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A Renault comeback?

THERE has been a lot of talk in recent days suggesting that the Renault car company is considering a return to Formula 1 as an engine supplier. Stories have linked the company with engine supplies for British American Racing or Sauber. Renault withdrew from Grand Prix racing at the end of 1997 after dominating the World Championship for nearly five years. The Renault V10 engines were then passed on to Mecachrome and most of the Renault Sport staff have been seconded to the precision engineering company.

Renault Sport has lost a number of important engineers since pulling out of F1, notably Bernard Dudot, who became technical director of Prost Grand Prix and Jean-Jacques His, the head of research and development, who has been given a new job in production cars. Several other engineers have been hired by BMW.

A small group of research and development engineers under Philippe Coblence remains at Viry-Chatillon to develop the existing V10 under for Mecachrome and while there is talk of a brand new engine for the year 2000 there is no obvious way in which this is going to be financed as Renault has other problems to worry about.

In any normal country there were would be no possibility of Renault returning to F1. The company lost $750m in 1996 and was faced with the need for massive restructuring. Renault chief Louis Schweitzer axed the F1 program not only because of the cost but also because it was difficult to justify at a time when jobs needed to be cut. His attempts to close a Renault factory in Belgium met with violent opposition and he has so far avoided a showdown with the powerful French unions which say they protect the 58,500 jobs in Renault's 19 French factories.

Although nominally privatized Renault is still controlled by the French government which wants to avoid laying off workers because it has promised to reduce the 12.5% unemployment level in France but Renault's problems will be increased when the recently-voted 35 hour week begins in January 2000. This will increase labour costs and make the company less competitive and will leave Renault ill-prepared for the sales war expected when European trade barriers come down and Japanese car companies are no longer restricted in the number of cars they can sell. The European market is already saturated and Renault's rivals are cutting back staff to become more competitive.

In recent years French government companies have adopted the policy of ignoring the realities and building up huge losses in the expectation that the government will bail them out. This has worked with the SNCF, Air France and Credit Lyonnais. The European Commission has tried to stop this practice but has been shown to be toothless in the face of French government pressure.

It is quite possible that Renault will adopt the same approach and in that case an F1 program is possible, although it should be remembered that for many years the Renault engine development was funded not but Renault itself but by oil company Elf. This will not happen again.

The only other possibility for a Renault return would be if a company was willing to pay for the engines - as TAG did with Porsche engines in the early 1980s - and that may explain the recent creation of Super Performance Competition Engineering. The ownership of that company still remains a mystery although there has been considerable company research done by F1 teams in recent days.

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