OCTOBER 22, 2002

Is Porsche a serious contender for Formula 1?

There have been stories on and off for a couple of years suggesting that Porsche is planning to return to Formula 1 with its own Formula 1 operation in 2005. To date the idea has always been voted down by the company's supervisory board but now it seems there is more potential than ever.

In August Porsche opened a new $127m factory in Leipzig. At the launch the message being given out was that Porsche will soon get back into serious competition but not as many people believe in sportscar racing.

The company has enjoyed exceptional success in recent years under the guiding hand of Wendelin Wiedeking but he has always steered clear of Formula 1. Earlier this year when asked about whether Porsche would enter Formula 1, Wiedeking said that such a program would cost $350m a year and added: "Do you know the balance sheet of Ferrari?"

But Porsche is booming at the moment and getting to a point where it could afford an F1 program. In the last few days the company has announced pre-tax profits for the 2001/2002 year up 40% to around $820m. In that period the company sold 54,000 cars and that will increase next year with the introduction of the new four-wheel drive Cayenne sport utility vehicle, which is being built in Leipzig. This is scheduled to produce 25,000 cars a year and with the base price for the Cayenne being $55,000 there is considerable potential for even more profit in the years ahead. What is interesting is that Porsche is continuing the company tradition of sub-contracting manufacture of its products. The Leipzig plant is actually just an assembly plant with the engines coming from Zuffhausen and the chassis from a Volkswagen factory in Bratislava.

The company has a long tradition of such practices with some the first very Porsches built for the company by the Czech company Tatra. Later companies such as Beutler in Switzerland and Karmann in Osnabruck built Porsches and the hugely popular Boxster is being produced in large numbers by the Finnish engineering firm Valmet at its factory in Uusikaupunki.

The Porsche brand and the technical controls are so strong that this has not affected sales at all and it is possible that given the financial situation Porsche might now consider investing in a Formula 1 program, if only to boost the brand still further. The desire to go into F1 undoubtedly exists amongst Porsche's engineers at the Research and Development Centre in Weissach, which produced the famous TAG-branded 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 Formula 1 engines in the early 1980s. But there are dangers in such a move. In 1990 Porsche did a deal to return to F1 with a V12 engine but the unit was so poor that it was dumped by the Footwork team after just half a season. That humiliation still rankles with some at Weissach.

It is worth noting that the new Leipzig factory is built on a 494-acre site which features a test track which is not only configured to FIA F1-standards but is also designed to include corners modelled on some of the great race tracks in the world, notably Laguna Seca and the Nurburgring. Porsche already has a very good test track at Weissach and that has led to questions about why another facility is needed in Leipzig.