Who or what is Asiatech?

WHEN the Formula 1 teams gather again in Australia in March there will be a new engine supplier on the grid. At least the name will be different. But the Asiatech engines are those which were designed and built by Peugeot Sport at its headquarters in Velizy-Villacoublay in the southern suburbs of Paris. But Automobiles Peugeot, embarrassed at its failures in F1 and keen to get out of the sport, sold the program to a mysterious company called Asia Motor Technologies. This was headed by Argentine chassis designer Enrique Scalabroni.

When the first rumors of the deal emerged, Scalabroni was spotted at the Nurburgring in meetings with Sauber with a Mitsubishi executive in tow. This was soon after Mitsubishi came under the control of DaimlerChrysler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Whatever the case, when the deal was finally announced there was no hint of any involvement from Mitsubishi but rather rumors that the AMT deal was in some way related to Toyota and its ally Yamaha. The official story was that the company was simply a group of wealthy investors trying to take advantage of a shortage of engine supplies in F1. Their aim, so it was said, was to use the engine program to attract a major backer to support the program. The initial rumors suggested Petronas. There is no doubt that the Malaysian oil company wants to move on from being a Ferrari customer. The company - in partnership with Sauber - made a serious approach to Porsche in the Spring offering to fund the construction of a Porsche F1 engine. Porsche engineers were keen but the board turned down the idea. There was also a lot of talk of Lotus (which is controlled by the Malaysian government via its Proton parent) building an F1 engine for Petronas and it was noted that Mitsubishi owns a 16% shareholding in Proton.

The current Sauber-Petronas deal with Ferrari runs until the end of 2002 but there is no reason why the company could not develop a new engine for 2003, using Peugeot technology. The engine supply for Arrows would simply be a means to an end.

When Peugeot finally announced in July that it was pulling out of F1, very few details were revealed about AMT except that the company's best-known investor was Hideo Morita, the eldest son of Akio Morita, the founder of the Sony empire. Morita has no obvious links in the sport but was not short of money, his shares in Sony believed to be worth around $5bn.

The other partners in the group were identified only as "financial backers" from a variety of Asian companies. The press release suggested that this will include Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and others. The company also announced vague plans to develop Asian technology in such sectors as electronics, advanced materials, semi-conductors, telecommunications, computer, aerospace and precision-tooling industries.

The confusion was made worse by the fact that Scalabroni was named Group Technical Director and a man called John Gano was named as Group Financial Director to coordinate "financial and sponsorship activities". The implication was that there was a group of companies and that sponsorship would be needed. But who needs sponsorship on an engine? There were rumors that Arrows was somehow owned by AMT but this was vehemently denied by Arrows (although one cannot take such denials very seriously).

It was not until the Malaysian GP that further details emerged about AMT - but once again details of the company were vague. The machine tool company Yamazaki Mazak, which supplies its CNC cutting machines to the major F1 teams, was named as another shareholder and AMT said that there were other shareholders who did not wish to be named.

Yamazaki Mazak is a huge company, the largest producer of computer-controlled cutting machines in the world, with affiliated companies and technology centers all over the globe and six manufacturing facilities in Japan, the US, England and in Singapore. In recent years it has become one of the largest machine tool manufacturers in Europe. A more extensive involvement in F1 makes sense as at the moment the name Yamazaki Mazak is not well-known but if this was the aim it is not clear why the company has hidden behind the AMT banner.

Our sources within AMT say that the company's long-term goal is to run its own F1 team and it concluded that the first step towards that would be to buy an engine and build up from there. Scalabroni is a partner in the business and the first connections with Morita were made several years ago when Scalabroni was trying to establish a team for Tetzu Ikuzawa. Ikuzawa is not involved in AMT.

For the moment at least the plan for Asia Motor Technologies remains a secret. Is it a Trojan Horse or a business gamble? Or could it be a machine tool company that wants more business with the world's car companies?

Only time will tell.

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