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MAY 27, 1996

Chrysler - Patriot games over

SINCE the collapse of its plans in Formula 1 in 1993, the Chrysler Corporation has been concentrating its best and brightest engineers on the development of a racing car powered by a gas turbine engine - the Patriot.

The intention was to race these cars in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Last week, however, the company announced that it is abandoning the Patriot and using the information it has gained to develop new hybrid electric vehicles.

The canning of the Patriot program leaves Chrysler without a major motor racing project - except in the low-key North American Touring Car Championship. This situation is surprising as the Chrysler management has the philosophy that motor sport is good not only to teach young engineers but also for motivating everyone through an involvement in competition.

Both Chrysler chairman Bob Eaton and president Bob Lutz know the value of motor sport and the company's vice president (vehicle engineering) Francois Castaing was technical boss of the Renault Sport F1 team in the late 1970s.

Logic dictates, therefore, that Chrysler may be considering launching a new motor sport program. There were rumors last October that Chrysler was considering an F1 return and there is no doubt that it would certainly benefit from F1's publicity as the company is expanding fast in Europe. Money is not a problem as Chrysler is currently cash-rich.

The management will, however, be very cautious about the people in F1 given what happened in 1993 when Eaton met McLaren's Ron Dennis at the Frankfurt Motor Show and - depending on who you believe - either agreed or did not agree a deal for McLaren to use Chrysler's Lamborghini F1 engines in 1994. Later that year Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen both tested a McLaren-Lamborghini car.

At the last minute Dennis signed what turned out to be an ill-fated agreement with Peugeot, and Chrysler had little choice but to pull out of Grand Prix racing and sold off Lamborghini Engineering. The engineering team dispersed, many - notably Gabriele Martini - going to Ferrari, but Chrysler still has engineers with a sound knowledge of modern F1, led by Mike Royce who was technical manager of Lamborghini Engineering operation.

A logical course of action would be for Chrysler to negotiate now to supply engines for the 1998 season and beyond, as there are likely to big changes in the F1 engine supply situation at the end of 1997. If Chrysler plays a clever game, it could even wind up supplying a top team such as Williams...