AUGUST 25, 2001

Lauda still... and louder

NIKI LAUDA is the new boss of Jaguar Racing - and no-one is quite sure why. Lauda is not known for his ability to run racing teams. He has run an airline with some success although he was eventually levered out of control of the business which carries his name. For the last 20 years Niki has used Formula 1 as a place to raise some money and to keep up his international profile. His appointment as head of Ford's Premier Performance Division at the start of the year was a surprise, not least for Bobby Rahal.

"I knew that someone would get the job because it had been done by Neil Ressler and he had retired," said Rahal recently. "But was I surprised when it was Niki? He did not immediately come to mind as a candidate for the job. Niki is somewhat dated in terms of his experience in F1 and my experience is completely unconnected with F1 but the way I see it, winning is winning. And we are both people who know how to do that and we know exactly what it takes to win. I am not sure that this was really appreciated before. Before all the other junk you need to have two things: a research and development department and a windtunnel. The team had neither."

In the end it was engineered that there would be an issue between the two men over Eddie Irvine with stories leaking out that Rahal had tried to sell Irvine to Jordan after Eddie Jordan had dumped Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

"Eddie was one of the things that I inherited from the old management of the team," said Rahal. "Would I have done a deal like that? Would I have paid that much for Eddie? No, I don't think so. I would not have paid that. But that is not a matter of whether he is worth it or not. He is good. But my view is that you should always put the maximum amount of money into the technical development of the car and then the best drivers will come to you. That philosophy is really no different to the way in which Ron Dennis or Frank Williams operate their race teams."

There is no doubt now that Lauda has won the game in Formula 1. Ford Motor Company Jac Nasser has, for whatever reason, allowed his nominee to be pushed aside and there is no doubt that Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle is now fully in charge of Jaguar Racing. But it may be a poisoned chalice - as it was for Rahal.

Ford Motor Company politics is a vicious business and results are demanded even when there is not enough for a job to be done. Rahal fell victim to that.

"When I am explaining about the way F1 is these days," he explained. "I use the illustration that a F1 team of today is like a supertanker. It takes a very long time to change the direction in which it is going. We have got the engines full in reverse and things are changing, but there is no getting away from the fact that I inherited what was a dysfunctional organization in which people were more concerned about how they were viewed personally than about how the team was viewed. It was a very bad case of what we in America call CYA Syndrome. The CYA stands for Cover Your Ass. It takes a lot of time to change that. You have to build a team with the right people - and they are not always available. And then they must all be working together. We have done a lot and we have a lot of very good things now but we are constantly under pressure to deliver results."

Now it is Lauda's turn to try and make the people at Ford understand Formula 1. The dismissal of Rahal will set the program back. Change in F1 is disruptive and to be avoided if at all possible. Rahal's choices have not yet had time to make much of difference although Mark Handford's aerodynamic work has helped progress. There is also an argument that Lauda knows nothing about building an F1 team. Ferrari used him as a consultant but he was eventually sidelined because his presence was upsetting the status quo with Jean Todt. Lauda has strong opinions and does not hide them.

But, as Todt has proved, Lauda is not always the man who is right.