Volkswagen and Formula 1

IS it just a silly season rumor, or is VW finally starting to get serious about going Grand Prix racing?

The departure of chairman Ferdinand Piech can only help matters, should it come at the end of this year, for those in the company itching to get to grips with rivals such as Ford, BMW, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz in the most public arena available to them... Formula 1.

Piech's opposition to a Formula 1 program has been seen by many in the industry in Germany and beyond as something of a Canute-like policy as more and more manufacturers commit themselves to the marketing and promotional nirvana that has been created for them by Bernie Ecclestone.

Volkswagen has instead attempted many means of generating public interest, including supporting the major concert tours of such acts as Genesis and the Rolling Stones in recent years. It has also gone into competition, but mostly in ways that its own product can be seen in action.

Touring car racing has been - and remains - a major preoccupation. In the 1980s the VW Golf and Scirocco were popular models for touring car events, giving way to the sibling brand of Audi in the 1990s first in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM), with the V8 limousine before taking the four-wheel-drive A4 quattro into the 2-liter Super Touring arena with multiple national championship successes and the 1995 touring car World Cup.

Volkswagen has committed itself to remaining in touring car racing at some level by joining the panel exploring the future of the troubled category. The phenomenal successes of the high-tech DTM of the last decade have yet to be repeated by its V8-powered successor, and even that is being watered down by the rival V8 Stars silhouette formula.

The European Touring Car Championship still relies on 2-liter Super Touring technology, meaning that the cars are no longer at the forefront of technology and some - such as the BMW 3-series - are no longer even in production in the form that is raced. New sporting and technical regulations are being thrashed out with a view to reinvigorating the category in 2003, but quite who will compete is a gigantic question mark.

Since the heyday of touring car racing the manufacturers have become increasingly interlinked, and the prospect of manufacturers allowing their 'brands' to compete against one another is a distant one. Volkswagen instead prefers its own name to be carried in one-make racing and rallying, leaving the higher-profile sporting programs to its other brands, namely Audi in the American Le Mans Series, Bentley in the Le Mans 24 Hours and Skoda in the World Rally Championship.

Sports car racing provides a manufacturer with little return, however. Both the FIA championship and the Don Panoz-inspired American and European Le Mans Championships are under subscribed, draw small crowds and minimal media coverage. Only the classic races such as Le Mans itself, Dayton and Sebring offer any real potential, yet none of them have drawn mainstream media attention for many years.

All in all Formula 1 makes increasing sense, despite the enormous costs involved. Under the leadership of FIA president Max Mosley, Formula 1 will increasingly become a research center for road safety, which is itself a major selling point. Speed is being legislated out of road use, car advertising and promotion under EU law, and safety isn't sexy enough to sell cars in volume.

And so should, as is anticipated, the motor sport-minded former BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder succeed to the VW throne this winter, it is indeed likely that VW will look seriously at coming in to Formula 1. Both Prost and Arrows are ideal candidates for a buy-out - as might be either Jordan or BAR in a couple of years.

Failing that the role of engine supplier is always to be welcomed in F1 circles, and Pischetsrieder will doubtless be keeping a close eye on the success of his old friends at BMW. "The company has some of the best auto engineers in the world," an unnamed VW source was quoted as saying in the Times newspaper in London. "While they are working on innovations for the Passat or the Golf or the Beetle, I am sure they are all itching to have a go at making an F1 car."

Just for once, they might not be kidding...

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