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Sauber and Ferrari

AS we speculated in June (INSIDE F1, Week 29) Sauber is planning to design and build its own V10 engines. These will be financed by Malaysia's national petroleum company Petronas and will be known as Sauber Petronas V10s.

The Sauber Petronas V10 project can be traced back to the start of this year - when Sauber Petronas Engineering AG was established by Sauber's Lichtenstein-based holding company (Red Bull Sauber Holdings) and Petronas - but to date the team does not have the infrastructure nor the staff needed to build engines in its vast Hinwil factory near Zurich.

In order to build the necessary organization Sauber has hired Osamu Goto, who left Ferrari at the end of October and began work at Sauber's Hinwil base on November 1. The Japanese engineer - who led the successful Honda F1 program in the late 1980s - is now recruiting engineers and preparing Sauber to build engines. There are already three former Porsche engineers involved and the project will soon have a number of engineers from Malaysia.

Sauber's problem is that it takes around two years for a well-financed engine manufacturer to set up a facility to design and build a competitive F1 engine and it has no engine supply for 1997 and 1998. Until late August the team was talking to Ford about a secondary supply of V10 engines. These talks stalled over money and Sauber, apparently taken by surprise, then tried to buy the Yamaha V10 program. Yamaha turned down the offer in mid-September. By that point things were beginning to look desperate for the Swiss. A deal with Brian Hart was discussed but Peter Sauber appears to have been worried that poor performances in 1997 - after a disappointing 1996 season - might affect his team's relationship with Petronas. It is no secret that rival teams have been constantly trying to get the Malaysians to dump Sauber. As a result it was concluded that Hart was not an option.

This situation probably explains a strange series of events last week in which Sauber announced that its project would involve Ferrari technology. It seems that Sauber bosses - notably commercial director Fritz Kaiser - came up with the idea of talking to Ferrari. The deal would be much more expensive than the original option to run Ford V10s but would give Sauber a two-year period of relative competitiveness as the team set up its own engine program. According to Sauber sources the negotiations involved Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo and Fiat's managing-director Paolo Cantarella agreed with the plan.

The link between Ferrari and Sauber was unexpected but even more unexpected were immediate denials from Ferrari that such a deal existed. Ferrari admitted that talks had been taking place but insisted that no deal was done. Ferrari's decision to talk to Sauber seems to have been a purely financial one.

Ferrari has been spending fortunes on its F1 program in the last year in an effort to turn the team into a winning operation and recently concluded a deal with Michael Schumacher for 1998 and 1999, which is believed to be worth as much as $60m for two years. In addition the new windtunnel at Maranello is going to cost the team around $15m.

Realizing this, Sauber is understood to have been offering Ferrari as much as $20m for the use of "Sauber Petronas" badged 1996-spec Ferrari V10 engines in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. The plan appears to have been for Ferrari to release 40 of these V10s to engineers from the now defunct Alfa Romeo International Touring Car Championship program.

The deal would, therefore, offer Ferrari money for old technology while providing Sauber and Petronas with the opportunity to cut corners in their F1 engine program. Ferrari's reaction to the announcement suggests that the Italians did not want the world to know about its involvement in the scheme. This is understandable as Ferrari management has come under some criticism in recent months in Italy for turning down requests from Minardi for a supply of engines.

Ferrari does not always tell the whole truth. Back in 1993, for example, it received help from Honda engineers on its V12 program but denied any involvement for many months before finally admitting the truth in November that year.

The major question now is whether Sauber's announcement will actually scupper the deal entirely. Ferrari would still like the money and Sauber is desperate for the engines and F1 logic, therefore, suggests that the problems will be overcome and that Sauber will be powered by Petronas engines next year. If Ferrari does pull out of the deal Sauber is in big trouble because the 1997 car is already badly delayed. They could fall back to Ford V8 customer engines - as F1 was expecting before the Ferrari news broke - but as Sauber is one of signatory teams to the new Concorde Agreement and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone wants to keep his signatories strong, there is likely to be pressure on Ferrari from Ecclestone to go ahead with the deal.

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