MAY 10, 1999
Renault Sport wants F1
RENAULT's top management may be busy trying to sort out the problems of Nissan but there is no doubt that at Renault Sport in Viry-Chatillon there is a strong desire among the remaining staff to return to Grand Prix racing. The danger is that if Renault does nothing the entire F1 team of the early 1990s will be broken up. Already BMW and Toyota have picked up disgruntled members of the Renault Sport team and more are likely to follow in the months ahead.
Since the departure of Jean-Jacques His to a high-flying job within Renault, Renault Sport's technical departments have been run by his former assistant John Topolski. He has been involved in the company's MR250 aero-engine project, a design exercise carried out for Socata, a subsidiary of the Aerospatiale company. Now Renault Sport is looking for a new technical challenge and Topolski would like it to be Grand Prix racing. In order for Renault to be back in time for the 2001 season a decision would need to be taken almost immediately so that a new engine can be designed and built. This would need a dramatic investment which Renault bosses are willing to make at the moment.
There have been suggestions that Renault might try to buy into a team - notably Benetton. This would not be cheap but it would be a good investment because with the current Concorde Agreement income over the next 10 years will mean that the purchase of the team will, in effect, cost nothing. This does not, however, fund an engine program and so in addition to finding money to buy the team, Renault would still have to stump up around $100m to design and build a new state-of-the-art V10.
Renault could try to find a company to pay for the engine program but it is not going to be easy. It should be remembered that when the company began its first F1 adventure in the 1970s it was the oil company Elf which paid.
Elf is still a possible player but the oil business is not as good as it used to be and the company has been struggling. The world's oil companies are consolidating - this week brought rumors of a new deal between Texaco and Chevron - and Elf is being left out in the cold.
The company withdrew from F1 in June 1996 blaming its departure on the high costs and overly restrictive rules of GrandÊPrix racing. Since then Elf has continued to supply fuel and lubricants to teams using Supertec engines.
In January, Renault and Elf - which used to hold cross-shareholdings - agreed a four-year technical and commercial deal to work together. Having said that now is not, however, a good time for Elf to invest heavily. Last year the company's sales were down 21% and profits fell 12% because of the fall in oil prices. Current chairman Philippe Jaffre is pushing ahead with a cost-cutting program but the company still has a debt burden of around $5bn. In addition there is no longer the need for France to have its own F1 team - as was the case in the 1970s. Today Prost Grand Prix is doing a perfectly good job for France.