MAY 4, 2001

Who is running Jaguar - and does it matter?

THE announcement that Jaguar Racing has taken on Ford's former CART program manager Jay O'Connell gives a clear indication that the Milton Keynes-based racing team is being run by American transplant Bobby Rahal.

THE announcement that Jaguar Racing has taken on Ford's former CART program manager Jay O'Connell gives a clear indication that the Milton Keynes-based racing team is being run by American transplant Bobby Rahal. Rahal and O'Connell have worked together successful for several years in the United States and Bobby clearly thinks that Formula 1 has too often overlooked the talents available in the United States. O'Connell's recruitment follows that of aerodynamicist Mark Handford.

O'Connell's job will be to set up the team's advanced research and development facility. This will be based at the new windtunnel being built for Jaguar by Reynard at Brackley. Until this is ready Jaguar will do more of its windtunnel work in the Mitchell windtunnel at Southampton University.

The Reynard deal is indicative of Rahal's power within the team. He knows Adrian Reynard from the CART scene and has seen an opportunity to get a windtunnel built quickly and to help out Reynard who needs money to sort out one or two outstanding issues with Britain's Inland Revenue.

So where does Niki Lauda stand in all of this? Lauda is ultimately Rahal's boss but he also has the responsibility of dealing with Cosworth Racing and with Pi Electronics, both of which have been owned by Ford for the last year. Both of these are in need of serious overhauling and so there is plenty for Lauda to get on with. In addition he seems to have taken on the role of being Jaguar Racing's political player - doing the wheeling and dealing with his old mates Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Lauda is a regular in the Formula 1 jungle which is new to Rahal.

But Rahal has an enormous value to the Formula 1 circus and a man as astute as Bernie Ecclestone will no doubt have recognized that value. He is an American. America is the biggest consumer market in the world and Formula 1 is just beginning to try to make an impression. The best way for this is for there to be a good US driver (bad ones are no good at all) and that may take some years. The good news is that there are a number of young Americans who have recognized that they have a chance of getting to F1 via the European route and are currently cutting their teeth in Formula 3, Formula Ford and other minor series. Until one of them is ready Rahal is a huge asset to F1 because he is someone for whom the US fans can cheer. Jaguar can be their team.

There are from time to time rumors of other US projects, hoping to fill the current void and it is worth noting the presence in the F1 paddock at Barcelona of former BAR partner Rick Gorne. He is managing the career of Luciano Burti but admits that being a driver manager is not something that satisfies him. Gorne is an ambitious wheeler-dealer and is always a man worth watching for as he has powerful friends in the United States who might, given the right opportunity, back him financially.

In the meantime keeping up US interest in the sport is down to Rahal and Bobby is seen by many within F1 as being too benevolent, despite having cleared away a lot of the old Stewart Grand Prix infrastructure within the team. He has sorted out the problem of drivers he inherited and now has two competitive drivers (although Eddie Irvine is rather overpaid for what he is doing) and he has cut back the busload of test drivers to Tomas Scheckter. Andre Lotterer, Narain Karthikeyan and James Courtney will all be given a run in the car at some point when it is convenient but things are a lot clearer.

And more changes are expected. Rahal has been looking at the way in which the team functions and has been discreetly looking for better people to do the jobs. There may not be another massacre as there was in the autumn but there will be more changes.

For the moment at least Bobby and Niki seem to be cohabiting. Lauda is very clear that he does not want to do Rahal's job but this does not mean that the Austrian thinks Rahal is the best man to do it. However the pair seem to have reached a level of agreement and as a result the team is moving forward. Their biggest problem will be from above. The ambitious Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, head of Jaguar, is keen for improvement as fast as possible - in fact we hear that he wants improvement to be rather faster than that. The Formula 1 program can help him build up his political power within the Ford empire, but at the same time it can also undermine him - and he knows that.

There is also a personal side to it all. Reitzle was one of the architects of the BMW F1 program and the rapid success of that will not have escaped his notice. Behind Reitzle is the man who ultimately makes the decisions - Jacques Nasser. He is not known for his patience if his plans do not go as he wants them to do. He did not gain the nickname "Jack the Knife" because of a willingness to sit back and watch things grow slowly.