JULY 26, 1999

Watch out for Nissan

WHISPERS from France suggest that Renault could supply a team with factory V10 engines in 2001 although these would be badged as Nissan V10s.

WHISPERS from France suggest that Renault could supply a team with factory V10 engines in 2001 although these would be badged as Nissan V10s. The new units would be designed and built by Renault Sport engineers in Viry-Chatillon. Renault acquired a 36.8% shareholding in Nissan in March for $5.1bn. The vast Japanese car company has debts in the region of $30bn but Renault's Carlos Ghosn - who recently took over as Nissan chief executive - reckons that the company could begin to make profits in the year 2000. In order to achieve this Ghosn is aiming to sell off unprofitable subsidiaries, streamline operations, squeeze down the prices being charged by suppliers and cut around 5000 jobs in Japan. In the longer term Nissan is renowned for its high technology but somehow has failed to produce an exciting product range and has a very dull and non-technical image. We believe that Ghosn has concluded that Formula 1 is the fastest way to improve that situation. Formula 1 will not only give the company a little glamour but will also help to train engineers, motivate the staff and sell cars.

The major problem is justifying the cost of an F1 program when Nissan needs to reduce its costs. We believe that with the staff and facilities at Renault Sport, such a program will be less expensive than many people in F1 believe. Renault Sport engineers have been designing a brand new V10 for some months in the hope that someone would be able to fund it and so the new engine could be raced during the 2001 season, which would mean that Nissan would go head-to-head with the Honda, Toyota and BMW programs - in addition to Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz. Victory against such opposition would boost Nissan's reputation enormously.

If the rumors are true it will be interesting to see which team Nissan decides to go into partnership with. The obvious choice would be Benetton but there are no signs that such a deal is even being discussed with the Benetton Family not seeming to have a policy for the future at the moment.

The other obvious choice is Arrows and although Tom Walkinshaw has been taking a back seat in recent months, there is no doubt that the Scotsman's ambition to do well in F1 is still there. He has very good connections with Nissan. His automotive engineering company - TWR - does a lot of work for the Japanese company and in 1997 and 1998 Walkinshaw ran the Nissan sportscar operations at Le Mans. These were not successful and the project was terminated in June 1998 when Nissan's financial troubles really began to bite.

Prior to that Walkinshaw spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince Nissan to enter F1 and there were discussions about badging the Arrows V10 engine as a Nissan. These were not successful.

For many years Nissan has enjoyed success in touring car racing and Nissan dominated sportscar racing in the UnitedÊStates in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The company remained very conservative and F1 was always avoided. With a new Renault management things may now change.

Tom Walkinshaw was not at the Austrian Grand Prix, the team commenting that Tom was on vacation with his children in France. Our spies in Paris say that Walkinshaw did not spend all his time at the beach and was spotted at Renault headquarters...

If Walkinshaw is able to pull off a Nissan deal it would be a remarkable boost for the Arrows team, which has struggled badly in recent months. While Tora Takagi would be an obvious choice for the team, it is worth speculating that Jean Alesi would be a very good signing given his popularity in both France and Japan - where he enjoys enormous popularity nut just because of his press-on style of driving, but also because he is married to a Japanese lady.

A strong new Japanese team - with Takagi as a driver - might also convince Japan Tobacco to leave Benetton and sign up with Arrows. It is worth noting that Honda Racing Developments is believed to have done a deal for a budget of around $40m with JT shortly before Honda decided to ally with British American Racing. That budget may still be available, although whether it would be with the Mild Seven or with JT's recently-acquired Camel brand remains to be seen but we hear that Camel brand managers are pushing hard to get the F1 program.

There is no reason why Walkinshaw's recently-announced Supertec V10 deal for next year should not be transformed into a Nissan deal - Benetton buy the same engines and call them Playlife V10s and as the Supertecs started out life as Renaults there is no conflict of interest between car manufacturers now Nissan has been taken over by Renault.

At the same time Walkinshaw is understood to be trying to sell his Arrows V10 engines to Minardi for next season. The little Italian team has little choice because it cannot afford to fund a Supertec deal and may not be able to convince Ferrari to sell it engines.

While some of this is speculation, there is no doubt that serious things have suddenly started to happen at Renault Sport inÊParis...