Columns - Big Al

Jaguar in F1: The best is yet to come


When Ralf Schumacher accelerated across the line to win the San Marino Grand Prix, the Williams F1 team sent out a firm message which should offer a degree of hope to at least a handful of rival Grand Prix outfits which have yet to win their first race.

After a painful absence from the victory circle lasting three and a half years and 54 races, Williams picked up the threads of success once again. And the lesson to be learned is that they did so thanks to a single-minded focus, a refusal to be deflected from their aims, that others could do well to emulate.

This resilience in the line of fire is precisely what characterizes the top F1 teams. Think Ferrari; away from the winner's circle from 1992 to 95. Think McLaren; away from the winner's circle from 1993 to 97. Their determination to rekindle those glory days was underpinned by an inner confidence that, although it had temporarily evaded them, they were no strangers to F1's winning technique.

Jaguar Racing could usefully learn a lesson or two from their resilience under fire. After Ferrari, the Leaping Cat is probably the most valuable motor industry brand in the world. More to the point, the raw materials for success are firmly in place at the present time. Good engine, ever-improving organizational infrastructure. And yet there is still the perception that the wider hand of Ford's corporate ethos could jeopardize Jaguar's efforts.

Despite its technological farsightedness in funding the development of the Cosworth DFV back in 1967, Ford has never quite understood why it should be involved in F1. That slightly tentative approach has resulted in a succession of half-hearted partnerships when it came to striking deals with individual teams.

Think of the abortive Beatrice Lola program of 1985-86. The hidden 1994 World Championship success with Benetton and Michael Schumacher, a success never promoted or seriously advertised. The listless years with Sauber. The costly program with Jackie Stewart ran out of steam all too soon. The sudden re-branding as Jaguars.

No, stop there. This one has to work. With Cosworth's latest CR3 V10 widely regarded as one of the best, lightest and most efficient of F1 power units, all that's needed is a chassis and organizational infrastructure to match. But, as Bobby Rahal and Niki Lauda rightly remind us, these things cannot be achieved overnight.

I was pleased to hear from Lauda last week that Jaguar's Chairman Wolfgang Reitzle has offered cast iron assurances that the company's F1 program is guaranteed for at least five years. Set against this week's news that the UK arm of the Ford empire is facing record losses of more than $600 million following a sweeping restructuring program, not to mention continued pressure on new car prices, this will come as a considerable relief to all concerned.

Within the remaining three and a half years of this commitment, I would expect Jaguar to become top six runners, although winning a World Championship against the proven expertise of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams will be a tall order indeed. But it is not impossible.

However, I am not convinced that any of the major manufacturers will necessarily remain in F1 on an open-ended basis, a reality which makes their trumpeting about an independent series from 2007 onwards lack any meaningful credibility.

It's also perhaps worth nothing that Ford, the second largest car maker, last week announced a 52 per cent decline in first quarter earnings from its global automotive operations - and is seeking a one billion dollar cost reduction in Europe by the end of 2001. Bear that in mind and it is easy to understand why the participation of the motor manufacturers in F1 has always been a distinctly cyclical affair.