Atlas F1 The Corporate Battlefield

  by Mark Alan Jones, Australia

Win On Sunday, Sell On Monday - it's one of the oldest axioms in motorsport, the theory behind is perhaps the oldest. Car sales are affected by success in competition. To a greater or lesser extent every manufacturer has adopted these theories, or at least acknowledged its validity. Now, more than perhaps at any time in the history of motorsport, there is heavy manufacturer involvement in motorsport.

In the World Rally Championship no less than seven (Ford, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Seat, Skoda, Subaru & Toyota) manufacturers have gone to the hideous financial and logistical expense of running the turbo-charged, four wheel drive forest rockets across the globe, with Hyundai about to join them. While its popularity is dropping now, Super Touring Cars in recent years has boasted manufacturer involvement from Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Opel/Vauxhall, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Volvo.

The greatest endurance race of them all, the Le Mans 24 Hour, has seen big budget assaults in recent times from names such as Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Peugeot, Porsche and Toyota. Over in CART, Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota each have spent millions trying to raise their profile in the American based series as an engine supplier, while Oldsmobile and Nissan are involved in the lower profile IRL series. In Australia, a 30-40 million dollar circus of over 50 Holdens and Fords criss-cross the southern continent in a series which leads towards to annual showdown at the near mythical Mount Panorama circuit in November.

Formula One is now reaching a new peak in manufacturers involvement. For next year there will be six manufacturers fighting over the greatest prize in motorsport and two more are about to join the fight. Each of these manufacturers represent the biggest car makers who in turn are among the giants of industry. Each of them is worth billions, and every single day fight a bitter war against each other for the hearts, minds and wallets of new car buyers. Where once upon a time smaller independent names like Subaru, Porsche and Lamborghini could sniff at Formula One, now it's a battle only for the giants.

For Ferrari, theirs is perhaps the simplest motivation. Ferrari is Formula One. Each has never been without the other, and it's unthinkable that the scarlet cars would ever leave. Ferrari represents the history of the sport and the passion of the sport. 50 years of racing, a list of names which is the envy of all in the sport, in any of its branches, and there are ghosts around Maranello that will never leave, forever lending their presence to the cause. Ascari, Gonzalez, Fangio, Hawthorn, von Trips, Phil Hill, Surtees, Bandini, Ickx, Lauda, Reutemann, Regazzoni, Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve, Pironi, Arnoux, Alboreto, Berger, Mansell, Prost, Alesi, Michael Schumacher, and Enzo himself, Ferrari names all, names whispered and revered by a group of fans so distinct and dedicated, they have their own name - the Tifosi.

But that's not the whole reason. Very few of the Tifosi will ever have the money to afford to own even a used Ferrari, let alone buy the new F360 Maranello. Ferrari is also part of the giant Italian conglomerate Fiat which incorporates all bar one of the Italian car makers - Fiat, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lancia and Ducati. Ferrari represents the sharp end of Fiat, and they represent the art of Italian manufacturing to the world. While Ferrari being in Formula One is perhaps beyond words, there is a vitally important commercial aspect to it as well.

Mercedes-Benz, more so than any other name in motoring, is associated with quality. Mercedes cars are strong, solid, well finished, luxurious, revered for their ability to last through the ages. But in recent times they've been expanding their range. The smaller C Class sedans, the M Class four wheel drives, A Class compact sedans, SLK and CLK sports cars and ML Class commercials. Expansion means a braking of the image. In the 1930's and in the 1950's Mercedes had a strong competition image built on domination of Formula One and sports car racing.

Two traumatic events brought those eras to a close prematurely, one was World War II, the other the 1955 Le Mans disaster. Mercedes retreated from a more public image and made their recent name with luxury sedans. In the 80's they re-emerged first with Sports Car racing, then Touring Cars before a return to Formula One in the early 90's. Now it's almost as though they've never been away. McLaren have become an excellent flag carrier and promotional arm for Stuttgart's finest, and a Constructors Championship and two drivers championship renews Mercedes association with the oh so Germanic pursuit of excellence.

Honda are revolutionists among the Japanese car makers. More so than the others, they've pushed the boundaries of the perceptions of what a Japanese car maker should be. Cars like the Honda NSX - a Ferrari without the idiosyncrasies, variable valve timing, the Odyssey - a people mover / car hybrid, but they also put a tailgate on the Civic. The were also the first of the Japanese car makers to step onto the world motorsport stage, producing engines for Jack Brabham's Motor Racing Developments Formula 2 cars in the mid 60's, before going it alone with the all Honda Formula One car. They did win a race with it, but Honda left Formula One, and for years it was regarded as unfinished business.

In the meantime they became the bike to have in Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and as the Japanese bikes usurped the Americans and Europeans it was Honda who lead the charge. When Honda returned it was as an engine supplier, first with Spirit, the Williams with a turbo-charged V6 (strange as Honda has never used a turbo on a road car) and they came to dominate in Formula One first with Williams, then McLaren, against thin opposition.

While Honda as an engine supplier carved out records, they were victim of their own success, and when Renault started reducing the number of wins year by year it was perceived as a loss to win by a smaller margin. So Honda downscaled but stayed involved via the Mugen performance arm. Honda probably still see Formula One as unfinished business, to win against stronger opposition will be that much more of a challenge, and now are gearing up to a return to the level of commitment of the late 80's, early 90's with BAR and to a lesser extent with Jordan.

Jaguar has a motorsport pedigree to rival almost any manufacturer, but none of it is open wheeler racing. They have a long and successful history in sports cars, rallying and touring cars at various times since the 50's. However, Jaguar in Formula One is much more of a marketing exercise than it is for the others. The engine is Jaguar in name only. A Ford-Cosworth in fact, for Jaguar is one of the many labels in the Ford empire.

With Mercedes, Honda, and soon BMW involved in Formula One, it represents an opportunity for Jaguar to directly take on some of its direct rivals for the prestige car market, an opportunity not available in other forms of racing. Ford are back in Formula One for the long term. Their Cosworth developed DFV engine revolutionised Formula One in the late 60's and Jackie Stewart was at the fore-front of the Cosworth DFV revolution. 30 years later he is again there as the new Jaguar-Cosworth-Stewart-Ford amalgamation has been gathering strength. Both their drivers won races last year. With Williams, Benetton, BAR and even perhaps Jordan to be struggling with their engines next year, an opportunity exists for Jaguar to take on Ferrari and McLaren direct.

Peugeot originally came into Formula One partly because it was a the natural evolutionary step from the 905BIS World Sports Cars (which at the time shared engine regulations with Formula One) but also because Renault was in Formula One. Peugeot and Renault always have and always will be rivals. They build cars in exactly the same market segments and both compete fiercely for the admiration of the French people (those not caught up in the slight quirkiness that is Citroen). To allow Renault to dominate Formula One was unthinkable, especially since Formula One was so much higher regarded than Peugeot's then sporting efforts in World Sports Cars and Touring Cars. Not even a Le Mans victory in 1993 was enough.

So Peugeot built a new engine and entered Formula One with no less than McLaren only to be dumped when Mercedes became available. Switching to Jordan did not bring success, Renault left and they only stayed in Formula One through a burst of patriotism to help Alain Prost revive the flagging fortunes of Ligier (now known as Prost). Now they are stuck, they have to stay until there is sufficient success to make leaving not embarrassing (particularly as Renault may be coming back) or until they cut their losses. The recent decision to return to World Rallying with a four wheel drive turbo makes sense in that it gives them an excuse to pull out, but they haven't. Peugeot are committed and won't take losing happily. The engine is powerful, Prost must now pick up their act.

BMW, Bavarian Motor Works, return to Formula One next year. It's been 16 years since their one and only championship year, but in the turbo era, the BMW was the most powerful engine of all, developing over 1000 bhp, a figure Nelson Piquet used to snatch the 1983 world championship in a dramatic season finale. BMW ceased factory involvement in 1985, but the engines themselves continued as Megatrons up to the end of the turbo era, such was their prodigious power.

Since then BMW have used Touring Cars as their category of choice, preferring the more direct association with road going models, and building their reputation as the prestige car you'd like to drive. BMW does now enjoy a sportier image than its most direct rivals. There was a time when BMW was winning in almost ever motorsporting nation. Now the regional teams have closed down, because like a pair of dreadnoughts of years gone by, BMW has seen the need to close and battle its nearest rival, Mercedes-Benz, directly. Indeed, their recent advertisement points out that the rivalry between BMW and Mercedes is a strong one. BMW have built a V10 which will be installed into Williams next year and will be hoping that Williams can spin the magic it did with Honda and Renault in years before.

Toyota will arrive in Formula One within a few years. The exact year is not yet decided, nor the team it is likely to supply (unless they go it alone). Toyota, the biggest of all the Japanese makers, have never been in Formula One before. However, it is the logical step for them - they've tried everything else. Always a force in small bore touring cars, the larger turbo charged Supras were less successful then the Corollas and Sprinters before them. Camrys and Carinas have had mixed success since then in Super Touring.

After a few years of almost but not quite sports cars, Toyota got serious during the 90's, first with the TS010 series, then the GT-ONE series of cars. They got close, very close on several occasions, but never lifted either the world sports car championship or Le Mans. Their Celica rally cars gradually moved up the field before winning world championships with Juha Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz. The Corolla is now seen as fast but flawed world rally car, although Sainz and Didier Auriol are both still in contention for this year's title.

The WRC program comes to an end this year, as does Toyota's other big budget program, CART. CART has been extremely frustrating for Toyota as they've never been competitive either with the factory All American Eagles operation or their other supplied teams since then, although Arciero-Wells started to get decent results in the last few races this year. They have hopes for next year with Chip Ganassi. They are also starting of all things a NASCAR campaign. Formula One is the only thing they haven't tried. Toyota Team Europe is more than a merely competent operation, having won with both Sports Cars and Rally Cars.

Renault love motor racing, and love being in Formula One. They love the boost they get from winning in Formula One, and have had two periods in the big league. In the first the revolutionised Formula One with the turbo-charger. They introduced it in 1977 and by 1984 every team was using turbos. They've never really shown a lot of interest in other racing programs. A brief flirtation with world rallying during the Group B era. A couple of local programs in touring cars and rallying with the Clio, Laguna and Megane models. A full British Touring Car Championship program over 7 years, most of it with Williams. But that's been it.

When they returned to Formula One, they quickly based Ford and Ferrari and caught Honda on the wane after years of winning too much had set in the laws of diminishing returns. They took their turn at dominating, winning six constructors and five drivers titles. Then Renault started experiencing massive losses with the road going concern. In the face of spiralling debt, it's hard to justify a multimillion dollar motorsport program. Then once back on their feet they had to absorb the debts of Nissan after acquiring a controlling interest in the Japanese firm. Their desire to return is strong, though, they just need to find the financial resources and a 'yes' from the board room and they'll be back.

Pretty much all the automotive giants are involved in Formula One now, the major exception being General Motors. GM's head office has long had ambivalent feelings towards motorsport, while some of their divisions, notably Holden, Opel and Vauxhall, have all had strong motorsport operations, and were regularly in violation of GM's global motorsport ban during the 60's and 70's. While a lack of direction continues from GM, any future Formula One attack remains unlikely. Apart from anything else what would you call it? In various parts of the world the Vectra mid-sized sedan is sold as a Chevrolet, Holden, Opel and Vauxhall. Would you draw a line down the middle of the engine and have different paint/badging each side? BAR couldn't get it to work.

In the past 50 years, the manufacturers each took turns and had a go at Formula One, each enjoying a varying degree of success both on track and commercially. Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Lancia, Lamborghini, Maserati, Matra, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Porsche, Renault, Simca, Subaru, Talbot, Yamaha - all have had a go, but now Formula One has become a battle-field only for the corporate giants, and each race hangs the balance in car sales across the planet. The costs are outrageous, but to buy the amount of airtime Formula One gets on television and replace with an advertising would cost around five to ten times as much. Seems pretty cheap by comparison, doesn't it?

Mark Alan Jones© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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