To keep a bird in a cage?

ATLAS TEAM F1
To keep a bird in a cage?
by Natasha Kholiavko
Russia

News about Renault leaving Formula One have appeared as an unexpected change in auto-racing weather. The official reports from Renault were not detailed enough to satisfy anybody and basically amounted to a declaration about "new sports strategy". All unofficial explanations, which journalists and commentators are willing to provide us with merely state that advertising policy becomes ineffective and has exhausted itself as a result of Renault impressive successes during recent years.

It is difficult to confine a bird to the cage. Sweet-voiced Renault found itself in a cage and that cage is far from being gold...

It was 1983 when Renault while entering its own F1 team tried to supply some other team with an engine. Partnership with Lotus was started quite ludicrously. On the formation lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Elio de Angelis stalled his Lotus-Renault and prefers not to restart in his race car, but in a spare car powered by Ford. Over the season, the French engines prove to be not so bad.

As a result, the number of teams wishing to get their hands on Renault increased enormously. Taking into consideration that next season Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis score more points for Lotus than Derek Warwick and Patrick Tambay for the Renault team, the Frenchmen decide to break up their own F1 team and concentrate upon supplying others.

In 1984-1986 the company experienced a crisis and, suffering from financial problems, suspended its program of participating in Formula One. Renault decided to withdraw from F1 at the end of 1985.

But what was wonderful was Renault's triumphant coming back after two years absence - the second place for William's-Renault in Constructors Championship Standings! It was high time for finding the only feasible and practicable strategy to stay in costly Formula and such strategy has been found - exclusive dealing to one of the top-teams. So the bilateral Williams-Renault treaty has opened a splendid page of F1 partnership and a not less splendid list of victories - two wins in the World Drivers' Championship (Nigel Mansell in 1992 and Alain Prost in 1993), runner-up in 1994 F1 World Drivers' Championship (Damon Hill) and three wins in a row of the F1 World Constructors' title (1992, 1993, 1994)! All this was attained with English team. But what about French fellow-countrymen?

Ligier F1 team was organized in 1975 and showed some remarkable performance in its first seasons. Ligier won eight Grands Prix in that golden period of 1979-1981 when Jacques Laffite challenged for the World Championship. The second place in Constructors Championship Standings in 1980 was the reward for teamís efforts in its fight against many of the eminent names in Formula One. Since then fortune began to show its back.

Probably by pressing upon patriotic feelings in 1992 Ligier succeeded in striking an agreement with a top F1 manufacturer to be supplied with Renault engine. But ... by rights of a client only. It means the French team bought an engine for money, doing without any support or upgrade. Besides, it goes without saying, the engine Ligier bought was not the same that had helped Nigel Mansell to win the World Champion title. Nevertheless, between two evils it's worth choosing - there was Renault engine all the same. The French team, with French sponsorship and French drivers, participating in the French oil company Elf's program of supporting young French drivers, has had an engine of a famous French brand. Everything looked promising...

But there was someone else who worked hard to reach the power output of Renault...

Flavio Briatore saw a Formula One race for the first time in 1988, when he traveled with Luciano Benetton to Adelaide to see the Australian Grand Prix. As an enterprising businessman Briatore realized immediately that F1, - a world-wide sport - offered a unique opportunity to the Benetton team. The following year, 1989, he joined them as a Managing Director to begin his program of redeveloping and rebuilding the team. In order to create an attractive and highly-competitive team, the Italian undoubtedly wanted to have all the best. Surely, Renault engine figured as a desirable object of his dreams.

Step by step Flavio Briatore carries out his plan and in his art he has no rivals. With enviable patience of a fisherman he prepares a bait to catch a gold fish with enormous horse power...

The bait was not too expensive - Michael Schumacher just launched out on a voyage of discovery of the F1 ocean. How much did the next step cost? Buying Ligier with the only purpose - to scoop in a Renault engine for Benetton - Mr. Briatore achieves half of his sacred desire. Half-and-halter: he is hardly satisfied with rights of a client, - Michael Schumacher will not have the same engine as his closest rival Damon Hill! The method which a fisherman mesmerized his victim by was not something new but quite logical and convincing. If Renault undertook an increasing expansion to German market, an image of a company helping His Majesty Schumacher to triumph would be more than appropriate tool for this business. A string had been touched once more and a fish has swallowed the bait, - Renault takes the decision which, I dare to suppose, has finally led it to later withdrawing from Formula One - a three years contract agreement with Benetton F1 for the supply of engines was signed at the end of 1994.

Keep up your spirit, Schumacher!
But Michael had his own plans and went his own road. He has switched to Ferrari. And Renault, as a confined bird, has been left imprisoned in a cage of double-partnership. Partnership with two Grand Prix racing's leading teams...

As a result of this alliance the French manufacturer dominates in Formula One nowadays. But, is the experiment worth-while?

One of the largest companies in the world automotive industry Renault, created in 1898 and passing through a period of nationalization since 1945, is partly State-owned company now, of which 50.1% shares are retained by the French Government. So, the questions are obvious: "Do Frenchmen really need such a costly sporting program? Is it really proper to provide two English teams with French tax-payers' money?" The answers would hardly be positive...

It is worth to note that the core of Renault activities consists in design, manufacture and marketing of passenger, commercial and light commercial vehicles (about 92% of revenues). Taking into consideration that commercial success of the company on the whole is conditional on getting stability in this very segment of the automotive market, the decision of marketing and advertising specialists to leave the costly F1 program seems clear, especially as the expenses are doubled. It is the inexorable logic of business - to sacrifice the parts for the whole. Michael Schumacher leaving Benetton carries away the last hope of Renault staying in Formula One at all cost.

However, F1 had seen Renault withdrawing in the middle of the eighties because of financial difficulties. May be this time is not forever again? Why shouldn't we expect Renault, retaining remarkable F1 traditions, to come back somewhere at the threshold of the next century to supply its coveted engines to some French team? Why wouldn't it be... Ligier?

By the way, on Ligier.
The French team has been heart-stricken after Flavio Briatore bought it in 1994. It seemed there was nothing sacred for him...

The new owner devastates the team by taking away Renault engine and looses interest in his poor victim at that very moment. Luckily Ligier makes an arrangement about Mugen Honda engine for the 1995 season, but it was not the only problem the team faced . The French team has completely lost its traditional origins as it was transmuting into an amazingly international team with an Italian owner, Italian Managing Director, Scottish Technical Director and Japanese engine. Olivier Panis, the latest in a long line of French drivers to make it to the top with Elf's support, was almost the only one representing the French flag at Ligier. Due to his successful performance at Adelaide last year (the second place) Ligier was rewarded with the fifth place in Constructors' Championship. But it soon became clear (during the last two years) that no director had any intention to take the team to heart. One after another Cesare Fiorio and Tom Walkinshaw have had some managing experience and made off with the skills and, undoubtedly, sponsorship. Forti and Arrows proved to be what they were looking for, not Ligier.

I still hope Ligier Sports SA will cope with its falling into decline. But Olivier Panis's win at the Monte-Carlo track seems to be something scarcely more than a splendid reflection of the team's former victories.

Now let us look at the situation that Michael Schumacher-Splendiferous has left behind his back at Benetton.

The impressive achievements of the team - World Drivers' Championship title (Michael Schumacher), runner-up in the Constructors' Championship in 1994 and double win (World Drivers' and Constructors' Championships) in 1995 - appeared to be the peak of glory of Flavio Briatore, the summit of his ambition and the top of all his practices. It seems Briatore's activities were focused on efforts to succeed rapidly, to achieve some brilliant, dazzling but the only one result, - some "blitzkrieg".

Now, looking at the almost crisis-ridden Benetton Formula, it occurs that the team wasn't really progressing as much as it seemed in 1995. The last year's confrontation of Benetton-Williams has changed to an opposition Ferrari-Williams, which we saw in the first half of this season. Benetton was pushed back to second roles. Nobody at Benetton remembers about a challenge for World Champion title. To win just some Grand Prix would be not too bad... And to think that Benetton was so intent on getting its triumph! Pompous presentations, optimistic declarations...

Fortune is fickle.
Fortune is easily found, but hard to keep.

We can see two basic reasons which led to chaos at the Briatore's household. The first one is symbiosis "Benetton-Schumacher".

Has Benetton bred Schumacher as a double World Champion? Saying that the team has been working for Michael exclusively for a few years would not be quite correct. The matter is of a more complex nature. The core of the subject is the team has become fully dependent on Michael as it had been transformed into a part of Benetton-Schumacher symbiosis . Michael was allowed to lead the team on a string. But noble aim justified everything - reciprocity of Michael and the team made up a sum of perfect results and brought a great sporting success.

The symbiosis is broken down now. Engineers, mechanics as well as all the other staff of the Benetton team were full with desire to demonstrate that Benetton is able to succeed without Michael. But wishes are not enough.

Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger are good pilots. However, they scarcely can do something much. Benetton needs to change the ideological tactics of communication with a driver, which has being worked out for years. Pilots and team will surely find methods of successful co-operation, - but it is not the only problem.

Another one is technical. Is it necessary to remind that chassis that Benetton possesses is almost out-of-date?

It is worth to note that Michael Schumacher was not the only precious gain Flavio Briatore managed.

John Barnard,- one of the great chassis designers of all times who pioneered the use of all-carbon composite construction, - has made for Benetton a chassis which no constructor dares to alter profoundly! Barnard's construction allowing rapid changes of aerodynamic, transmission and suspension components to suit individual circuits still remains as a basis at Benetton. Ross Brown limits himself to yearly cosmetic alterations. But make-up will not get you too far. At the end of the last season it became clear that, in spite of a new Renault engine in a Benetton's car, Williams is faster while Benetton was "getting old" right in front of our eyes.

For this season Alesi and Berger have been once again served with a slightly refurbished car based on the model of 1991... But getting a car that has outlived herself was not the only disaster - they have got a car which evolved in an obvious and well-known direction. It is an ideal car looking like some "special gift for Schumacher". Surely, the 7-speed gearbox may be changed. But if chassis stays the same, - poor drivers! - problems will increase for pilots, however skillful they would be. Berger and Alesi could show themselves to an advantage at the tracks such as Monza or Hockenheim (as we could see 28th July) where chassis disadvantages are less noticeable. But what about the near future?..

As a matter of fact it seems not too strange that Michael Schumacher has switched to Ferrari. Any bird is eager to slip away from the cage.

Michael showed a common sense and foresight leaving a team that is not likely to progress. He has met John Barnard in Ferrari once more. There is nothing unusual about it - Barnard used to work for the Italian team and revolutionized F1 with the introduction of a semi-automatic gearbox on his first design for Maranello in 1989. So, we shouldn't wonder the genius constructor and the genius driver get together again...

The year 1995 saw a triumphant parade of the Briatore's team to the peak of the Formula One Olympics. Double-victory of Benetton - as a result of the most brilliant action of its Managing Director - proved to be one side of the champion's medal. The other side is hidden from the public: the threefold subsequent payment:
- Renault Sport leaving Formula One;
- Ligier "kindly helped" falling into decline;
- Some crisis at Benetton.

What's more?
I dare to consider all these consequences are the outgrowth of Flavio Briatore's performance as a Managing Director of the Benetton Formula LTD. He is a real VIP in the Formula One world! If one hasn't perceived it yet, - read again...


Natasha Kholiavko
Send comments to:natasha@creatgraphics.spb.su