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Williams pondering the future

FOR some weeks there have been strong rumors suggesting that the Williams team will be running Mugen Honda engines in 1996. This is unlikely because Williams is under contract to Renault and is unlikely to try to get out of that contract until there is another engine available with better performance than the Renault V10.

Frank Williams and Renault have a contract which stretches until the end of 1997, but both parties are well aware that this means very little. Williams had an exclusive Renault contract for 1995, but Renault Sport managing-director Christian Contzen chose to force the issue as he wanted to sign up with Benetton as well. To date the Benetton-Renault relationship has been very successful, but much of this depends on Michael Schumacher. If the German quits the team at the end of this year, it is unlikely that another driver will be able to achieve half of what he has managed. The Benetton team is built around Michael, and the performances of Johnny Herbert are probably a better indication of the real competitiveness of the Benetton chassis.

There is no question that Williams is not very happy with Contzen's behavior, but Frank knows it is best to hang on with Renault and wait and see what happens. The French cannot afford to ditch him as it would cost millions of dollars in damages. French political involvement in Renault means that there could be a new management at any moment, in which case Contzen could easily be transferred elsewhere. He has already completed five years at Renault Sport, and traditionally Renault men move on quickly from job to job. Contzen says he is staying, but then he used to say that Renault had an exclusive contract with Williams.

Ligier will want to hold on to its Honda deal when the contract runs out at the end of 1996, but the Japanese may not be very pleased with the legal wrangling and embarrassment which has been caused by the legal battles over their engine: between Flavio Briatore (who represented Ligier in the negotiations) and the Minardi team.

From Honda's point of view, some believe that there is an agreement between the company and McLaren which means that the Japanese cannot return to F1 until the end of 1998. At the same time, Honda is concentrating on winning in Indycar racing before making an F1 comeback.

One factor which many of the rumor-mongers in F1 have not considered is the Japanese attitude towards handicapped people. In Japan there is not the same kind of acceptance of the handicapped which exists elsewhere, and some feel that Frank Williams's confinement in a wheelchair was largely responsible for the decision by Honda to ditch Williams and join McLaren at the end of 1987.

Honda boss Nobuhiko Kawamoto is a pragmatist and he will do whatever he thinks is necessary to be successful, but he has long supported the company's ultimate ambition of running its own F1 team.

All things considered, Williams is more likely to do a long-term deal with Peugeot, Mercedes or Ford, but he'll stay with Renault until he knows which way to jump. Until then he will keep winning races for Renault and hope that the Benetton-Renault love affair turns sour.

The best way to help this happen, of course, would be for Williams to hire Schumacher.

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