Red faces, blue cars and bruised egos

Driving into Magny-Cours early on Saturday morning we saw an example of the modern French motorist in action. During the night Jean-Pierre Nutter had hurtled into a corner too fast and had dropped his Renault Boyracer into a ditch. It lay there looking rather awkward.

We looked for bodies, but there were none. All Jean-Pierre Nutter had done was bruise his ego and give himself a very red face. The crash was not even going to make the newspapers on Monday. There is a curious tradition in France which glorifies those who have big road accidents. Every Monday morning the locals order a coffee and sit in the cafes reading the stories about those who did not make it through the weekend. An entire school of literature has grown up around the road accident reports, the aim being to describe the crash in as much detail as possible but in a nice flowery way.

Every object along the way is described in detail. Let me give you an example. "Mr. Dupont lost control of his Peugeot and left the road. The car rolled four times and then hit a great oak tree and was torn into two pieces. The front of the car went into an old box hedge and the back somersaulted into the nearby river. The shock waves from the impact rang a church bell 100m from the scene and the car radio was found in a village a mile away".

As they read the stories the newspaper readers make the usual French noises and gestures.

"Eh bah, ouf!" they cry, "Pas mal. Quatre tonneaux. Wow!"

And yet people in French road accident reports never die. The writers point out in discreet fashion that "the driver did not survive the impact".

The French really do have dreadful road accident statistics. I have a theory that in a couple of hundred years they will probably become the best and most considerate drivers in the world, because all the madmen and women will eventually have been wiped out and the bad genes will no longer be passed down through the generations. I guess the Dutch must have been seriously bad drivers a few centuries ago because nowadays they all drive at 30mph in the middle of the road.

Right now, however, the French are still stuck in the lunatic phase, killing off the fast and the furious. There was a time a few year ago when a small amount of this madness was successfully channeled into producing a fabulous generation of racing drivers which was, for a few short years, the envy of the world. Heroes such as Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Henri Pescarolo, Francois Cevert, Patrick Depailler, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, Jacques Laffite, Jean-Pierres Jabouille and Jarier, Didier Pironi, Rene Arnoux, Patrick Tambay, Alain Prost and so on were going to make France great again. And with the drivers so grew the racing industry in France with teams like Matra, Renault Sport, Ligier, AGS and Larrousse. The serious operations being pumped full of government money from Elf and other such organizations.

The major problem was that as a nation the French have never been very well-suited to running racing teams. The tendency has always been to point the finger when things go wrong rather than admitting that one has made a mistake and getting everyone to work together to fix the problem. In the bad old days at Ligier the team motto was: "Chacun sa merde", which in non-literal translation means that if people get into trouble it is their problem. In such circumstances a team always descends into factional in-fighting as Ligier always did - even when it should have been winning the World Championship.

Eventually the teams all folded up one after another, helped by well-meaning politicians who wiped out sponsorship from tobacco and alcohol companies and thus stopped new talent arriving. Elf tired to keep its promotions going but eventually had to give it up and so French motor racing has gradually sunk towards oblivion. It was only in the realms of engine-building and aerodynamics that the French were still world-beaters.

Alain Prost, having been the first and only Frenchman to win the Formula 1 World Championship, has now decided that he is going to try to show the world that a French racing team can succeed. He is a brave man and while his name has brought in large amounts of sponsorship and support from Peugeot the recent announcement that Peugeot is to enter the World Rally Championship is a sign of things to come. Running both programs side-by-side makes no sense at all and although the company says it will pour as much money as necessary into both programs it is hard to imagine that will last for long. Some paddock watchers are more cynical: in order to get out of F1, they say, without looking like having failed Peugeot needs to be seen to be moving to something more important. And that means that when the rally program is up and running Peugeot will say: "it is necessary, for the long-term good of the company, to concentrate on the new 206. I expect they will say that they consider F1 to be unfinished business and will return...

Perhaps if Prost starts to win next year they will think again but if they are not careful Peugeot is going to get itself a Yamaha-like image. Peugeot has been in F1 for five years and won not thing. Renault won its sixth race with a V10.

There are some folk in the paddock who think that Renault will make a triumphant comeback to F1 in the year 2000. This is insane because the company is facing a seriously unstable future for which it is ill-prepared and wasting money on F1 is not going to get rid of the thousands of unnecessary workers that Renault has on its books so the unions are not upset.

So what future does Prost have as a vanguard of French industry? Sadly one has to say that there is not a lot on offer. If I were Alain I think I would jump on a plane to Hannover to go and see Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech. He owns Cosworth Racing (at the moment) and will shortly own both the Lamborghini and Bugatti car companies. If I were Prost I would ask Piech for Cosworth V10s badged as Bugattis and I would change the color of my cars to the old powder blue which French cars used to race in. With Bugatti back in F1 French industry would get excited and so Alain could pick up lots of disenchanted engine people from Renault, Peugeot and Mecachrome. I would get the French government to subsidize a new car factory near the German border - at a place called Molsheim (which has a few Bugatti connections) and I would start building Prost-Bugatti road cars.

Of course, logic very rarely plays much of a part in motor racing. There are all kinds of other issues to be taken into account and the sands of the sport are constantly shifting beneath the paddock. A few months can make a huge difference.

Take British American Racing for example. In December the organization paid $27m to buy the Tyrrell team. The deal did not include the factory and ever since the takeover there has been no evidence that the Tyrrell staff have any desire to move to Brackley to work for the new BAR.

The new Concorde Agreement allows for 12 teams to receive TV money and have a voice on the Formula 1 Commission which means there was no need for BAR to buy Tyrrell.

At the French Grand Prix Tyrrell dropped out of the top 10 teams according to results for the 12 months which means that from now on BAR has to pay its own travelling expenses. And so one is left to ask exactly what it was that BAR bought when they handed over all that money to the Tyrrell Family. They even failed to buy the goodwill of the family...

One cannot help but conclude that someone in a boardroom somewhere threw away $27m for no reason at all. Perhaps there are reasonable arguments that "at the time" it was the right thing to do.

When British American Racing was launched in December there was much singing and dancing about big surprises on engines and drivers. And here we are a few months on with the team having signed a deal to run Super Tec Sport engines which everyone in the paddock knows are rebadged Mecachromes, which are rebadged Renaults. They talk of developing the engines in the future but the only development which has been seen to date is that a Super Tec Sport V10 is 30% more expensive than a Mecachrome V10...

Now we must wait with bated breath for an announcement about drivers. Will BAR surprise us all with an announcement about Jacques Villeneuve and Alessandro Zanardi? Judging by the team's performance to date, one would expect to see Jan Magnussen in one car and Jean-Christophe Boullion in the other.

You would think that people would learn from the lessons of history. The more a team is talked-up at the start the higher the expectations will be. Everyone is expecting way too much from BAR... just as they did from Carl Haas's Beatrice team back in the mid-1980s.

All I can see at the moment is the potential for a lot of red faces and some seriously bruised egos.

But what do I know? I don't have $27m to throw away so I guess I must a sucker in the company such great business brains...

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