BIG AL

Can the car companies really do without F1?

We are supposed to learn from history. Therefore when we are told that the sort of cyclical changes we've experienced in the past are henceforward consigned to those very same history books from which we are supposed to learn, then we have grounds for being cautious. Suspicious, even.

The world's major automobile manufacturers have committed themselves over the past few months to the long haul in single seater open-wheeler racing, whether it is known as F1 today or Grand Prix Single Seater Global Racing - or somesuch - if the car makers ever really do have to start their own independent series. Trouble is, you can have as many formal and informal deals as you like to ensure their continued participation. But at the end of the day you cannot argue against the force of economics. Ultimately, if one car maker wants to follow Peugeot's example and dip out of F1 in favor of the World Rally Championship, then I really do not see how the others will be able to prevent it.

Don't get me wrong. Set against the figures we've heard being tossed around the place in recent months with reference to car company profits - or more likely losses - I am prepared to believe Bernie Ecclestone's confident assertion that investing in F1 is a bargain. And that's nothing new. More than a decade ago I remember Leo Mehl, Goodyear's International Director of Racing, telling me just how some of the Akron tire company board members rubbed their hands when Goodyear briefly pulled out of F1 during the 1980s.

They then sat around thinking how they could spend all those lovely dollars which they'd apparently saved by quitting F1. "But it didn't take long for them to realize that we couldn't get as good a bang for the buck with anything else as we could with F1," said Mehl. And Goodyear was quickly back in the Grand Prix fold.

Ironically, I wonder if now Peugeot - underachievers in F1, admittedly - just might be signalling a second choice. To be honest, I've heard people saying for the past thirty years that International Rallying - properly promoted and presented - had the potential to give F1 a very nasty commercial surprise. And I must say that I have yawned, stretched my legs and wandered off to talk to somebody else.

Now I'm not quite so sceptical. The astute David Richards last year paid Bernie Ecclestone around $38m to purchase the commercial rights to the World Rally Championship. Since then, almost subliminally, I've been aware of more rallying appearing on my TV screen. It could be the start of a trend.

In that connection, this coming weekend British drivers Colin McRae and Richard Burns will be going head-to-head for the World Championship in the Network Q Rally Great Britain 2001. There will be huge media and spectator attention attaching to this slog round the forests of South Wales. Perhaps, after all, Richards has found the key to unlock the door of success to international rallying in the same way as Bernie revolutionized F1 a generation ago.

Fascinating prospect. But one which needs watching carefully, I reckon.

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