JANUARY 30, 1995

Brundle returns to Ligier

YOU have to be careful not to rely on Ligier press releases these days.

YOU have to be careful not to rely on Ligier press releases these days. On October 28 last year the team announced that Johnny Herbert and Olivier Panis would be its "official drivers" for "the whole of the 1995 season."

The team has now announced that, in fact, there will be three drivers in 1995 - plus a "test and reserve" driver. Frenchman Olivier Panis retains his place in the team, thanks to his backing from Ligier sponsors Elf, Loto and Gitanes Blondes. According to the Ligier team Panis will drive one car while Japanese star Aguri Suzuki and Britain's Martin Brundle will share the second Ligier Mugen Honda JS41. In addition, Franck Lagorce will be the team's test and reserve driver.

The announcement is believed to have come as a big shock to Suzuki and his Japanese backers, who believed that Aguri had secured the Ligier drive for the whole season. Suzuki is worried that Brundle would not have given up a possible drive at McLaren for half a season at Ligier - and he has good reason to be worried. Brundle is no fool; and, although he signed as one of a three-driver pool at McLaren last year, he ended up competing in all 16 events, while Peugeot's nominee Philippe Alliot raced only once. Suzuki who came into the Ligier picture as part of the engine deal with Mugen Honda could be facing a similar future.

The news that Martin Brundle is to drive for Ligier is significant because it confirms the yet-to-be-announced role now being played in the French team by Scottish race team owner Tom Walkinshaw. Brundle has been a Walkinshaw favorite since the late 1970's when Tom gave Martin his break in the BMW County Challenge. Martin has driven for Walkinshaw on numerous occasions since then, notably with Silk Cut Jaguar and for Benetton when Walkinshaw joined that organization.

The exact relationship between Walkinshaw and purported Ligier team owner Flavio Briatore (who also runs the Benetton F1 team for the Benetton family) is still confused, but Walkinshaw's move to Ligier is part of the deal hammered out last year by Briatore and FIA's Max Mosley to get Benetton off the hook for the use of an illegal fuel filter in the German GP at Hockenheim last year. Benetton admitted that the filter was illegal and was let off without punishment by the FIA, on the understanding that major management changes would be made within the team. Briatore appears to have off-loaded Walkinshaw to Ligier, which is no bad thing as the two have enjoyed a strained relationship in recent months.

Some stories suggest that Walkinshaw is actually the owner of the Ligier team and there are one or two facts which back up this theory. Last autumn a part of the Tom Walkinshaw Racing empire - which is controlled by the Benetton family - was sold from one Benetton company to another. The only likely reason for this transaction was to give TWR a market value and thus enable Walkinshaw to raise a loan against his part of TWR. If this loan was used to buy Ligier from Briatore, it might explain how Flavio was able to buy the Kickers shoe company just after Christmas. Briatore bought Ligier when it was worth very little, and rumors suggest that most of the money for that deal was borrowed from F1 paymaster Bernie Ecclestone. With Walkinshaw paying Briatore a higher price that he paid for Ligier, this would enable Flavio to pay back Ecclestone and buy himself a new business for the future - outside the Benetton empire.

Walkinshaw is already making long-term plans for Ligier which include establishing a design center in Britain and, in all probability, moving the whole team to England in the future. Walkinshaw recently bought a large piece of land near Witney in Oxfordshire, and our spies suggest that this will become the home for Ligier as soon as a new factory is built and French government backing for the team dries up. Ligier's biggest supporter, French President Francois Mitterand, leaves office in May, and the new government is unlikely to throw any more money in Ligier's direction.