APRIL 24, 1995

Larrousse goes to the wall

As predicted last week, Gerard Larrousse has finally had to face reality and has announced that the Grand Prix team which bears his name will not be competing in this year's FIA Formula 1 World Championship.

In keeping with what is now a team tradition, Larrousse blamed everyone but himself, saying that his new partners had failed to come up with the money they had promised; the French government's anti-tobacco/alcohol laws had made it impossible for him to find sponsors and that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was asking for too much money ($1.6m) for missing the first two races of the year. In most cases in recent years, when an F1 team has got itself into difficulties, Ecclestone has stepped in to help keep the team in business (Lotus, Ligier, Tyrrell and others have benefited from such assistance); but in Larrousse's case Ecclestone did nothing, a strong indication that Bernie does not believe Larrousse brings anything to the F1 show.

Gerard Larrousse, however, continues to delude himself, and in the press release announcing the closure of the team said that he will now be restructuring to return to F1 in 1996. This is most unlikely as the team is not only buried by vast debts, but also faces legal action from a variety of different sources, including former partners, drivers and suppliers.

There are even suggestions that one or more of these law suits could end up with criminal charges being brought against Larrousse himself, although Larrousse has publicly denied doing anything illegal.

One team supplier - SAG Communications - has said that it intends to file a formal complaint against Larrousse with the French public prosecutor's office, alleging fraud; and Larrousse's former partner Fast Group SA (co-owned by ex-racer Patrick Tambay and Michel Golay) is considering a similar course of action.

In the meantime, the Larrousse team has been placed in what the French call "redressement judiciare," which is similar to Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Gerard Larrousse now has a month to put together a plan to save the company, but it is hard to see how he can achieve this.

Laurent Barlesi and Jean Messaoudi - who had come in to rescue the Larrousse team, have been blamed for its collapse and look likely to lose their investment; potential sponsor, Malaysia oil company Petronas, will almost certainly place its money with another F1 team; and the team's state-of-the-art factory at Signes, near Paul Ricard, will revert to the local authorities, which funded its construction and own the building.

It is, therefore, very unlikely that F1 will be seeing much of Gerard Larrousse again, after nearly 20 years during which he has been an integral part of the F1 circus: first as competition manager of Renault Sport (1976-86) and then as boss of his own team (1987-1994).

It remains to be seen what will happen to Larrousse's staff, but experienced engineers like Michel Tetu (Larrousse's technical director who has been in F1 since 1979 with Renault Sport, Ligier and Larrousse) and Alain Marguet (Larrousse's race operations engineer, who worked as an engine man at Renault 1966-1986 and Lamborghini before joining Larrousse) will probably find work elsewhere. American Steve Nichols, who was overseeing the construction of Larrousse's 1995 car, is likely to turn up elsewhere in F1 as a race engineer.

The failure of Larrousse is another setback for the French motor racing community, which has seen the closure in recent years of the AGS F1 team, the sale of Ligier to Walkinshaw/Briatore and the recent collapse of Formula Project, which had F1 ambitions but was running an Indycar team.

This does, however, clear the way for new French teams in the future and there are a number of operations with F1 ambitions, notably DAMS, Prost/ORECA and Apomatox, which will now be fighting over the sponsorship from big French companies such as Gitanes Blondes and Elf.