraris. Two shifty Americans, he claimed, had flim-flammed him and clipped him of between $150 million and $300 million – most of which was not his own money but funds invested in his scheme by unsuspecting members of the public.

In fact, Van Rossem himself was held to be responsible for the scheme’s collapse and there was also the matter of his issuing false share certificate that needed to be taken into account. So, in 1991, with all the Ferraris and other trappings of wealth either gone, or going fast, to satisfy his creditors, he was sent to prison for five years, which totally broke his spirit as a stock market guru. While he was incarcerated, he turned his attentions toward literature, self-financing the publishing of one book and threatening to hunt-and-peck dozens more. However, corrosive reviews (even some from his own publishers) of his opus Prison Book, which was based on his personal diaries, made him decide not to be a man-of-letters either.

A switch to politics came after his release when he formed his own libertarian political party, which campaigned under the slogans “No Nonsense, Vote Libertine” and “No Whining, Everybody Rich”. These attracted enough supporters to gain the ROSSEM party three seats in the Belgian Federal Parliament in 1991, with Van Rossem himself serving in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives and the Flemish Parliament until 1995. Even during his respectable political career, Van Rossem was still given to eccentric gestures such as much public posturing on the floor of the Parliament and even bellowing out “Long Live The European Republic” at the coronation of King Albert II of Belgium.

In some ways it is sad that Jean-Pierre Van Rossem only stayed around Fomula One for a few months, It would surely have been more colourful with him around…

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