Honda website
Honda website

OCTOBER 2, 1995

What will Ligier do now?

WITH Martin Brundle having been lured away from Ligier, Tom Walkinshaw suddenly finds himself without an established driver. The only obvious candidate is Johnny Herbert, but the deal will not be easy as Walkinshaw recently made some vicious public comments about Johnny. In F1, however, anything is possible. Last year Walkinshaw spent $1 million to get Herbert out of his Lotus contract and into a Ligier. That deal lasted one race before Johnny was moved into Benetton to help the team in the fight for the Constructors' World title.

Walkinshaw's other choices appear to be Jos Verstappen - who has been released from his Benetton contract and is now a free agent - Gianni Morbidelli, Mark Blundell or one of the young generation of French drivers being pushed by Elf.

Olivier Panis is rumored to be sliding out of favor and Emmanuel Collard has been testing for the team in recent weeks. FranckĂŠLagorce also has ambitions to become a Ligier race driver.

Collard and Verstappen are both due to test for the team in the next few days at Estoril along with Aguri Suzuki.

Walkinshaw's major problem at the moment appears to be a lack of budget and Tom set tongues wagging when he flew off to New York on Friday. Our sources say that Tom had a meeting with RJR Nabisco bosses about sponsorship.

There is no question that money is short at Ligier. The French national lottery, Loto, has pulled out of the team and Elf is only willing to pay large sums if one of its drivers is involved. The SEITA - which owns the Gitanes and Gauloises Blondes cigarette brands - has announced that it will continue with Ligier but the deal is rumored to be worth only 75% of the 1995 budget and the SEITA wants the team to remain in France.

Walkinshaw wants to move the entire operation to England and in order to do that needs to find big bucks to replace the French money. RJR Nabisco is certainly big, with annual sales of around $15 billion. It is the second largest cigarette maker in the world and one of the world's biggest food companies.

RJR Nabisco was involved in F1 between 1987 and 1993 with its Camel cigarette brand but the effects of the $30 billion leveraged buyout of RJR by LBO specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts incurred huge debts for the company and the motor racing program was one of the victims of chairman Lou Gerstner's cutbacks.

When Gerstner was poached by IBM in 1993, Mike Harper took over as chairman and his policy has been to promote strong growth in the international cigarette business, which is highly profitable. He has also improved the company debt burden with a share issue last year which analysts believe indicates that the company will soon be split in two: one company for the food businesses and the other for tobacco.

RJR Nabisco has many brands which might be able to use F1 as a marketing tool in addition to its Camel brand, but F1's prime attraction to such companies is its freedom to advertise tobacco. So is Ligier's SEITA deal actually done? Or is Tom gambling on a bigger and better option?

There have, incidentally, also been rumors suggesting that Ligier might be sold to Indian beer magnate Veejay Malik, owner of the Kingfisher beer brand.