FEBRUARY 12, 2002
Can the manufacturers remain united?
There is a feeling in Formula 1 circles that the planned automobile manufacturer World Championship in 2008 will never be a success because of the changing needs and the changing faces in the automobile world.
Companies which come to F1 for purely advertising reasons are the ones most likely to depart and success rather than failure is usually the reason that they depart. The only major car company in recent years to withdraw from F1 because of an inability to win was Peugeot and the firm did not suffer from its failure in F1. Sales are booming and Peugeot is now winning in the World Rally Championship. Mercedes-Benz struggled for a lot of years before winning anything in F1 but when the McLarens were switched from red and white to silver grey, Mercedes reported a 40% rise in the sale of silver cars. Jaguar's F1 program may be a disaster on the race tracks but it has been a big success in the showrooms. The image of Jaguar has changed from being that of a car for staid business executives with leather seats and wood fascias and is now attracting a younger audience. The wise-cracking Eddie Irvine playboy character has helped that process. Failure in F1 does not have to have any effect at all on sales: Porsche showed that in 1990 and it is becoming more and more clear that there is an argument that just being in F1 is enough these days: victory is nice but it is not essential.
Ford and Honda, for example, say that they want to use the sport to train their engineers to think quickly so that when they are transferred back to production car departments they will make things happen much faster than is currently the car. In this respect F1 is a school for automotive engineers.
If the will to be in F1 can be firmly established the only issue would become one of management. Formula 1 people say that car manufacturers have very unstable management but if one looks at the big car companies this is not strictly true. Of the "Big Six" three have had the same chief executives for more than seven years (Renault with Louis Schweitzer since 1992; Volkswagen with Ferdinand Piech since 1993 and Daimler-Chrysler with Jurgen Schrempp since 1995). Toyota and General Motors have both changed CEOs in recent years but the new men seem to be well-established and young enough to continue for a long time while Ford has been going through a period of instability and has had Henry Clay Ford in charge for just a few weeks. Of the second tier car companies BMW has a new boss coming but for most of the 1990s was headed by one man; Fiat has had the same CEO since 1996 and Honda's Hiroyuki Yoshino has been in his role since 1998.
There will be changes on a fairly regular basis but the impression that car companies are constantly changing their management is not a realistic one.
Thus it is fair to say that a manufacturer championship can work if the car firms can work together and not be disrupted by those who seek to break up their alliance.