Whispers from Prodrive

THE loss of 555 sponsorship for its World Rally Championship team is undoubtedly a blow for David Richards's Prodrive Subaru team which had been expecting to continue it relationship with British American Tobacco. At the same time, however, Prodrive is clearly in the process of building up major new sporting plans, which involve close links with the FordÊMotor Company in touring car racing, rallying and probably Formula 1 as well.

There have been suggestions in Europe in recent days that a major deal has been struck between Prodrive and the Italian drinks company Martini & Rossi for sponsorship of the Ford touring car and rallying programs. Although Prodrive is not running the Ford program directly - because of its involvement with Subaru - the company's boss David Richards is apparently involved in the Ford rally deal. Without a sponsor for the WRC program Subaru may decide that it does not wish to fund the team and will withdraw from rallying - which would enable Richards to turn to Ford.

There have been constant rumors in recent weeks that Prodrive is preparing a Formula 1 assault in league with Ford and it may be that Martini & Rossi will be involved in that as well. The Italian company has a long history of involvement in motorsport, sponsoring the Tecno F1 team in 1972 and later enjoying high profile relationships with both Brabham (1975-77) and Team Lotus (1979). Since then the company has concentrated on sportscar racing and rallying, usually in league with Lancia.

It is also worth noting that Prodrive has recently landed backing for a two-car Formula 3000 team from Lukoil. This looks very like a toe-in-the-water deal for the Russian oil giant which controls 20% of Russia's oil production and has revenues of around $6bn a year. Lukoil is rapidly expanding its network of service stations around the world with the intention of becoming a big player on the world's oil markets. Formula 1 would be a logical step for Lukoil.

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