DECEMBER 8, 1997

The engine conundrum

THE launch of British American Racing answered few questions - and left the important question of engine supply unanswered.

THE launch of British American Racing answered few questions - and left the important question of engine supply unanswered. We have been hearing for some months that a deal has been done with Mecachrome - but it is unclear how this is possible as Williams and Benetton both have Mecachrome V10 engine supplies in 1998 - and our sources say that the supply of the rebadged Renault V10s is restricted to them alone.

The only way that BAR could get the French V10, therefore, is if either Williams or Benetton was willing to supply them. It is probably not a coincidence, therefore, that Benetton has still not confirmed the name of its engine supplier next year - despite the fact that the cars have been designed to use Mecachromes.

It is possible that BAR does have a Mecachrome supply, although the story of how that might have come about is rather unlikely. In the midsummer there were rumors that BAT was part of a deal involving Minardi and Mecachrome. The man behind that idea was Flavio Briatore and at the time we heard a suggestion that Briatore had a deal with Mecachrome through one of his own companies rather than with Benetton.

Flavio could, therefore, have sold the engine supply to BAT. This might also explain the dramatic falling-out between Briatore and the Benetton Family in August.

By that time it was too late for Benetton to sign up another engine deal and so the team would have had to buy back the engines from BAT. That would have given BAT the leverage to insist that it would have engines for testing in 1998 and for racing in 1999 - as current rumors suggest is the case.

This would leave Benetton without engines in 1999 and the reason for the delay in naming the engine for 1998 may be that the team wants to badge the V10s with the name of its new engine partner. This would guarantee that any new relationship would start off in a competitive fashion, while also giving time for a replacement engine to be built.

If BAR is to use Mecachromes in 1999 they are certain to be badged by another company. Although the Mecachromes will be less competitive in 1999 they would launch the team at a sensible level. At the end of the year, however, there would be a problem as Renault may decide not to invest in a new engine design unless it is planning to return to F1 under its own name.

Given the financial situation in the European car markets this is unlikely and so the logical thing for Renault to do is to sell the entire project to another manufacturer, supplying a base on which to build - in much the same way as Ferrari has done with Sauber Petronas Engineering. This would help to recoup at least some of the costs of the F1 program. From a marketing point of view the best way forward for the new team would be a deal involving Subaru - which would enable BAT to build on the successful 555 Subaru relationship in which it has been investing in rallying in the last five years.

The alternative is to go after Honda. Jordan has an exclusive deal to use Mugen Honda engines in 1998 and 1999, and the word from Japan is that the V10s will come directly from Honda and will only be prepared by Mugen. If BAR wants a works Honda supply it must, therefore, be aiming either to overturn the Jordan deal or to do a deal with Honda for 2000 and beyond.

Well-informed sources say that the team is pushing hard to convince Honda to supply it with engines in 1999 but that no deal is yet done.

If BAR does get a Honda deal Benetton's supply of Mecachromes in 1999 would not be under threat but it would be better for Benetton if a new deal could be found as the Mecachromes will be fading by then. The team's chief targets appear to be Porsche and Audi. Both are known to be looking at Grand Prix racing and Benetton boss David Richards is well-connected with both companies. He was behind the Rothmans-Porsche sponsorship deal of the early 1980s. Under Wendelin Wiedeking Porsche has returned to profitability and is unable to meet the meet the demand for its Boxster and 911 models. There are plans for a sports utility vehicle so that the company will be less dependent on the volatile sportscar market. The company has a tradition of racing and enjoyed enormous success in F1 in the early 1980s, supplying its TAG-badged turbo engines to McLaren.

In 1995 the company designed a secret V10 F1 engine at Weissach. This was the work of a young team of engineers completely different to that which produced the disastrous V12 engine in 1990.