MARCH 6, 1995

New Ligier causes controversy

The Ligier-Mugen Honda JS41 - launched at Magny-Cours last Thursday - has stirred up discontent among rival Formula 1 teams, which claim that the car is a Benetton with Gitanes sponsorship.

The Ligier-Mugen Honda JS41 - launched at Magny-Cours last Thursday - has stirred up discontent among rival Formula 1 teams, which claim that the car is a Benetton with Gitanes sponsorship. The two cars certainly look similar and even Ligier's technical director Frank Dernie admits that: "the two cars do look a lot like each other.

Dernie says: "there will be some differences: the engine, the suspension, the rear bodywork because of the engine. The rest, it's true, will be very similar - even the general aerodynamics."

Most observers reckon that the design is the same as the Benetton, with the only modifications being for the installation of the Mugen Honda V10 engine and rival team owners are complaining that no-one should be allowed to control more than one team.

The person who funds the construction of an F1 car owns what are called "the intellectual property rights" to the design. The details of ownerships are, however, often difficult to establish and questions over "intellectual property rights" have become confused because in recent years a number of independent design offices have been allowed to sell designs to F1 teams. The 1992 Larrousse chassis, for example, was designed and built by the same engineers who designed the 1991 Fondmetal. If you listen to the F1 rumor mill, you will hear that one of the brand new 1995 F1 cars is actually a tweaked-up version of the 1992 Fondmetal, designed at another independent design offices - Astauto.

Copying of chassis designs is very difficult to police because it is relatively simple for an engineer to take computer discs featuring CAD (computer aided design) information from one team to another. This information produces what is called a cutter path which, when run through the right CAM (computer aided manufacturing) machines will produce a chassis "buck" from which moulds can be made. If the CAD/CAM information can be obtained by a team, R&D costs can be slashed.

The F1 regulations do not say that a man cannot run two Grand Prix teams and nor do they say you cannot copy another car. In the past such problems have been sorted out between the teams or in the famous Arrows/Shadows case of 1978 in a civil court. Legal action, however, is not going to occur when both teams involved are happy to have the same design.

Owning two teams means that a manufacturer can impose economies of scale to his operations. If a design team can produce cars for two teams it costs alot less. If these cars are then successful there is twice the potential for attracting sponsorship and also an increased likelihood that other teams will go out of business, thus enabling the manufacturer to buy more teams at a later date.

The implications of this in F1 politics are also important, as multiple ownership of teams could upset the delicate balance of power that exists within the Formula Constructors Association.

Even if the FIA passed regulations saying that copying designs was illegal and outlawed multiple ownerships, it would still be virtually impossible to police. Ownership can be disguised and teams could argue that it is a fluke that two cars have the same shape and dimensions.

The FIA is also weak against such arguments because, despite the regulations stating that teams must prove the legality of their cars, the FIA does not dare force the issue for fear that it would then have to prove the illegality of the car in a civil court. Benetton proved last year that by standing up to the governing body a team can force a compromise because any FIA ruling about F1 might possibly be challenged because the sport involves major commercial issues.

Ligier says that the JS41 is the team's first completely new car since 1992 and Bruno Michel, Ligier's Operations and Financial director, boasts that: "it shouldn't be forgotten that our association with Mugen Honda was concluded very late last year and that we only received our engine mock-up shortly before Christmas."

This is a remarkable claim given that a normal F1 car takes about six months to design and build. Ligier has saved time on the gearbox - the casting being the most time-sensitive part on the car - by simply using a Benetton unit modified to fit a Mugen engine, but for all the other design, manufacturing and construction work to have been achieved in just eight weeks is quite extraordinary - particularly as the team's windtunnel has been out of commission throughout the entire time.

Ligier is now looking ahead with a potentially very competitive package while other teams are considering the possibility that they may have to start buying up rivals to compete - and to ensure their political power is not undermined.

The Ligier JS41 ran for the first time last Thursday with Martin Brundle driving. The team's testing will take place exclusively at Magny-Cours in order to get as much mileage on the car as possible before it is shipped to Brazil.

Our spies at Ligier tell us that Aguri Suzuki did a deal last week to guarantee him eight races with Ligier this year, including the first three Gps. This will mean that Martin Brundle will have to accept half a season of racing.

Ligier, incidentally, has parted company with Italian Cesare Fiorio who was nominally in charge of all operations last year. The former Ferrari boss is believed to be heading for a new management career at Forti Corse, with which he had long discussions early last year.

Ligier is now being fronted by French accountant Bruno Michel because Briton Tom Walkinshaw and Italian Flavio Briatore want to play down Ligier's foreign ownership at a time when they are negotiating to extend their sponsorship deals with French companies Elf, Loto and Gitanes Blondes.