MARCH 11, 1996

Engine politics

THE political changes going on at Ligier are going to have a dramatic effect on the distribution of engines in F1 in 1998.

THE political changes going on at Ligier are going to have a dramatic effect on the distribution of engines in F1 in 1998. The fact that the French government is moving to get 50% of the team suggests that we will see a return of the big French companies such as SEITA (Gauloises and Gitanes), Elf, Loto and Renault. These are all controlled - to a lesser or greater extent - by the French government and part of Guy Drut's plan revealed in the "Le Nouvel Economiste" article is for Ligier to get Renault engines once again. This could only happen in 1998 because Williams has a contract until then, and the commercial links which exist between Williams and Renault would be too costly for either side to break.

However, the relationship between Williams and top Renault management has been considerably strained since Renault decided at the end of 1994 to forget its commitment to Williams and to supply Benetton with exactly the same machinery. Williams was placated with a Renault touring car deal and a highly lucrative badging arrangement with Renault Clios and Lagunas.

Benetton's Flavio Briatore, who somehow convinced Renault that they should forget the exclusive deal with Williams, wanted at the time to get Renault engines for Ligier so that the two teams could implement economies of scale with research & development, thus cutting costs for both teams. Williams torpedoed that idea by signing with Renault for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Now it seems Briatore is finally going to get what he wanted. If the deal goes ahead, Williams must eventually decide that enough is enough and it is better to cut and run and begin a new relationship rather than try to fight governments. There have been rumors of talks between Williams and BMW for 1998 and beyond and this seems a likely scenario.

Williams would be an obvious choice for Honda - which has announced that it will be returning to F1 in 1998. The only drawback is that Honda ditched Williams back in 1987 and so Williams is unlikely to risk a similar arrangement.

Honda, therefore, looks unlikely to get a top team as Ferrari, Benetton, Williams and McLaren will all be tied up elsewhere. The option of a Honda-Honda - with both the chassis and the engines being built in-house - has been abandoned as too expensive, which means that Honda is now looking to a strong midfield team to take to the top. With Ligier going off to Renault; Jordan tied to Peugeot; and Tyrrell to Yamaha; the choice rests between F1 new boys Dome (due to enter F1 in 1997), TWR or Sauber. Dome will use Mugen Hondas to test this year and it would be logical to continue on that route in 1997; TWR's research & development has spent the last year working with Mugen engines and a similar development is logical.

Sauber needs an engine for 1997 as Ford is going to Stewart Grand Prix, but Mugen is willing to supply more than one team on a customer basis so that the Swiss could easily run the Japanese engines in preparation for a full-blown Honda deal in 1998. The battle to win Honda in the months ahead will, therefore, most likely see an old sportscar rivalry emerge as TWR and Sauber do battle for Honda.