Rahal/Lauda rivalry at Jaguar poses wider questions for Ford F1 involvement

WHEN Jaguar entered F1 at the start of the 2000 season its arrival was heralded as a marketing tour-de-force, capitalizing on possibly the most magical marque name after Ferrari in the pantheon of high performance car makers. Eighteen months into the program and the signs are that the leaping cat is still shackled by the stop-start, top-heavy management uncertainty which has always been the touchstone of any Ford F1 involvement.

From one standpoint it is completely understandable. Ford's global President Jac Nasser has more important issues to consider as he grapples with the aftermath of the Explorer/Bridgestone debacle as well as internal tensions with Bill Ford, the most senior contemporary member of the dynasty which founded the company. Yet the management lines leading down to the Jaguar F1 team remain indistinct and ambiguous.

The most obvious anomaly is the relationship between Niki Lauda, chairman of the Premier Automotive Group, and the team's Chief Executive Officer Bobby Rahal. Lauda was appointed by Wolfgang Reitzle, president of the Premier Automotive Group (PAG) which is an elite coterie of Ford-owned prestige brands including Jaguar, Aston Martin and Land Rover. Rahal was appointed directly by Nasser and the Ford global motorsport management team at Dearborn who sign the checks which bankroll the British F1 team's Milton Keynes-based operation.

Yet there are even more subtleties which bring to bear pressure on this uneasy alliance. While Rahal is nominally the more powerful manager, Lauda's role has the tacit benediction from F1 powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone for whose Brabham F1 team Niki drove in 1978-79.

In the myopic, self-absorbed world of F1, Rahal is also perceived by some as that most dangerous of beings - an outsider. Forget the fact that he has been deeply involved on the international motor racing scene as a driver and team owner for more than a quarter of a century. His high profile role in the US Champcar series, as a team owner and administrator, means that he is not F1 born-and-bred. That in itself brings its own problems.

There may well be a shaking-out of the Jaguar F1 management later this week, but those who administer such things would be well advised to go carefully. Ford's golden F1 moment was the development of the legendary Ford Cosworth DFV V8 engine back in 1967, a power unit that changed the entire F1 landscape. An epic achievement.

By contrast, Ford's direct involvement in F1 has been less successful. Think about it. The disastrous Beatrice Lolas of 1985-86, the 1994 World Championship winning Benetton which was so under-promoted as to remain Ford's best-kept secret of all time, the abortive relationship with Sauber and the similarly complex Stewart-Ford operation. All cost a huge amount and delivered precious little.

The Jaguar brand name is too valued and respected to be permitted to drop into the same category. Ford risks that at its peril.

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