NEWS FEATURE

Steve Parker, head of Ford's F1 programme

Ford's F1 programme has never looked better but the company's F1 boss Steve Parker has a problem. McLaren is too successful. Benetton is supposed to the Ford factory team.

Benetton gets better engines than customer teams McLaren, Lotus and Minardi, but the team is not producing the results. McLaren is equal to Williams-Renault in the Constructors' Championship and Lotus is third. In the Drivers' Championship Ayrton Senna is single -handedly taking on Williams- Renault drivers Alain Prost and Damon Hill.

When F1 gets to the faster tracks later in the summer, engine power becomes much more important and Ayrton Senna and McLaren are now campaigning to be given the same engines as Benetton, so they can take the fight to Williams.

There is obvious tension.

Parker says there isn't a problem.

"As far as Ford is concerned we have two strong Ford-powered teams," he says. "That is good for us and I hope that in the course of the season both teams can challenge the Williams-Renaults"

But McLaren and Benetton cannot both win the World Championship and if Benetton gets its act together, its success will detract from McLaren's efforts to beat Williams.

"They can trip over each other to some extent," says Parker, "but let's hope that the effect on Ford is not going to be so great."

Parker repeats the same thing over and over. Ford is contracted to Benetton and is not planning to break that contract.

"At the end of last year we sat down with four teams and reached agreement about our supply strategy in 1993. We are honoring the terms of those agreements."

Which means that McLaren cannot have the pneumatic valve engines until July?

"Our deal with McLaren includes a provision for air valves later in the season," says Parker. "I don't think the deadline will differ with what we agreed."

And he will not be pressed further on the subject.

"Look," he says finally. "It is really more useful for the competition to learn exactly when McLaren are going to get air valves, rather than your readers. That is why there is a little bit of secrecy. F1 is a challenging world. These people will not compromise on winning. The whole tension is winning and whenever you have people in that situation someone has to lose. If you don't want to win you shouldn't be anywhere near F1. We are aggressive to win, we are putting money into our programme, we have an engine programme which will enable us to win. I don't think anyone will argue that this view is shared by Benetton which has put in an enormous investment in its new factory and got together a first class engineering team. I think Tom Walkinshaw has done a fantastic job of really getting these guys focussed. The performances last year were extremely good, getting the reliability and they have put a hell of lot of changes into the new car in a short time."

Yes, but McLaren has been doing the winning.

"You have to look at the races so far," says Parker. "We have had three fairly unusual races. We'll see how things develop as the season goes on. I would say the two teams will become fairly evenly matched. I think what everyone should want to see is a return of some close racing. The races we have had have been pretty exciting - but perhaps somewhat unusual. It is what F1 really needs, because if we go through another year of yellow and blue cars disappearing over the horizon, it's not very interesting.

"We'll have a new V12 engine next season and it depends which way the rules go as to which teams get favor. On that your guess is as a good as anyone's at the moment. Really our emphasis has to be on 1994. I think that will be when we stand the strongest chance of defeating Renault. But that's not saying we cannot do it this year. It's still early in the year."

We keep hearing about the Ford V12, but it seems to be permanently behind schedule. What is the true story?

"There were some problems in the programme," says Parker. "I've only been involved since September and my view of the history may not be perfect, but I think what happened is that the original V12 proved to be a little difficult in terms of package and weight. Some of the compromises made to meet the objectives compromised the engine itself. We have redesigned the V12 and the latest version is a little bigger than the previous one and it is now running well.

"One of the problems is that we keep finding more from the V8, so we then have to find more gains out of the V12. That's difficult. On top of that a lot of work we've done on the V12 is feeding back into the V8, particularly the cylinder head and throttle work. This means the V8 is picking up even more power. Deciding what to do is not quite as simple as just having to compensate for the extra weight of the V12. You have to take into account the extra fuel it will use, the extra cooling it needs, the drag co-efficients and so on. It is looking at this balance which is what has been slowing down the V12. We'll get the new engine at the beginning of next year."

And will McLaren use it?

"We've got an open-ended deal with McLaren and we'll need to talk to them and to the other teams to see what they want to do."

Is Ford planning to expand its supply to more than four teams?

"Within the constraints of the number of teams Cosworth can physically supply, we'd like to get as many teams as we can using Ford engines. I guess we could handle some more next season if necessary. and I think all the four teams are proving to be very competitive. I think with a new V12 engine and a fully-developed V8 we will have the hardware to put together a pretty good supply strategy to meet the needs and budgets of most teams."

Ford has a reputation in recent years of producing good reliable engines, but being a little too conservative for the fast-moving world of F1? Would that be fair description?

"Ford has won 161 GPs, which is a damned sight more than anyone else. In recent years we were unfortunate with some of the timing. We had a couple of seasons with the 1.5-litre turbos and then they were banned. That rather wrong-footed us and left us with a compromise engine, until we could get the HB together. So the last three or four years has been a bit unfortunate, but now the HB V8 is starting to show some of its true promise, and we are confident that the V12 will build on those foundations."

Has this lack of success in recent years made it difficult to sell an F1 programme to Ford's top management.

"Right now, selling any marketing programme is hard," says Parker. "Although there are some signs of economic recovery in Britain there are signs of depression in all the other markets in Europe, so you have to look at any programme on its merits.

"There is an affinity with Ford management towards racing, certainly towards Grand Prix racing and we have some strong F1 supporters in the United States. To a large extent the Ford management does what all management should, which is entrust their lieutenants to make the right decisions.

"If we earnestly believe it is a good investment and we get the returns in the way we measure them then we are pretty well left to take those decisions.

"You must remember that F1 is still an amazing sport. There is nothing other than World Cup football or the Olympic Games where you get 400 million viewers. It is still the leading edge of automobile technology. We have about 20 engineers working on the F1 programme. We are helping Benetton with its active ride, electronic gearshift and traction control systems. We are doing that because contrary to what some people say we think there is a future for active ride in production cars. We are working very hard to get active ride onto a production car in three or four years. F1 is a marvellous way of getting an enormous amount of data very quickly. Large organization tend to get a little bit caught up with their own inertia and really now in production the race is to try and get first-rate products onto the market place quickly. We are learning an enormous amount just by having out people in the fast-moving world of F1 where you have to get things out quickly and they have to be absolutely right otherwise you look an idiot.

"We are getting a lot of experience both on organisation and hard data. All these things add up.

"When you look at the investment involved in F1 we think it works for us - and its not just a marketing exercise."

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