MAY 16, 2008

Lancia to buy into Scuderia Toro Rosso?

The word from Italy is that the Fiat-owned Lancia brand is considering buying into Scuderia Toro Rosso, as part of its plan to revive the marque by expanding sales of Lancia models in Europe and beyond. The company's sporting heritage is impressive, dating back to 1906 when former Fiat Grand Prix driver Vincenzo Lancia set up the business, convinced that he could bring new ideas to the growing automobile business. He insisted that the company stay out of competition and concentrate on building luxurious and sporting road cars. He died in 1937 and his son Gianni took over the company and in the 1950s he hired Alfa Romeo racing designer Vittorio Jano and recruited Ferrari drivers Alberto Ascari and Gigi Villoresi and entered F1 with the D50, powered by a 2.5-liter V8 engine. The team began winning non-championship races in 1955 but the death of Ascari in a Ferrari sports car and serious financial problems resulted in Gianni Lancia selling the D50s to Enzo Ferrari. In 1956 the D50s won five of the seven World Championship events and continued to do well in 1957.

The Lancia company remained independent and in the 1960s Cesare Fiorio's HF Squadra Corse began to achieve good results in rallying with Lancia products. The team won the European Rally Championship in 1969, the same year as Lancia became part of the Fiat empire. HF Squadra Corse moved to the Lancia factory and became the motorsport department. In the 1970s Lancia won a string of WRC titles with the Stratos and also enjoyed some success in sports car racing, winning the World Championship in 1981. There was talk in 1980 of building a turbo engine for the new Toleman F1 team but in the end rallying remained the focus with the Lancia Delta. Six consecutive Manufacturers' titles and three Drivers' titles followed until 1992 when the factory pulled out of the WRC, leaving a few privateers to battle on for a period. Poor sales pushed it back into the Italian market and it came close to be closed down in 2004.

The firm is now being run by Frenchman Olivier Francois, who has been in the job for the last couple of years, and is committed to tripling Lancia sales to 300,000 cars in 2010. His aim is to add new models, get better dealerships and expand into new markets. At the moment the company is 80% dependent on the Italian market.

Among the strategies that Francois has introduced is to use Carla Bruni, the Italian singer-supermodel and new wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the advertising campaigns. It is worth noting that before joining Lancia, Francois worked at Peugeot Citroen in France and there may be links with recent rumours suggesting that Nicolas Todt, son of Jean Todt (formerly at Peugeot Citroen before joining Ferrari), might buy into the Italian-based team, to create a secondary Fiat-owned operation. This makes sense as the team would be allowed to use Ferrari engine and drivetrain technology but would need to build its own chassis. That would be a similar story to the Lancia Stratos, which was powered by a Ferrari engine.