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JUNE 24, 1996

Renault to quit F1 at the end of 1997

AS predicted in these pages in January, Renault Sport has announced that it is pulling out of Formula 1 racing when its current contracts expire at the end of 1997.

The company has been in Grand Prix racing since 1977 - although it pulled out briefly in 1987-88 while a V10 engine was being designed for the new F1 regulations. Since the arrival of that engine the company has won 60 races, three Drivers' titles and four Constructors' Championships. The engines have become so dominant that the company is now suffering from diminishing returns: victory is expected and Renault in only mentioned when it fails to win.

There are strong economic reasons as well for the pull-out. The strength of the French Franc against other currencies has made it very difficult for Renault to sell its goods abroad. The company has also been privatized recently and so the need to please shareholders also has to be taken into account. Renault Sport is to continue with plans to announce its future projects expected in the next few weeks. This is widely rumored to be an Indycar program, which will suit Renault's marketing aims in South America while being a lot cheaper than Grand Prix racing.

There may be an important knock-on effect of this for F1, because with a reduction of staff at Renault Sport and a less challenging program, some Renault engineers may decide that they wish to stay in F1 and join other companies.

Renault Sport boss Bernard Dudot (57) and his number two Jean-Francois Robin (59) are both only a few years short of retirement so they will probably stay on at Renault. But there are many younger men who would all be very useful to rival engine makers.

The company which stands to gain most is Peugeot as all the Renault men live around Paris and can easily relocate to Peugeot without needing to move their families. Renault Sport at Viry Chatillon is 12 miles from Peugeot Sport at Velizy.

With an influx of Renault knowledge, Peugeot will be able to improve what is already a very strong engine and so it will be a much more attractive partner for a big team. Peugeot is a free agent at the end of 1997 when its Jordan contract expires.

The availability of Williams and Benetton may convince other F1 engine-makers to split with their existing partners. Mercedes, for example, might consider a Williams deal to be a better bet than one with McLaren - and, as McLaren has proved in the past, contracts between teams and manufacturers can be dissolved.

One intriguing suggestion we hear is that Renault will stay out of F1 for a year and, once its Indycar program is up-and-running, will return to F1 with a French national racing team, which will be built around Ligier.