ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 49 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Looking Back in Anger

  by Roger Horton, England

When Peugeot withdrew from Formula One, at the end of the 2000 season, they did not spare the sport of harsh criticism. Not all they said was down to sour grapes, and some of what was said should worry the F1 decision makers. But the French engine manufacturer was also the epitome of how not to be involved in Formula One. Roger Horton looks at the consequences of the Peugeot-F1 debacle

Peugeot's decision to withdraw from Formula One after three difficult years with the Prost team took nobody by surprise; the French engine supplier had under-performed in F1 pretty much since they entered the sport back in 1994 with McLaren, and clearly had no idea how to make a success of their Formula One project.

It would therefore be easy to dismiss the parting shot delivered by their motorsport boss Corrado Provera, that the cost of competing in F1 had reached "crazy levels", as just sour grapes - the comments of a loser, eager to cover his tracks and explain away his company's failures.

In a recent interview, Provera said that with Ferrari and McLaren virtually guaranteed to take the top four positions in every race, it means that precious little is left for anyone else: "It leaves just two cars which remain capable of scoring points and the cost of each point is becoming crazy, this is the real reason why we have decided to get out of it. We do believe that our decision is sad, but compulsory and maybe some other important manufacturers will realise that ... being used as co-actors to somebody else's triumph is a little bit too expensive."

It is hard to fault Provera's logic, and he is not the only one in the F1 paddock who sometimes wonders whether the millions of dollars spent on this expensive sport is totally justified. The answer is, of course, that the companies that stay and get value from their F1 programmes are the ones that are successful, or at least avoid the almost total anonymity that has cloaked the Peugeot effort almost from the start.

On the surface, the original 1994 partnership with McLaren showed lots of promise. The new combination reached the podium on eight occasions and finished the year in fourth position in the Constructors' standings, with 42 points. But, by mid-season, the super shrewd McLaren team boss Ron Dennis had already reached the conclusion that Peugeot lacked the technical and cultural savvy to win at the highest level, and cut a deal with Mercedes, which lasts to this day.

McLaren's 'loss' was Eddie Jordan's gain, and in 1995, a works engine deal - any works engine deal - was greeted like manna from heaven by the irrepressible Irishman. "We are now responsible for the image of a worldwide motor manufacturer," he gushed on announcing the news. "No question, the onus is now on us to win our first race."

As is now history, the Jordan team had to wait until the '98 season, and a partnership with Mugen-Honda, to score that elusive first victory. During their three year partnership with Peugeot, Eddie Jordan became increasingly disillusioned by the conservative approach adopted by their engine supplier. Peugeot's answer to solving their reliability problems simply led them to reducing the revs on their engine until it ran without blowing up. Often in the 1997 season, the engine was running less revs than it had some two years earlier in '95 - hardly the way to beat the likes of Renault and Mercedes, who had the corporate and technical courage to push their engines to the limit and sometimes suffer the very public consequences of their failures.

The alliance with Prost was pretty much doomed from the start, and it became increasingly obvious that the dream to create an all French F1 super team would stay just that - a dream. The harsh reality is, that just as the best drivers usually end up in the best cars, so too the best technical partners usually end working together. Peugeot started out with one of the best at McLaren, and then worked its way down the grid with Jordan and then Prost, whilst the teams that abandoned them progressed in the other direction.

There are, though, lessons for others to learn from Peugeot's F1 experiences. The first and most obvious is to fully understand just how difficult it is to win in Formula One and to ensure that the people leading the programme actually understand why they are in it in the first place, something that was very much lacking at Peugeot. In McLaren's first year using the Mercedes-Ilmor built engines, they scored only two podiums and twelve fewer points than they scored with Peugeot in the previous year, but the commitment showed by the whole Ilmor team convinced Ron Dennis that they understood the demands of F1 racing and would prevail in the end.

The other question is, just what level of worldwide visibility is it possible to obtain from a deal limited to just supplying engines, and especially when supplying a mid-field team? Jaguar may not be winning, but they have still managed to raise their profile with their F1 involvement, because they have been branded as the entire team, with even Ford (which owns Jaguar) being pushed well into the background, not to mention Cosworth, which is still building the engines.

French rival Renault, in contrast, will supply engines to Benetton next year, but by 2002, the team will be renamed after the French motor giant, and if things go according to the script, this will coincide with the team running at the front of the grid, which should make everyone happy.

With Peugeot's withdrawal, there are only two other relatively new manufacturers still attempting to make their mark in F1 through the traditional engine supply only route - BMW and Honda.

The route chosen by BMW still looks to be the most promising. They have in Williams a 'blue chip' Formula One partner that not only knows how to win, but understands the importance of working together with its technical partners in a professional manner. In Gerhard Berger, BMW have a man with a vast knowledge of the Formula One business, and so BMW's ambitions have always been rooted in reality.

When they do win, BMW, like their great German rivals Mercedes, will reap the kudos they are looking for, and Sir Frank Williams has also not totally ruled out one day selling an equity stake in his team to them, just as McLaren have done with Mercedes.

The Honda effort has always been masked with more politics than they would have liked, and the Japanese company can't have been amused with the amount of media coverage given over to the internal bickering at British American Racing, which have tended to overshadow the very real progress that their engine has made in their first year. The dilemma for Honda is whether one of the 2001 technical partners - Jordan and BAR - will ever be good enough to challenge the acknowledged 'big two' Ferrari and McLaren.

Corrado Provera's statement that what remains leftover in the points-scoring positions once Ferrari and McLaren have finished are "Peanuts, (just) expensive peanuts" might have been disingenuous, given his own company's previous poor performances, but they will have no doubt struck a chord in more than a few boardrooms around the world, as in any management team there are the 'bean counters' charged with nurturing the bottom line. Hopefully they will use the Peugeot example of how not to run an F1 programme and move on, but that doesn't mean that there are not some lessons to be learned.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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