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OCTOBER 12, 2000

Jaguar's Olympic spirit


Eddie Irvine
© The Cahier Archive

When the Olympic Games was established the theme of the competition was that the important thing was taking part rather than winning. That premise has long since disappeared. It is now about rampant commercialism. Of all sports only Grand Prix racing matches the Olympics for gaudy sponsorships. Winning is all that matters in Formula 1 as it is in the Olympic Games and by any form of contemporary logic Jaguar Racing has been less than impressive this year.

Or has it?

Does it really matter that Jaguar is not doing very well?

One could argue that the very fact that Jaguar is involved in the sport is enough to help the stodgy old Jaguar brand get an exciting new image. Winning can come later. Being there is what matters at the moment.

Jaguar is a brand which excites people. It is difficult to explain how that came to be but it is a reality and just as fans all over the world love Ferrari and Frenchman get all misty-eyed when people talk about Bugatti, Jaguar is more than a brand. There is a certain magic to it which Ford Motor Company boss Jac Nasser understands. He is a Jaguar fan and was the force behind the Formula 1 program after he took over control of the Ford Motor Company at the start of 1999.

The problem with Jaguar was that while the brand had a certain magic, the image of the company was that they were cars driven by old people. Jaguars were big, expensive and luxurious but they were not very exciting and not at all the kind of car that a young person would buy. It was all a long way removed from the early days of Jaguar when the cars were fast and sporting. The tradition lived on into the 1960s with the E-Type Jaguar, a hugely successful sportscar, but the 1970s and 1980s were marked by big saloons and poor quality as the British car industry slipped into decline. The late 1980s marked attempts to revamp Jaguar's image with racing sportscars but while these were very successful, the products being sold did nothing to change the image.

In February 1990 - unable to survive as an independent operation - Jaguar was sold to the Ford Motor Company although the firm continued to be run much as before while the competition grew. It was not until Nasser took over that anything was done. It was decided that Jaguar's leather and wood image had to go and that the future was high technology chic. The Jaguar marketing people came up with the expression "emotional engineering" and illustrated the new image with the S-Type and then with a concept car they called the F-Type roadster.

The Formula 1 program is part of the image-revamping process. Since Mercedes-Benz started racing in F1 its sales to young people have boomed. The stuffy old image of Mercedes-Benz was banished.

Nasser wanted to make something of the investment Ford had made in F1 and saw Jaguar as the answer. It all made sense but the one thing which seemed a little out of place was the gung-ho publicity emanating from Jaguar in the run-up to the F1 season. The old Stewart Grand Prix organization - which was bought by Ford and became Jaguar in January 2000 - had been quite fortunate in that the 1999 car, designed by a team led by Alan Jenkins and aerodynamicist Egbahl Hamidy, was a good car and the Cosworth V10 engine was a success. Despite this the team's victory at the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was a fluke, although Johnny Herbert's drive to victory in the rain was a great achievement.

The impression created was that Jaguar was going to be immediately competitive with the big teams. Why this happened is a mystery but it was very naive. Jaguar Racing was definitely not ready but expectations were built up far too high and so the team's performance was disappointing. It was time when strong leadership was needed but the team had a problem: Jackie and Paul Stewart had gone and Ford's Neil Ressler was focussing his attention on the longer term problems such as finding a new site for the factory and looking for someone to run the team. At the same time he was looking after Cosworth and Pi Research and negotiating on behalf of the car manufacturers with Bernie Ecclestone.

On a more practical level, the Jaguar R1 was not a great car. This was not surprising as the team does not have its own dedicated windtunnel facility and has to buy time in the Swift windtunnel in California. In an effort to get more achieved the team began to use the old Southampton University windtunnels as well but it was not enough. In addition to that the Cosworth V10 engine was not very reliable and so at the start of the year there were a lot of problems with the engine and then with the auxiliaries, particularly with the gearbox, the clutch and the electronics systems.

Johnny Herbert had such a run of mechanical failure that he decided that he had enough of Formula 1 and made plans to leave the series at the end of the year. His motivation, therefore, was rather lower than one might expect.

And Eddie Irvine was little better. The Ford Motor Company had hired Eddie for a considerable amount of money. His job was to lead the team forwards. This he has failed to do completely. Irvine is not an easy character for many in F1 to cope with. He often appears to be arrogant and his popularity within the Jaguar team is very low. Where a driver like Michael Schumacher gets the team behind him and they all work together, Irvine's approach has made the team hostile towards to him by blaming the car. Herbert is little bit the same but he has more reason to complain because he has suffered much more than Irvine in the course of the year.

The announcement that Bobby Rahal is to take over the running of the team in December, and the application for planning permission to build the new factory at Silverstone are the first steps towards getting the team on the right path. It will still be a couple of years before the windtunnel is completed but if progress is being made the team will grow together rather than continuing to drift. Rahal, no doubt, decided on some personnel changes to build up the organization and if all goes well the cars will move up the grid. It will not be easy because the level in Formula 1 these days is exceptional.

Ford bosses want Jaguar to be successful but they are willing to wait. The presence of Jaguar in F1 is in itself enough to alter the image of the brand. That process will take the next step forward in two weeks when the company unveils the new $35,000 Jaguar X400.