APRIL 21, 2006

The 12th F1 franchise

The word in the paddock in Imola on Friday was that the FIA has decided that the 12th team in F1 in 2008 will be David Richards's Prodrive. This is no surprise as Prodrive started out as the favourite to get the deal. What is not clear is how Richards is planning to fund a programme and one must assume that he has managed to convince a manufacturer to back his operation. Richards has a long history of working closely with manufacturers, notably with Subaru in the World Rally Championship.

But Subaru does not seem a very likely candidate for an F1 programme and if there is a big backer the most likely firm for Prodrive would be the Korean car company Hyundai.

Founded in 1967 to assemble Ford cars for the Korean market, Hyundai started building its own cars in 1974 with the Hyundai Pony, a joint venture with Mitsubishi Motors. Cheap labour in Korea and high quality workmanship enabled the company to undercut Japanese and western companies and the Pony, Stellar and Excel models all sold well. This success enabled the firm to invest in a different philosophy. The company opened its Namyang R&D Center and went on to build its first proprietary engine in 1991. The next step was a switch into a sportier and more luxurious range of cars with the launch of the Scoupe, the Elantra and the Accent. In order to advertise the cars the company made its first forays into international competition with victory on America's most famous hillclimb event Pike's Peak. The company entered the World Championship in 1998 - hence the connection with Richards - and in recent years has let it be known on several occasions that it would be interested in F1 at some point.

Now Korea's biggest car manufacturer, the company is expanding its production into the United States and Eastern Europe and will soon launch a new luxury saloon model which is bound for the US market which will compete head on with Lexus and BMW. It is being suggested that this will be used to create a new brand as Toyota has done with Lexus, Honda with Acura and Nissan with Infiniti. This will help the firm differentiate between the new cars and its current cheaper models.

In the long-term however Hyundai is pushing into the luxury markets across the board and success in motorsport is a good way to increase the value of the brand and strengthen the image of high technology and quality.