MARCH 12, 2001

Why is Volkswagen not in Formula 1?

THERE are only six major car manufacturers in the world these days and most of them: General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Renault-Nissan, Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler.

THERE are only six major car manufacturers in the world these days and most of them: General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Renault-Nissan, Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler. Ford, Toyota, Renault and DaimlerChrysler all have F1 teams or plans to enter the sport. General Motors has had a look at Grand Prix racing but its focus remains rather more American than its rivals. Thus the only big European car maker which is not in Formula 1 is Volkswagen and it is a bit of a mystery as to why the firm has not taken the plunge given the fact that the company boss Ferdinand Piech has long been a fan of motorsport.

Ferdinand Porsche's grandson worked as a development engineer for the sporting division of the Porsche company during its most famous years in sportscar racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notably with the 908 and 917 models. When Porsche was floated Piech moved to Audi NSU and in 1977 led the firm into rallying with the remarkable four-wheel-drive Audi quattro which won the Manufacturers' title in 1982 and 1984 and which won Drivers' titles in the hands of Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist.

Piech became head of Volkswagen in 1993 and was behind the Le Mans 24 Hours program which resulted in a startling 1-2-3 victory for the firm last year. This year the Le Mans program has been taken over by Bentley, another Volkswagen brand, while Skoda is involved in the World Rally Championship and SEAT has a limited involvement in the same series. For the moment the premium Volkswagen brand - Audi - is only racing in the American Le Mans series and Volkswagen has no sporting involvement at international level.

The question which is puzzling Grand Prix team owners is why Volkswagen is not joining its rivals in Formula 1. There have been rumors of several possible programs but nothing has ever come of it, despite constant requests from Formula 1 teams for a partnership. The problem is that there are not enough F1 engines to go around at the moment: hence the need for Honda to supply British American Racing and Jordan and Ferrari to supply both Sauber and Prost.

It may be that Piech has concluded that the competition in F1 at the moment is simply too intense to make a program worthwhile but there is little doubt at the same time that Piech is being pushed to get involved by some of the Volkswagen management. Chief among these is the man who is expected to take over when Piech retires: Bernd Pischetsrieder, the current boss of SEAT. Pischetsrieder was the man who was behind BMW's return to F1 but he was dumped by BMW over the Rover debacle and ended up finding refuge with Volkswagen. Pischetsrieder is a big F1 fan and visits at least one race a year, usually more.

When Piech does retire, he is expected to be appointed chairman of Volkswagen's board of management. Our sources in Germany say he is waiting for that moment as he can then agree to F1 without having to answer for the consequences if all does not go well. It may be wise move to be cautious as not all the car companies involved in F1 are likely to stay if they do not win a little. Having said that marketing men are increasingly reporting that the very fact of being involved in F1 is now more important than the winning when it comes to selling cars. A classic example of this at the moment is Jaguar - a Ford subsidiary - which is transforming its image using F1 without getting anywhere near the front of the grid.

One thing is certain: as and when Volkswagen does decide to go into F1 there will be no shortage of teams keen to run the engines. At the moment all the top teams are tied to manufacturer deals. The first of the frontrunners to become available will be Jordan in a couple of years, although VW could easily conclude a deal with a middle-ranking team such as BAR, Sauber, Prost or Arrows. Being with the right team is a vital element of success in F1 unless a manufacturer wishes to take the dangerous route of going it alone. To date - at least in the modern era - this has created more failures than successes but it has not stopped Renault and Toyota beginning their new programs.