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MARCH 18, 2002

The ground trembles at British American Racing

THE performance of the BAR-Hondas so far this year has been rather less than impressive, despite a lot of positive comments by the drivers about the 2002 chassis - at least in comparison to last year's car. The problem is that the new Honda engine is about 100 horsepower down on where it needs to be.

The word on the street in Kuala Lumpur was that this week there will be a shake-up of the technical team with a number of the design team being given their marching orders and a new team under Williams refugee Geoff Willis will be put together to work on the 2003 car. Among the men expected to get the chop are chief aerodynamicist Willem Toet and former technical director Malcolm Oastler. There are also expected to be large scale changes in the marketing department as David Richards, the new chief executive begins to introduce his ideas on how best to make the team work for British American Tobacco.

Richards is rumored to be close to a deal to keep Olivier Panis for another two years and there was a lot of movement in this direction during the Malaysian GP weekend as Richards negotiated with Panis's manager Didier Cotton, Keke Rosberg's partner in his management business. Panis is seen as a good steady team player and Richards wants to get him finalized as quickly as possible so that there is some stability while negotiations progress with Jacques Villeneuve.

Villeneuve fits the bill for British American Tobacco's desire to have a rebellious figure as the team's number one. The happy-go-lucky, independent image is exactly what Lucky Strikes wants and replacing Villeneuve would be a blow for the marketing plan but at the same time there are others who would fit the bill. In the longer term one can see Juan Pablo Montoya being the perfect candidate for BAT - if the team could offer him a car worthy of his talents. Jenson Button would also be a good choice while Eddie Irvine might also fit the bill.

Richards admits that he did have a meeting with Irvine at a petrol station near Oxford a few weeks ago but said that the encounter came about purely by accident. Richards admitted that he was amazed that the pair were spotted together.

Interestingly, action has already begun on talks for next year. At Sepang, BAT chief executive Martin Broughton had a meeting with Villeneuve to discuss the future and interestingly Villeneuve's manager Craig Pollock was not asked to join in - presumably because of the clash of interest between his roles as a director of BAR and as Villeneuve's manager.