Chrysler looking again at F1?

CHRYSLER chief executive Robert Eaton announced this weekend in Germany that the company is intending to double its sales in Europe in the next five years. Not surprisingly, this has led to renewed speculation that America's third biggest car manufacturer - behind General Motors and Ford - is having another look at Grand Prix racing.

Despite sales of over 100,000 vehicles in Europe in 1996, Chrysler remains a minor player in the oversubscribed European car markets, having less than one percent of the market. Eaton says that there are no plans to open factories in Europe and the cars will continue to be imported from the US.

In order to achieve such success Chrysler needs to market itself more effectively and using motor sport is the obvious way to improve the brand image and, therefore, the sales.

The company's dreams of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours with a gas-turbine car called the Patriot - built by Reynard - were canceled in May 1996 and since then Chrysler has not had a major motor racing involvement despite the fact that Eaton and his Vice-President (Vehicle Engineering) Francois Castaing are both big fans of using the sport to promote sales. Castaing was the technical director of Renault Sport before Bernard Dudot took over in 1980.

Chrysler entered F1 in 1989 with its Lamborghini offshoot, which built V12 engines for Larrousse, Team Lotus, Minardi and even, briefly, with its own F1 team. When Eaton took over the company in 1992 he backed a more serious effort and the following year came close to a deal with McLaren - Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen even testing a prototype McLaren-Lamborghini that autumn.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis decided to do a deal with Peugeot instead and left Chrysler high and dry. The company pulled out of F1 and Lamborghini was sold.

At the end of 1995 there were the first rumors that Chrysler was considering a return to F1 and these re-emerged in June last year when Arrows marketing man Daniele Audetto - formerly head of the Lamborghini F1 operation - visited Chrysler in Detroit for talks.

Although many of the old Lamborghini engine design team have gone to other manufacturers, the technical manager of Lamborghini Engineering Mike Royce is still with the company.

It is, therefore, worth keeping an eye open for Chrysler, particularly given the company's links with Audetto and with Reynard (which will be part of the soon to be announced BAT superteam in 1999).

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