MARCH 13, 2000

Penske and Toyota

THERE are signs that American racing magnate Roger Penske may be considering a bid to enter Formula 1 once again.

THERE are signs that American racing magnate Roger Penske may be considering a bid to enter Formula 1 once again. Penske himself drove in a couple of United States Grands Prix in 1961 and 1962. After retiring as a driver Penske built up America's most successful racing organization, in addition to a vast business empire. Penske's teams have scored a string of successes in Indycars, CanAm, TransAm, Formula 5000 and NASCAR. Penske's teams have won the Indianapolis 500 on 10 different occasions. In 1974 Penske decided to try his hand at Formula 1 and opened a factory in Poole, in Dorset (England), and began building Grand Prix cars.

At the Austrian GP in 1976 John Watson gave Penske its one and only Grand Prix victory. At the end of that year Penske sold the cars to Gunther Schmid's ATS operation and the Poole factory began producing Penske Indycar chassis. These were hugely successful in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There have been signs for some time that Penske is planning a major change in emphasis. After a number of unsuccessful seasons in CART, Penske decided at the end of last year to end his relationship with Mercedes-Benz and to stop building his own cars. This year Penske Racing will use Reynard-Honda chassis. The factory in Poole is still working, producing composite parts to F1 teams as a sub-contractor. Last summer Penske sold his racing circuits in the US and raised $129m. This was followed by the sale of his shares in CART.

This is only a fraction of Penske's fortune as he runs the massive Penske Corporation which includes some of the world's biggest car dealerships (he has major Honda, Toyota and Cadillac dealerships) the Penske Truck Leasing business and DetroitÊDiesel.

Last Spring there were rumors in Europe that Penske was somehow involved in a convoluted deal to purchase Minardi in league with Toyota. The stories resulted in Minardi issuing a denial.

It is therefore interesting to report that Penske will soon be named by Toyota as its new main dealer in Frankfurt, Germany. It is not Penske's first foreign deal as he has a trucking business in South America and it would make sense to use F1 to promote Penske activities.

Such a move would certainly be logical as Formula 1 heads to the United States. Building up F1 in America may take time but it is a golden opportunity for a well-supported US racing team to put together a package involving American sponsors and, perhaps, an engine deal. Penske is the most obvious team to make such a move because Roger Penske has a racing car factory in Britain, all the right connections and because he sees F1 as unfinished business. F1 teams are increasingly a good investment and with strong links to car manufacturers Penske would be well placed to get an engine deal. While Toyota is an option, Penske's relationship with General Motors would make him a possible candidate for a General Motors deal, which would probably be with the Cadillac brand.

Penske, it should be remembered, allied with Chevrolet in the early 1980s to fund Ilmor Engineering (which currently builds the Mercedes-Benz F1 engines).

We hear, incidentally, that following the purchase last week of 5% of Yamaha Motor, Toyota and Yamaha are planning a switch of brands to revive their sporting programs. Toyota has not done well in CART to date and a switch to Yamaha would give the company another chance to get it right. Yamaha engineers have, it seems, been working quietly away on a CART engine for some time (probably using Toyota knowledge) and Toyota F1 engine designers have been working on a V10 engine using Yamaha knowledge gained during the company's unsuccessful F1 programs between 1989 and 1997.