JANUARY 1, 1998
BY JOE SAWARD
Jean-Yves Houe is the Formula 1 manager of Mecachrome, the French precision engineering company which will be running engines in Grand Prix racing this year with Williams and Benetton.
There is, of course, more to this than meets the eye as new engine companies do not enter F1 in such exulted company. Mecachrome may be a new name in F1 circles but the company, which is based at Aubigny-sur-Nere, near Bourges - not far from Magny-Cours - is no stranger to Grand Prix racing.
In fact Mecachrome has been working in association with Renault Sport since 1974, when it first started doing sub-contract work on racing engines.
When Renault expanded its supply of the Renault V6 turbo engines to customer teams in 1983 Mecachrome was called in to rebuild the engines on behalf of Renault. There was simply too much work for Renault Sport to do everything in-house.
It was a similar story with the Renault V10. When Guy Ligier used his French governmental connections to land a three-year Renault engine deal in 1992 Mecachrome was given the job of preparing these engines. Things changed in 1995 when the Ligier deal passed on to Benetton and, for the last three years, Mecachrome and Renault Sport have shared the work of preparing engines for Williams and Benetton - on a random basis. In this way both teams were happy that they were getting exactly the same engines. In many respects, therefore, one can say that Mecachrome has already won a large number of Grands Prix, even if the record books do not say it.
It was thus no surprise when in February last year it was announced that Mecachrome would take over the Renault project and run the V10 engines under its own name. There was certainly no lack of knowledge of the engines but where Mecachrome was weak was that it had not looked after the on-track engineering of the V10s and had not been involved in research and development.
Part of the deal agreed with Renault was that Renault Sport personnel would join Mecachrome to run the engines and that Renault would keep a group of engineers at Viry-Chatillon to work on new development projects on the old engines.
So how different is the Mecachrome V10 engine to the Renault RS9 used at the end of last season?
"It is an evolution of that engine," says Houe. "An evolution which was forseen by Renault Sport and it has already been tested out in the last few Grands Prix of 1997.
"The relationship between Renault and Mecachrome is complicated but at the same time it is also very simple. When Mecachrome received the go-ahead from Renault to develop the Renault Sport engines it was clearly stated that as part of the deal Renault Sport would retain a technology group and, at the same time, put at Mecachrome's disposal some of its own personnel to do certain things which Mecachrome was not used to doing. In particular this involved the race engineering and that is why when we get to the race tracks this year you are going to see a lot of the same faces from Renault Sport last year but now they will be wearing Mecachrome colours. They have been lent to us by Renault Sport.
"So we are assuring a continuity of the use of the engine and if there are parts which show signs of weakness we will change them and make the necessary modifications but whether there will be big developments steps is still a big debate at the moment.
"For the moment there are plans for new steps forward but they have not been finalized and that is really a question of the budget involved. We do not yet really know what to expect from the competition because of all the changes in the regulations in regard to tyres and the amount of downforce so we still have yet to see exactly where we are."
Mecachrome has one major advantage in that the engine which it has inherited - the Renault RS9 - was a completely new engine at the start of last year and, in theory at least, there is plenty of room for development of the unit based on the same engine block. At the time it was a dramatic step forward for Renault Sport with 11kgs saved in weight over the RS8 and a much lower centre of gravity. But with other engine manufacturers pushing hard, notably Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari, which are building one new engine after another, the old Renault domination is under threat. Renault has also lost some important members of staff, notably Renault Sport's technical director Bernard Dudot.
Despite all the changes, does Jean-Yves Houe believe it is possible for the Mecachrome V10 engine to win races.