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Heidfeld and Zonta for Sauber

WITH Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz both leaving Sauber at the end of the year, the Swiss team has been looking for two new drivers for the 2001 season. We hear that the team has decided to sign up young German Nick Heidfeld, who is currently racing for Prost, and - in all probability - Ricardo Zonta who has been left without a drive following BAR's decision to sign Olivier Panis as Jacques Villeneuve's team mate next year. Zonta's presence will help the sale of Red Bull in South America and his two years of experience with BAR make him more attractive than the team's test driver EnriqueÊBernoldi.

Heidfeld and Zonta will have a great deal less experience than the current drivers but the team hopes that results will improve as the 2001 car is likely to be very different to the current car as it will be the first produced by Sauber under the technical direction of Willy Rampf, who took over in April as part of the team's restructuring as part of a new sponsorship deal with Malaysian oil company Petronas. Our spies tell us that the new deal lasts for seven years and is for considerably more money than is currently the case. As part of the deal Petronas intends to fund its own Formula 1 engine program rather than continuing with what is, in effect, a customer Ferrari engine supply. The original plan was for an engine to be designed and built at Sauber Petronas Engineering in Hinwil, Switzerland, but that idea was shelved after the Asian financial crisis two years ago. Although the Malaysian economy is recovering the plan has not been revived although Sauber Petronas Engineering continues to work on the development of road car engines.

Sauber has been looking for an alternative supply of engines from some months but attempts to lure Porsche back to F1 failed when the company's major shareholder Ferdinand Piech (who is also the boss of Volkswagen) vetoed the idea against the wishes of the Porsche management which wanted to take up the challenge.

Petronas is now understood to be considering an involvement in the mysterious Asian Motor Technologies company which has taken over the running of Peugeot Sport and will be supplying the Arrows team with engines next year.

To date no-one involved has been able or willing to explain who is behind AMT but it appears to be a gamble by wealthy individuals who are hoping to attract support (and sell shares to) Asian motor companies.

Our spies in Asia tell us that the major target for the scheme are Petronas and Yamaha. Both have Formula 1 ambitions. Yamaha has the technology but not a budget and Petronas has a budget but no technology.

Sauber had already linked up with Ferrari for the 2001 and 2002 seasons, but there is no reason why AMT cannot begin working on a new engine which can be developed by Arrows and then be handed over to Sauber in 2003. This fits in nicely with Petronas's stated intention to develop the Proton car company into a supplier of high technology to global car companies rather than as a big player in the world's car markets.

In a brief statement last week Proton said that it has been "exploring various avenues to acquire technology and enhance its intellectual property base, including building strategic alliances with various automakers and automotive engineering firms"

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