Elf stuns the F1 community

FRENCH oil company Elf stunned the Formula 1 world last week when it announced that it was pulling out of Grand Prix racing at the end of the season. The news came just days after Renault announced its decision to quit the sport at the end of 1997, after 29 years of competition.

Over the years, Elf has had cars running in 427 Grands Prix, starting in 1968 with Jackie Stewart's Matra. It has won 128 victories and a total of 13 World titles (six Constructors' and seven Drivers'). The most famous Elf driver was probably Jackie Stewart (25 wins).

From its very beginnings Elf has used motor racing as a means of promotion with a long-term plan formulated by its legendary racing boss Francois Guiter to rebuild French motor racing, initially with Matra but later with Renault. Elf also established the Volant Elf racing school structure which has produced many champions over the years.

The decision to quit F1 leaves Williams, Benetton, Ligier, Tyrrell, Sauber and Forti without a fuel supply next year and knocks a big hole in the budgets of both Williams and Benetton. It also leaves the young French drivers Olivier Panis, Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Franck Lagorce without support to help them get drives.

Elf, however, insists that it is continuing its policy of promoting young drivers through the La Filiere scheme. This curious decision means that - in all probability - Elf will not stay out of F1 for longer than it must before returning to claim its new drivers.

The decision seems to be based entirely on economics. Elf may be France's largest industrial company but it has been losing money heavily since it was privatized in 1994. The share price has dropped badly and chairman Philippe Jaffre appears to have given the order for all the Elf companies - 800 in total around the world - to cut back. Major restructuring is expected in the months ahead.

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