JULY 29, 1996
Hill and Williams
THE biggest - and seemingly wildest - rumor at Hockenheim was that Frank Williams is to dump Damon Hill at the end of this season and replace him with the German Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Williams is not above dumping its star drivers. In 1992 the team ditched World Champion Nigel Mansell and in 1993 Alain Prost was eased out to make way for Ayrton Senna. The team knows that World Champions want more money, and it is often wiser to invest that money in research and development and hire a cheap rising star instead.
Damon Hill made it quite clear to Williams that he is looking for $10m next year but Williams may not be interested in paying this, particularly as it will lose its Elf backing next year.
The scale of the denials would seem to suggest that the story which triggered rumors was simply not true, but there is no doubting that there was a deliberate leak from "a top F1 source" to Autosport magazine in London - where the stories first appeared. The magazine was sufficiently confident of the source to risk running such a dramatic story.
The interest at Hockenheim, therefore, centered on identifying the source. The journalist involved, naturally, refused to name his source but there was no shortage of speculation as to who had leaked the story - be it true or not - and why.
Some suggested that it was F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, who wanted to get more coverage than normal because he was launching his new digital television service with the DF1 satellite channel.
Others argued that it was a negotiating ploy by Frank Williams, replying to Damon Hill's recent demands - in the British press - for a substantial hike in money for next year.
The third theory was that the news was put out by a rival team owner in order to destabilize the relationship between Williams and Hill. If this was the case, however, it should have been fairly clear to the journalist involved that it was a false story. The source not only had to convince the journalist that he was honest, but also that there was some way in which he would have had access to such delicate information.
Our investigations led to only one possible "top F1 source" who might have been believed by the journalist involved and might have had access to the information - McLaren boss Ron Dennis.
This may seem like an absurd suggestion but Dennis is the only top F1 source who publicly prides himself on never being caught telling lies. If Dennis tells a journalist that a deal is absolutely definite, he must be believed. Anyone else suggesting the story to Autosport would simply not have been believed. The choice of Autosport to leak the story is logical as the magazine is very close to McLaren - the two have financial links in the McLaren-Autosport Young Driver scheme.
All this begs the question: How could Dennis have known if there is a secret deal between Williams and Frentzen? The only explanation for this is that the signing of Frentzen is part of larger picture, involving the Williams team and engine manufacturer BMW.
Dennis and BMW are well-connected. The Munich company supplied engines to McLaren for the F1 road car and acquired the McLaren Cars factory in Woking in January for the BMW touring car program.
A Williams-BMW deal is also quite possible. There have been rumors in recent weeks that BMW has been thinking twice about its decision not become involved in F1. Top management changes and the withdrawal of Renault may have convinced the Munich company to grab Williams - with Frentzen being the key to the deal. A German driver with a German engine will open up enormous sponsorship possibilities in Germany with companies currently not involved in F1, such as West cigarettes or Warsteiner beer.
Dennis is a past master at destablizing his opposition. Leaking stories about a Williams-Frentzen deal will unsettle Hill, whether he admits it or not. It may also be part of a plan by Dennis to hire Hill for McLaren next year.
McLaren is currently trying hard to keep its partners and convince them to stay on for another year. Marlboro is offering a much-reduced budget; Mercedes wants results.
An F1 assault by BMW is the worst nightmare for those at Mercedes-Benz motorsport - particularly if BMW comes with Williams and a German driver - such a threat might convince Mercedes-Benz to throw even more resources behind McLaren. One way to get additional support would be to hire the World Champion so that next year's McLaren-Mercedes would run with numbers one and two. This - and the BMW threat - might convince Mercedes to pump in more money and maybe even run the cars in Mercedes silver. Hiring Hill is not a stupid idea for McLaren as Damon has worked successful with quite a lot of McLaren staff: David Coulthard, engineer David Brown, advisor Alain Prost (who was Damon's team mate at Williams in 1993). In addition there is no doubt that Dennis is pitching hard to grab designer Adrian Newey from Williams. To grab Newey and Hill would be a very persuasive argument for sponsors who are having second thoughts.
In addition, Dennis would hire Ralf Schumacher as the team's test driver to keep Mercedes happy by training up a new German youngster, particularly if the company has lost its two Mercedes Junior Team members, Michael Schumacher and Frentzen to Ferrari and BMW.
If BMW is coming back to F1, Mercedes simply has to win races. There were rumors at Hockenheim that in order to achieve this Mercedes is willing to ditch all its other motorsport activities, to ensure that the F1 program is successful. The stories suggested that there would be no more Mercedes Indycar engines and no more ITC touring cars.
Mercedes-Benz boss Jurgen Huppert was at Hockenheim to watch the German GP and confirmed that the company is considering the idea of running silver McLarens...
Perhaps the wild rumors of Hockenheim are not as wild as they seem.