Detroit to take control again?

THE departure of Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle as the head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which is expected to be announced later today, could be a hugely significant move for the Jaguar Racing Formula 1 program. Reitzle, hired by Jac Nasser early in 1999 to look after Ford's luxury brands, has been the man shaping the Jaguar project since he took control of it at the end of 2000. It was he who put Niki Lauda in place as the chief executive of the Premier Performance Division and who later threw his support behind Lauda when the Austrian was at loggerheads with Jaguar Racing team boss Bobby Rahal. Nasser's disappearance at the end of last year meant that Reitzle became the major defender of the F1 program and his departure must leave the whole enterprise more exposed than ever.

A lot will depend on the attitude of the man who is expected to replace Reitzle at PAG, Mark Fields, who in recent years has been quietly rebuilding Mazda on behalf of Ford.

Reitzle's departure is interesting in many different respects - raising three important questions of note: What will happen with Ford's involvement in Jaguar Racing? Will there be any effect on the plans for the GPWC World Championship? And where will Reitzle end up?

The first question is the one with the most obvious impact on F1. There are good reasons for Ford to be satisfied with what the program has achieved in changing the image of Jaguar. In this respect the woeful level of performance is not such an issue. The problem is that the money invested in the program has been huge and at that sort of cost the company will be looking for good publicity as well as brand management issues. Originally there was an element of engineer training involved as well but since Nasser disappeared we have seen fewer Ford engineers on assignment to Jaguar Racing.

Reitzle's departure is an embarrassment for the GPWC which only a few days ago was trying to give its best impersonation of being a stable united group. Critics of the idea say that automobile industry executives change so quickly that the plans for a rival World Championship cannot be taken too seriously. Reitzle has now proved that the turnover of executives is an issue.

The ultimate destination of Reitzle is interesting because of his passionate belief that competition activities do increase sales. He was a key player in the formulation of the current BMW engine program and has been the force behind Jaguar Racing. It would be foolish to think that Reitzle will stay out of the car industry for long. He could have stayed on at Ford (and picked up a $5m bonus in January 2006) but the problem is that since Nasser departed Reitzle cannot see his way to the top job at Ford. There is no doubt that he wants a top job in one of the car companies and as he failed to make it at BMW and his rival from those days Bernd Pischetsrieder has just taken over Volkswagen, there are not many options available. Mercedes-Benz is one option although there is no sign that the current management is going to change while Reitzle might also look upon Porsche as a good bet. The current chairman Wendelin Wiedeking is, however, much younger that Reitzle and has done an impressive job since he took control 10 years ago. Reitzle may be bargaining on the fact that Wiedeking could move on to bigger things.

Whatever the case the departure of Reitzle will have effects in the months ahead.

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