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Engine politics

WITH the 1997 season up-and-running and Melbourne giving the teams an idea of how the rest of the season will develop - Williams is still dramatically ahead - attention is already turning to putting together the packages for 1998 with engines being particularly important for Tyrrell, Arrows, Benetton and Jordan.

All the other teams already have their engines sorted out: Ferrari, Sauber-Petronas and Lola are all building their own V10s; Williams is signed up with Mecachrome (Renault) while McLaren's victory in Australia will have cemented the relationship with Mercedes-Benz; Alain Prost has a three-year deal with Peugeot; Jackie Stewart is comfortably in bed with Ford and Minardi has another year planned with Hart V8s.

There are no signs of any new engines coming into F1 at the moment although it is possible that John Judd - his five-year deal with Yamaha coming to an end - may produce his own engines once again.

The engines available to the four teams, therefore, would seem be the Mugen Honda V10s, the second supply of Mecachrome V10s, the risky Yamaha V10s and the customer Ford V8s.

Logic dictates that Benetton boss Flavio Briatore will do a deal with Mugen. There is, however, a drawback in that Mugen engines have to be paid for - and are expensive, even if a team agrees to take Mugen's favorite driver Shinji Nakano. Briatore could simply continue the relationship with Renault - but this also means he will have to pay. Briatore says these are the two choices available and that money is not the problem.

Staying with Renault-based engines has its advantages, but it is not necessarily the best idea for the team as it could not match Williams last year with the same engines - and looks like being off the Williams pace again this year. If one is going to have to pay for engines one might as well have an exclusive deal in order to possibly gain an advantage and to disguise weaknesses in comparison to other teams.

Deciding on engine manufacturers is not easy as a decision really depends on whether Honda and/or Renault intend to re-enter F1 in 1999 or 2000 and those are decisions which have probably not yet been taken. Briatore must also be aware that his constant rival Tom Walkinshaw may have decided that he is willing to take any deal rather than Yamaha. Tom tried hard last year to get the Mugens and this remains his likely target for 1998, although he may decide that Briatore is bound to get that deal and so sign up for Mecachrome engines instead - it would be a logical move if he wants to hold on to Damon Hill. It is logical to suggest that both Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrrell will also be trying to get deals with Mugen and Mecachrome.

If teams have to pay for engines one way or the other - which is quite likely - it may be an idea to look elsewhere and it is interesting to note a recent visit by Porsche personnel to the Benetton factory. Porsche has always said that it is interested in going into F1 if someone is willing to pay for an engine - as happened in the mid-1980s with TAG and in 1990 with Footwork. The company has a new team of engineers in place and a design study of a V10 engine was completed a couple of years ago. The only thing missing is money.

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