FEBRUARY 3, 1997
The scrabble for engines begins
MECACHROME'S decision to enter Formula 1 in its own right is an exciting development for Grand Prix racing's smaller teams as it means they could get the chance of more competitive engines in 1998 - because most of the top teams are already contracted elsewhere or do not want to have to pay for engines.
For 1998 several teams already have solid engine deals - if such things exist in F1: Ferrari, Sauber Petronas and Lola are all building their own engines; McLaren is tied to Mercedes and Stewart to Ford. Ligier is expected to be converted into Team Prost and take the single supply of Peugeot engines away from Eddie Jordan.
This would seem to suggest that Jordan should be the strongest candidate for a supply of Mecachrome V10s but this is not necessarily so. Jordan would prefer not to have to pay for his engines but the opportunity to have what should be a winning engine may overcome such reticence, particularly as it would help him convince Benson & Hedges to keep pumping in money.
This arrangement, however, may not suit Benetton's managing-director Flavio Briatore. He has spent the last six months moving Benetton gradually towards a deal to take over Ligier's obviously-powerful Mugen Hondas, which will become available when Ligier gets Peugeot. Benetton is hoping that Honda will return to F1 and take the Mugen project in-house and return to supplying free engines as it did in the past. Ligier has an option to continue with Mugen in 1998 but Briatore could take this over as part of his deal with Prost.
It should be remembered that Briatore does not own Benetton and that his interest would best be served if the Mugen Honda engines were moved to Minardi. On the other hand he may conclude a Mugen Honda deal for Benetton and get Minardi a Mecachrome deal.
This might not please F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone who may use the promise of a Mecachrome engine deal to entice Jordan to back down on his stand over Alain Prost changing the Ligier name.
Whatever the case, things will probably move very quickly now as Tom Walkinshaw may decide to grab the Mecachrome engines for his Arrows operation. Snatching the deal from Briatore might appeal to Tom, although he knows that it is probably best to continue to develop the Yamaha package, as the Japanese are pumping money into the program and he has considerable control over the project.
The other team that might try to grab the Mecachrome deal is Tyrrell, which is currently using Cosworth V8 customer engines. It is more likely, however, that the team would chase the Mugen Honda deal because of its strong Japanese connections through Satoru Nakajima.