Columns - Big Al

Ford has enough on its plate to worry much about Jaguar's F1 future


Ford has been the most active company ever in global motorsport and in F1 for 34 years since the advent of the Ford-funded Cosworth DFV realigned the entire F1 technical landscape. Those unyielding facts should be born firmly in mind when one considers last week's departure of Jac Nasser from the role of Ford Chief Executive.

Ford's admittedly intermittent F1 direct F1 involvement has survived equally high profile crises in Detroit. The legendary Lee Iaccoca fell victim to the late Henry Ford II. So did his colleague Phillip Caldwell. All were high profile, successful businessmen at the time. Yet their rise and fall never impinged in the slightest on Ford's F1 involvement. They are remembered by motor industry historians, sure enough, but to F1 folk they're about as well recalled as the Beatrice Lola Grand Prix squad. My point is that Detroit's F1 problems lay not so much in who was leading the Ford empire but simply because its international managerial infrastructure is so truncated, over-complex and difficult to identity.

Take one recent specific example, the issue of Bobby Rahal's exit as chief executive officer of Jaguar Racing. Was he a Jac Nasser appointee? Well, yes in the sense that Nasser OK'd the deal, although whether than amounted to much more than counter-signing a memo from director Neil Ressler seems doubtful to me. And a very firm "no" in the sense that who the hell ran Jag's F1 operation was of minor consequence to a Detroit chief executive wrestling with the first consecutive quarters of losses in a decade.

I mean, let's be reasonable and get things into perspective. Ford has bled $752 and $692 million dollars in the second and third quarters respectively of 2001. On top of that, the accidents caused by the Firestone tire problems on the Explorer light truck have not only ended the 95 year partnership between Firestone and Ford, but far more importantly, are being blamed for 271 deaths amongst American motorists.

Set against that the fact that Jaguar Racing need a new wind tunnel, Eddie Irvine is getting paid $8m a year and it probably cost around the same to get rid of Rahal and you can see that this is a matter of nickels and dimes. You could in fact use these figures to craft an argument illustrating just how cheap F1 racing really is for a major car maker. I don't care what the Detroit doomsayers might be suggesting; the issue of Jaguar's F1 future is not even a blip on the radar screens of the offices surrounding those of Bill Ford junior, the great grandson of the dynasty's founding father.

That said, Ford will definitely have to make a key policy decision on its F1 future when the current five year program comes up for review at the end of 2004. As DaimlerChrysler's Jurgen Hubbert made plain in Stuttgart last week, the future shape of F1 does not leave room for car makers drifting in and out on a whim like they used to do in Group C sports car racing.

That will be the decisive moment for Ford. Does it want the Jaguar brand to continue in the high-tech F1 crucible? Or does it want to be marooned on the sidelines? In the end, I bet they consider carefully what the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW have gained from their F1 involvements. And stay in for the long haul.