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Stewart and Ford

THE Ford Motor Company last week announced that it has extended its contract with Stewart Grand Prix until the end of the 2001 season. The original five-year Stewart-Ford deal was signed on December 18, 1995 and at the time everyone involved insisted that the deal was for a solid five year period - without options. The extension of the deal comes at a curious moment and is widely seen as being designed to dampen speculation about the future of the Stewart-Ford relationship. The announcement makes little sense alongside stories - which came from a leak high up in Ford - about the company's subsidiary Jaguar entering Grand Prix racing. One possible explanation is that there is a political battle going on in the final days of Sir Alex Trotman's reign as chief executive with the pro-Stewart faction trying to strengthen the Stewart-Ford relationship before Jac Nasser takes over the running of the company on January 1, 1999.

The announcement has done little to stop speculation that Ford will take over Stewart and there are still stories that Jaguar will enter F1 with a new team led by Tom Walkinshaw.

Certainly, even the pro-Stewart faction at Ford sees that change is necessary. Ford's Vice-President, Advanced╩Vehicle╩Technology, Neil Ressler says that the team is making organizational and staffing changes, "placing greater focus on design, engineering and management".

Ressler was one of the prime movers in the decision for Ford to go with Stewart. His links with the team have strengthened in recent months and he recently became a member of the Stewart Grand Prix board and chairman of Cosworth Racing. He is, therefore, in a good position to argue for a Ford takeover of the team rather than a switch to Jaguar with another team. "We recognize that Stewart is still a young team with much to do," said Ressler, "but we are optimistic about our future╩prospects."

It is not impossible that a change of ownership has already occurred as the shareholdings in Stewart are carefully hidden in a Jersey-based company called R&H Trust Company Ltd. This owns 51% of the team. One could speculate that the recent Jaguar rumors may have been a means of pressuring the Stewart Family into making concessions.

Whatever the case, Ford is not going to make much progress in Grand Prix racing unless it can separate sporting issues from political battles within the empire.

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