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Ligier to sign Robby Gordon?

TOM WALKINSHAW loves to spring surprises, and the word on the street in F1 is that the team's mystery driver in this week's test at Estoril is to be Indycar star Robby Gordon, who won two races this year (Phoenix and Detroit) in one of Derrick╩Walker's Reynard-Ford 95Is. Gordon finished fifth in the championship behind Jacques Villeneuve, Al Unser Jr, Bobby╩Rahal and Michael Andretti.

The 26-year-old from Orange County, California, began competing in off-road racing winning three national championships before being spotted by Mike Kranefuss of the Ford Motor Company. Kranefuss arranged for Gordon to race IMSA GTO with Roush Racing in 1991 and 1992. He also took part in selected TransAm and NASCAR races. In mid-1992 he joined the Ganassi Indycar team and after spending 1993 with AJ Foyt he joined Walker at the start of last year, with backing from Valvoline.

Gordon will be well-known to Ligier team manager Tony Dowe, who was running the TWR Jaguar team in IMSA racing while Gordon was making his mark with Roush and who was secretly looking at setting up a Ligier-Honda Indycar team earlier this season.

Gordon is tied to Valvoline in a long-term deal and this is interesting because Ligier was known to be thinking about an alternative oil company sponsor to replace its longtime French sponsor Elf, which was insisting that the team use French drivers and cutting back its budgets. We believe that Gordon's deal with Valvoline is a personal one and he will race where the company asks him to be. If Walkinshaw has managed to convince Valvoline that he can offer them a good deal in F1 racing, Gordon might be part of the package.

It would not be Valvoline's first involvement in F1 because the company began its Grand Prix history twenty years ago with the Parnelli team and subsequently sponsored Lotus between 1977-80 - notably during Mario Andretti's Championship-winning campaign in 1978. Valvoline's last F1 involvement was in 1984 with Arrows.

In recent months there has been a change in Valvoline management which might see F1 moving back into favor. Valvoline can certainly afford an F1 program. The company - owned by the Lexington, Kentucky-based Ashland corporation - is worth $10 billion and is ranked 404 in the Fortune 500 list of companies. It is involved in oil prospecting, drilling and refining, plastics, chemicals, coal and highway construction. It also owns 600 SuperAmerica convenience stores in the American Midwest.

Walkinshaw is not interested in signing up a paying driver such as Brazilian Pedro Diniz, but a quick driver connected to a large sponsor would be a different thing. The main drawback would be that Gordon would not have any knowledge of the F1 circuits although he could test at several Grand Prix circuits before the end of the year - after which such testing is banned until after the races have taken place.

If he was snatched by F1 it would be a major coup for Bernie Ecclestone in the continuing rivalry with Indycar racing. Not only would the champion Jacques Villeneuve be moving to F1, but also the other major young charger in the series. This would greatly help Ecclestone as he tries to organize Grands Prix in the United States and will undoubtedly bring more F1 awareness to the USA.

On Sunday, however, there were indications that there might be some kind of late hitch in the deal as Ligier team manager Tony Dowe left his home in Chicago and flew to Los Angeles on urgent - but undisclosed - business.

If Elf and Ligier do split up, the French oil company will have a serious problem because Ligier has long provided a drive for Elf to place drivers from its La Filiere scheme, designed to take young Frenchmen to F1. Elf currently has six drivers in and around F1: Olivier Panis, Jean-Christophe Boullion, Franck Lagorce, Emmanuel Collard, Emmanuel Clerico and Guillaume╩Gomez.

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