Columns - Big Al

Rahal gets his marching orders. But what will Niki do now?


A poignant thought. Last Friday Bobby Rahal's first US Jaguar dealership in Pittsburgh formally opened its doors - less than 24-hours after its proprietor had been given the bullet by the British F1 team.

Niki Lauda, whose head now moves into the firing line, must know just how Bobby feels. Earlier this year he was ousted from the board of his own airline Lauda-air thanks to the machinations of its partner Austrian Airlines, a company which Niki understandably regards with more than a passing degree of ambivalence.

After this latest round of blood-letting - the PR equivalent of a letter bomb - the Jaguar F1 buck stops with Niki. Anyone who ever flew Lauda-air will testify to just what a wonderful job the Austrian can do when he puts his mind to it.

If he brings the same application to bear on Jaguar, then the team may well emerge from the eye of this particular storm and come to thrive. If he doesn't, then in 12 months time we could well be going through this whole drawn-out palaver again. This time with the Lauda the one who might end up the most vulnerable player on the chess board.

Viewing this convoluted saga from the touchlines, you might be forgiven for concluding that Jag's F1 ambitions had been consumed by some sort of bizarre death wish. This curious obsession with tearing up the plant to see if its roots are still growing is a disease that, as I've said before, Ford needs to purge from its system once and for all.

Yet, for all that, everybody in the F1 paddock knows that Jaguar Racing's workforce take the whole project extremely seriously. They want passionately to succeed and they are looking for strong, consistent leadership to inspire them towards that goal. That's where Lauda's biggest challenge now lies. And Eddie Irvine's, come to that.

I spoke to another F1 team boss who reflected on the downside of the Rahal dismissal. "Ford just don't seem to be able to make their mind up, do they?" he said. "I just hope at the end of the day that Detroit doesn't pull the plug on the whole thing. A withdrawal of American interest is the last thing F1 needs."

Looking back at the whole Rahal debacle, it has been clear that this decent man's days have been numbered for some time. As the storm clouds gathered during the course of the Hungarian GP weekend I asked Niki candidly who on earth would run the team if Bobby, as was rumored, might be living on borrowed time.

"Fancy wearing a green shirt?" he replied enigmatically. On reflection, perhaps I should have taken up the offer.