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FEBRUARY 28, 2000

More on a Renault comeback

RUMORS have been building in recent days about Renault's intention to return to Formula 1 and while the French car company is playing down the stories, there is no doubt that the stories are serious. Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer told pressmen recently that "one day or another, we will go back" but did not give any details of the plans. He did, however, add that "this time we will do a better job of telling the world about our accomplishments."

The implication is very clear: as an engine supplier to Williams and Benetton, Renault did not get as much coverage from its success as it might have done if the team had been a Renault factory effort. The company is, however, unlikely to make the kind of investment necessary to establish its own team. It did that in the 1970s and early 1980s and suffered badly because it lacked the necessary chassis technology available from the British teams. In addition, if Renault wants to be involved in F1 in an official capacity it is going to have to buy an existing team anyway so it makes sense to form a partnership in which Renault has a significant shareholding. The danger is that if Renault took over a team there could easily be a loss of good staff, as F1 people do not generally like working with big company bureaucrats. The best compromise would probably be a deal similar to that between McLaren and Mercedes-Benz, with the team being left to run as it pleases but Mercedes-Benz having the power to dictate the way the car looks. BMW's approach with Williams was not to buy equity (it was not for sale) but rather to pay Williams for the right to style the car.

The teams which appear to be vying for the Renault engines are Arrows and Benetton although Jordan should not be discounted. Benetton has been trying to give the impression that it is a foregone conclusion that Renault is most likely to pick them as a partner but the team has shown no sign of being interested in parting with shares in the past, although Rocco├ŐBenetton did say last week that the next era in Grand Prix racing is going to be about manufacturer involvement.

"There's no more team owners or whatever," he said. "They are going to be corporations. That's the future." Benetton also conceded that trying to do F1 without manufacturer backing is becoming "very hard to justify".

The other major option would be Arrows. Buying a share of the team would be cheaper than trying to buy a share of Benetton (although Tom Walkinshaw would undoubtedly strike a hard bargain). It would be in both of their interests that a deal goes ahead as Walkinshaw has a deal to built Renault Sport-versions of the Clio in his Udevalla factory in Sweden.