AUGUST 11, 1997

BAT mysteries

THE new BA Team to be funded by British American Tobacco is expected to be announced in September but there continue to be question marks about the form the new team will actually take.

THE new BA Team to be funded by British American Tobacco is expected to be announced in September but there continue to be question marks about the form the new team will actually take. As money is clearly not a problem the engine supply is likely to be the best available. For some weeks there have been stories of a small supply of Mecachrome engines being made available for testing purposes in 1998 leading to a Reynard-Mecachrome package racing in 1999. This may be a smokescreen although the fact that Benetton continues to delay on its engine announcement for next year - despite the fact that the Benetton designers are working on a Mecachrome-engined car - would seem to suggest that this is not very likely. Frank Williams has a contract limiting Mecachrome to two supplies and Frank says he will not budge from the agreement. He said the same about an exclusive deal with Renault some years ago but gave way in exchange for a Renault-funded touring car operation in Britain.

It may be that Frank will agree to expanding the engine supply if Renault agrees to continue backing Williams Touring Car Engineering next year.

Another possible explanation is that the Benetton Family is still trying to do a deal to sell its team to BAT. This would explain both the delay in the Benetton announcement and the rumors of a BAT-Mecachrome link. This might also explain the rumors over Flavio Briatore's future at Benetton as any takeover would see him pushed out of the way. The rumors were added to last weekend when Jean Alesi told the international media that he did not know if he would stay at Benetton or not because he did not know if Briatore would still be there. "What I am asking at the moment is whether he will stay or not," said Jean. "If he is staying then obviously we can talk because I know him and I will know with whom I would be working."

There continue to be stories suggesting that BAT will somehow be involved with Minardi. This does not really make sense except that BAT cannot be involved in any new Concorde Agreement - which, rumor has it, will last for 10 years - unless it enters F1 in 1998. The team cannot be organized in time and it might, therefore, be necessary to take over an existing operation to get hold of signatory status.

The problem with this argument is that there are several other teams which will not agree to a name change for Minardi and Giancarlo Minardi and Gabriele Rumi show absolutely no signs of wanting to sell out. The fact remains, however, that neither one of them would seem to have enough shares to stop a deal happening.

The only other way around the problem is for BAT to be given signatory status before the team is actually operating. This is possible given rumors that the company was looking at buying a share of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Holdings and the fact that the company is already believed to have bought substantial trackside advertising for the next few years. If BAT held a significant shareholding in FOH it would have to be a Concorde Agreement signatory.

In the longer term we expect BA Team Reynard to bid for a works engine supply in the year 2000 with the obvious target being Honda. BAT's F1 negotiator Craig Pollock is well connected in Japanese circles. He used to run the European office for the Suzuka circuit in Japan (a Honda related company) and also sold TV rights in the Far East for F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone. Honda is looking for a level of control in any team with which it is involved in the future and it may be that BAT would be willing to sell a share of the team to Honda in the future.