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FEBRUARY 7, 2001

Neil Ressler's legacy at Jaguar

THE news that Neil Ressler is to retire from the Ford Motor Company is not really a surprise. The 61-year-old from Columbus, Ohio was one of the older generation of executives in Detroit and the arrival of Jac Nasser meant that a new generation of younger managers is being brought in. Ressler, who had worked for Ford since 1967, was the company's chief technical officer and had been head of the company's Advanced Vehicle Development division since 1994. An engineer with a doctorate and an MBA, Ressler had a good grasp not only of what was possible in engineering terms but was also able to manage - a rare thing among engineers.

In recent years those skills have been directed at the creation of a new structure within Ford's competition activities. It was Ressler who oversaw the purchase of Cosworth Racing from Audi, Jaguar Racing from the Stewart Family and Pi Research. His aim was to get all three organizations together under the same roof and much of his time in the last few months has been spent on trying to sort out the planning permission for the new Ford motorsport "campus" at Silverstone. The empire he created has now been passed to Niki Lauda and has been named the Premier Performance Division of the Ford Motor Company.

Ressler leaves the team when there is little success to show for all his work but there is no doubt that he has laid the foundations for what is hoped will be a successful F1 program in the future. It was Ressler who signed up Eddie Irvine when Ford needed a star. Irvine may not be in quite the same league as the Michael Schumacher's and Mika Hakkinen's but he was a name. It was Ressler who signed up Bobby Rahal to be chief executive of Jaguar and Ressler too who was behind the technical reshuffle in the autumn which brought in a completely new technical team at Jaguar Racing.

The appointment of Lauda is an indication that Jaguar is very keen on selling cars in the German market, just as Rahal's appointment was seen as a move to give Jaguar extra profile in the United States. It was time for Ressler to hand on the project as the strains of the job - and a serious illness in his family - had made it very difficult for him to be as effective as a younger man. He admitted that it was not a job he could do for very long.

Ressler was rare in that he was an automotive executive who understood that things need to be done quickly. The structure at Ford has often been unwieldy in terms of decision-making but Ressler fought to keep that attitude out of the racing program. He pushed Ford to place young engineers in racing so that they would appreciate the way in which motor racing gets things done in a hurry.

Lauda will take that attitude one step further. A triple World Champion, Lauda was one of the first racing drivers to make really serious money. After he retired from racing he built up a very successful aviation business despite incredible opposition from Austria's state-owned airline. His courage and determination have been proven on many occasions not least in 1976 when he came back from near death to challenge for the World Championship. They were proved again when one of his Lauda Air planes crashed in Thailand, threatening to break his company.

In addition to being a good businessman, Lauda is a close friend of F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, for whom he drove in the late 1970s. He is a global name, instantly recognized around the world, and as such a very valuable marketing tool for Jaguar.

Niki always drives a hard bargain and so it will be no surprise that rumors suggest that he is charging $3m a year for his services. It seems that he will soon relocate from Vienna to London and probably eventually end up based at Silverstone when the Premier Performance Division headquarters are finally finished.

But while Lauda may end up being the man who takes the glory for Jaguar's success in F1 - if it comes - Ressler should not be forgotten as the man who started the ball rolling.