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APRIL 21, 1997

More on Williams and BMW

THE deal currently being put together for Williams to take over some of BMW's sporting operations from McLaren is not entirely surprising, given that Mercedes - which supplies McLaren with engines in F1 - is now involved as a direct rival to the McLaren-BMWs in the FIA Grand Touring Championship.

BMW and McLaren have been working together in sportscar racing since the McLaren F1 GT program began in 1994. This has resulted in many race wins and victory in the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours for Yannick Dalmas, JJ Lehto and MasanoriƊSekiya.

Last year James Weaver and Ray Bellm won the Global Endurance GT Series for McLaren but the arrival of the Porsche 911 GT1 at the last season signaled that the McLaren GT cars were no longer dominant. David Price, who had run McLarens in 1994-95, decided to switch to the new Panoz sportscars while GTC Motorsport - McLaren's semi-works team in sportscars - was joined this year by Schnitzer, which had spent the 1996 season running McLaren-developed BMW touring cars in the British Touring Car series.

That program - with drivers Jo Winkelhock, Roberto Ravaglia and Peter Kox - was not a great success. Despite five race wins the BMWs were regularly beaten by the Audi team, not the kind of publicity that BMW wanted. At the end of last season BMW management decided to have no direct involvement in the British touring car series for first time in 10 years - during which time the company won four championships.

This year the Williams touring car team is dominating the British series with drivers Alain Menu and Jason Plato in their Renault Lagunas but that deal - which was a lucrative pay-off to Williams for accepting Renault's decision to supply Benetton with equal specification V10 engines in F1 - comes to an end at the end of this season and with Renault pulling out of F1 there are likely to be changes in touring cars as well.

This, in part at least, explains the curious rumors doing the rounds that BMW would fund Williams's supply of Mecachrome engines in F1 next year. The funding will not be direct but if Williams profits from a relationship with BMW in sportscars and touring cars, there is no reason why this money cannot be used to pay for the Mecachrome engines.

Williams is contracted to use the rebadged Renault V10s until the end of the 1999 season. The intention with this deal was for Renault to drop out of F1 for a couple of years because the vast recently-privatized company needed to be restructured, with thousands of job losses. An involvement in F1 was thus unacceptable.

A strong relationship with BMW - which seems to be keen to enter F1 - is a good tactical move for Williams because when the Munich car company does give the go-ahead for F1, Williams will be the obvious choice for the Germans. BMW is a lean, effective and very profitable company and is probably a much better long-term bet in F1 than Renault.