NOVEMBER 23, 2000

Why Peugeot failed in Formula 1

THIS weekend Peugeot Sport goes to Cardiff to try to win the World Rally Championship Drivers' title, to add to the Constructors' title it has already secured with the Peugeot 206.

THIS weekend Peugeot Sport goes to Cardiff to try to win the World Rally Championship Drivers' title, to add to the Constructors' title it has already secured with the Peugeot 206. For the men at Velizy-Villacoublay it is a chance to beat their chests again with pride after six years of acute embarrassment in Formula 1.

No matter how you analyze it the French car company's involvement in F1 has been pathetic. Peugeot used to win whenever it wanted in the World Rally Championship, on the raid rallies across Africa, at Pike's Peak in the United States and then in sportscar racing. In 1993 the company scored a remarkable 1-2-3 finish in the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Peugeot arrived in Formula 1 with its head held high. It was 1994 and the company took advantage of circumstances and went into partnership with the mighty McLaren team, which was at sea after the departure of Honda at the end of 1992. The first season was quite promising and the McLaren-Peugeot drivers scored 42 points between them. The team was fourth in the World Championship. If you are looking for a modern parallel it is not dissimilar to Williams's 36 points this year with BMW. The combination looked to be very promising.

But that autumn McLaren took the men from Peugeot to one side and explained that they did not want to continue and would like to cancel the three remaining years on the agreement. Peugeot was outraged. Officially the McLaren line was that Mercedes-Benz was a partner which was more in line with the McLaren philosophy. As history has proved there is something in this argument. But, speaking off the record, the McLaren men explained that the deal with Peugeot was terminated because the team realized that the people at Peugeot had no understanding of what it took to be successful in Formula 1 - and that they were never going to learn.

The Peugeot people blamed Mercedes-Benz because it is always easy for a Frenchman to blame the Germans.

As part of the settlement deal Peugeot ended up supplying the Jordan team, which at that time was a cottage industry rather than a racing team. Peugeot pumped out press releases explaining how it was going to help the poor undernourished Jordan team to make it to the big time. In 1995 Jordan-Peugeot scored 21 points. Jordan, Peugeot said, needed to be developed. In 1996 the score was 22 points. It was still Jordan's fault. In 1997 things improved but the team still managed to score only 33 points, fewer than in the first year with McLaren.

This was not the world-beating performance that everyone had expected from Peugeot. The French blamed the lack of success on Jordan and the Peugeot management planned to depart quietly from F1. The problem was that the Peugeot dealers liked the F1 program and believed that Peugeot could win. Alain Prost appeared on the scene and Peugeot agreed to a new three-year deal in F1. They were dreaming of a French national team which would blast all aside and show the world that French technology is the finest in the world.

As history now relates those dreams went horribly wrong. In 1998 Prost was to blame for a bad gearbox. In 1999 the Peugeot engines were not powerful enough and not reliable and this year the new Peugeot V10 was a complete disaster. Everyone blamed everyone else.

In Brazil in March Peugeot passed the 100 GP mark without scoring a victory. Of the major engine-builders only Yamaha has achieved less success, competing in 116 races without a win. The recent Malaysian GP was Peugeot's 115th start so it has avoided the ignominy of being the least successful car company in F1 history.

How did it happen? Why did Peugeot fail in F1?

The only real explanation is that there was a problem of attitude at Peugeot Sport. Winning outside F1 was easy. Peugeot just threw more money at the problems. Formula 1 is different and the top management of Peugeot seemed to be mystified as to why the company could not win. It is not dissimilar to what happened with Peugeot's rival Renault in the early 1980s when the firm was running its own team in F1. It was not until Renault had been beaten soundly year after year that the management of Renault Sport realized that they had to adopt different attitude. When Renault came back to F1 as an engine manufacturer in 1989 the change in attitude was clear. Renault was going to win no matter what it took. There were no comfortable long weekends, no national holidays, no strikes. Renault Sport became a winning machine.

It is a lesson which Peugeot does not appear to have learned.

Winning in rallying is probably good enough...