MAY 12, 1997

The Mugen question

THE major gossip in the paddock at Monaco last weekend was which team is going to be using the Mugen Honda engines next season.

THE major gossip in the paddock at Monaco last weekend was which team is going to be using the Mugen Honda engines next season. The Japanese V10s are currently being used by Prost Grand Prix but he has a deal to run Peugeots next year. There are four teams which are after the deal: Arrows, Jordan, Tyrrell and Minardi, and Mugen's decision will have a dramatic effect on the teams it decides not to supply as good engines are thin on the ground at the moment.

Minardi has little chance and Tyrrell would be a surprising choice although Satoru Nakajima does have considerable influence in Japan. The battle therefore seems to be between Tom Walkinshaw and Eddie Jordan.

Jordan has one of the best chassis at the moment and has worked with Mugen successfully in the past, winning the company it's first International Formula 3000 Championship in 1989 with Jean Alesi.

Tom Walkinshaw has a much better F1 facility than Jordan and has a works deal with Bridgestone. He also has designer John Barnard and if he gets the Mugen deal will probably keep Damon Hill as well. The only thing which goes against Tom is the fact that he had a rather strained relationship with Mugen in 1995 after agreeing to hire Aguri Suzuki at Ligier but giving the Japanese driver only a handful of races. Both teams seem to be in a position to pay the necessary $10m which a Mugen V10 supply will cost.

The final decision was expected to be taken at a meeting later this week and while Jordan seems confident that he will get the engines, he has been talking with Mercedes-Benz but this does not appear to be very serious.

McLaren has a five-year deal with Mercedes but we believe that there is an option built into this after three years - the end of this season - which would allow Mercedes to pull out and give the engines to McLaren. They could be badged "Ilmor" or even "McLaren".

This however would be a radical step for Mercedes as it would be a very public admission of defeat in F1. Supplying a second team is also unlikely although Jordan has one major trump card in the form of Ralf Schumacher.

Mercedes is very keen to have a German driver in one of its cars next year. McLaren wants to get Michael Schumacher from Ferrari but Michael is showing no signs of wanting to leave Maranello to go to Woking. Heinz-Harald Frentzen is tied into Williams and so it is quite likely that McLaren will make a bid for Ralf - which would entail a major financial settlement with Jordan. The extra income would be helpful as it is certain that Jordan will have to pay for engines next year, but it is not immediately clear who might be hired to replace Ralf. Paddock gossip suggests that Damon Hill, Jean Alesi and Alex Zanardi are the most likely candidates.

Mugen's long-term plan appears to be to supply one team in 1998 and then expand to supply the planned Dome-Honda operation in 1999. It is not likely that there will be both a Honda supply and a Mugen supply as it should be remembered that Mugen boss Hirotoshi Honda owns 45% of the Honda Motor Company and is very close to Honda boss NobuhikoÊKawamoto.

If Tom does not get the Mugen Honda deal he will be struggling for an engine. He has talked to Peugeot and Ford in recent days but both have exclusive deals elsewhere. It may be that Tom will have to invest the money he would spend on a Mugen deal in developing the Yamaha with his own engine department at Leafield.

Yamaha is said to be planning to build a completely new engine for the 1998 season but it is unlikely that Damon Hill will decide to stay on for such a deal, as there may be tempting options elsewhere for the World Champion.

Last weekend in Monaco there were rumors that Damon is close to a deal with McLaren but these do not make sense as RonÊDennis wants to keep his options in the hope of convincing Michael Schumacher to join McLaren.

"I'm considering all the options," Damon admitted, "but right now my focus is very much with Arrows. It's just a silly season thing and I'm not going to make a silly contribution to the silly season."