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Manufacturers In Formula One - A Tale of Mixed Fortunes

When the Grand Prix season kicks off in just under two months time in Melbourne, there will be three official manufacturer entered teams. Jaguar, Toyota and Renault are all mass producers of road going cars. Indeed when one considers that, in addition to this, McLaren is part owned by Daimler Chrysler, that the modern Ferrari team is basically an extension of the huge FIAT corporation (which in turn is part owned by General Motors), and that the Williams team is now officially called the BMW-Williams team, the involvement of the major car manufacturers has never been greater. There is a general perception that the sheer wealth of the major car manufacturers, when compared with the small, sponsor reliant F1 constructors, will ensure that, in time Toyota, Renault, Jaguar, and other major manufacturers who decide to join in, will come to dominate the sport. Even historically successful specialist racing car builders like Williams and McLaren, it is argued will not have the finances or the technical resources to compete with them.

At the dawn of the Formula One World Championship in 1950, the field was made up almost entirely of sportscar manufacturers who had gone into Formula One either for the prestige and kudos of winning, or because their owners were racing enthusiasts with the financial muscle to be able to turn their dream on competing in top level motorsport into a reality. The first season of F1 was dominated by Guiseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo. And certainly, of all the F1 constructors of that era, Alfa Romeo was the one that sold the most road cars. Domination of F1 by major manufacturers is, in a sense, nothing new. Since then, however, major road car manufacturers who have dabbled with Formula One have not been so successful. In 1951, Juan Manuel Fangio gave Alfa Romeo their second world championship victory, and three years later, during their brief pre Le Mans disaster return to motor racing, Mercedes Benz powered Fangio to a further two titles. Since then, however, no major motor manufacturer has won the world drivers' championship. In 1952, Enzo Ferrari took the world championship for the first time, and since then, it has been the exclusive preserve of specialist F1 car builders and small, niche market sportscar companies like Ferrari and Lotus. That has not necessarily been for want of trying on the part of major motor manufacturers though.

After Mercedes, the first to have a go were Honda in the mid 1960s. They entered Formula One with a 1.5 litre V12 engined car at the end of the 1964 season. Driven by American Ronnie Bucknum, the car wasn't overly successful that season but neither was it embarrassingly slow, frequently qualifying in the middle of the pack. In 1965, their effort was more serious. Richie Ginther, not a driver from the top drawer maybe, but a talented pilot nonetheless, was recruited to do the driving, and duly delivered by qualifying fourth at the third race of the season in Belgium. He went on to score the team's first points by finishing sixth. The balance of the season was lost to reliability problems, but the team recovered to score a surprise win at the season finale in Mexico. The change from 1.5 litre engines to 3.0 litre engines for 1966 caught the works Honda team on the hop, and they missed most of the season. They returned for the Italian Grand Prix towards the end of the year, and Richie Ginther qualified the new car seventh, and ran as high as second before crashing out of the race. In 1967, it quickly became clear that nothing was going to beat the combination of Jim Clark and a Lotus 49-DFV on pace alone, so luck would have to play a part. The 1967 Honda, despite being driven by former world champion John Surtees, was not truly quick. It was powerful but it was overweight, and did not handle as well as its British built rivals. Nonetheless, its straightline speed helped Surtees to score Honda's second and final Grand Prix victory as a constructor at the Italian Grand Prix after Jim Clark's Lotus ran out of fuel a few miles from the end. 1968 yielded no further wins, and a second place in France for Surtees was the only consolation in a season dogged by poor reliability. The team withdrew from the sport at the end of the year.

Ten years after Honda's last win, in 1977, French car manufacturer Renault appeared on the scene with a technological advance that would revolutionise Grand Prix racing. The FIA rulebook had a rule, dating back to the mid-sixties, that stated that teams could either use a 3.0 litre normally aspirated engine, or a 1.5 litre supercharged engine. The rule had come about because the FIA (or CSI as they were then) were worried that there would not be enough 3.0 litre Grand Prix engines to go around when the formula reverted from using 1.5 litre normally aspirated engines at the end of 1965. Hence they left the door open for teams to supercharge the existing 1.5 litre engines for the 1965 season. Renault exploited this loophole by building a 1.5 litre turbocharged engine, based on a stockblock road car engine. It was not, strictly speaking, within the rules, but was allowed to race anyway. It was not immediately competitive. Jean Pierre Jabouille qualified the Renault 21st at its debut race, and the car lasted just 22 laps before the turbocharger failed. 1979 was scarcely any better, though the team did pick three points for third place in the penultimate race of the season at Watkins Glen. The following year however, the bright yellow Renaults stopped being regarded as a joke and started to be thought of as a threat. The season was dominated by the Ferraris of Scheckter and Villeneuve, but for the first time, the turbo concept looked like it had merit. The Renaults remained hideously unreliable, but they could no longer be considered slow. They certainly didn't have the best chassis in the field, but at the fastest track of the year, Paul Ricard, in France, the team scored its first victory with Jean Pierre Jabouille driving. To add to the achievement, Rene Arnoux brought the second Renault home in third place. The early eighties were the heyday of the ground effect cars. The British teams simply seemed to understand how to build these better than the French, but Renault were nonetheless able to pick up three wins in 1980. In 1981, new signing Alain Prost took three wins for Renault and helped the team to fourth in the constructors championship.

1982 again saw Renault field a competitive, but ultimately not championship winning team, with a couple of wins a piece for Arnoux and Prost yielding another third place in the constructors championship. By 1983, Renault had perfected its turbo engine, and it was clear that an old Cosworth DFV was never going to hold a candle to the new breed of turbo engines. Renault, however, had lost their trump card. BMW had entered the game, supplying its engines to Brabham, while Ferrari too had their own turbo engine. McLaren were known to be working on a turbo project with Porsche, and Honda were also developing a turbo engine for use in Formula One. 1983 boiled down to a battle between Prost's Renault and Piquet's Brabham. It was a battle that was won by Piquet at the final race in South Africa, after Prost's engine failed. Renault had lost their best shot at the world title. They had paved the way for the turbo era, but their lack of expertise in building chassis had allowed them to squander their advantage while the competition caught up. Renault failed to win races in 1984, and after a dismal 1985 season, they were forced to pull out of F1 racing.

Renault at least achieved more than Italian manufacturer Alfa Romeo . Alfa Romeo's glory days in F1 lay well in the past when they made their return to Formula One racing in 1979. Previously they had supplied engines to Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team during the late seventies, but they had proved more powerful than reliable, and while Niki Lauda had managed to win a couple of races with the car in 1978, they had achieved little else. Vittorio Brambilla drove three races in 1979 with the pretty but ineffective Alfa Romeo 179. For the 1980 season, the team hired Bruno Giacomelli and Patrick Depaillier, but two fifth places were the only reward, and by the end of the season, Depailler had been killed in a testing accident, and the erratic Brambilla was again driving for the team. In 1981, not even the presence of former world champion Mario Andretti enabled the team to move ahead. They ended the season with ten points, and one podium finish for Giacomelli. The team struggled on through the early eighties, with Andrea De Cesaris racking up their best results in 1983 with a couple of second places, before calling it day at the end of a desperately unsuccessful 1985 season where they failed to score a single point. Where Renault had produced a good engine, but never quite been able to get the chassis right, its hard to find anything positive at all about Alfa Romeo's six year effort in formula one. They had a reasonably successful season in 1983, but only by virtue of the fact that they were running a turbo engine at a time when much of the opposition was still stuck with normally aspirated Cosworth DFVs. The decision to farm out the running of the racing team to the Euroracing concern certainly did little to help matters.

Since 1985, the major car manufacturers have largely stuck to supplying engines to specialist chassis manufacturers. A strategy which has worked well for BMW, Honda, Mercedes and Renault, to name the more conspicuously successful engine builders of the last twenty years. In 1999, this changed with the news that Renault was buying the Benetton team, and that Ford had snapped up the Stewart team and was going to rename it Jaguar. Honda had been planning a return for a while, and even got as far as getting Dallara to build them a test mule chassis, but ultimately they decided their best chance of success lay as an engine supplier. Toyota, desperate to shake their image as a provider of deathly dull cars to pensioners, decided they too would go the F1 route in 2000. The historical portents, not to mention Jaguar's relative lack of success in Formula One, suggest that Williams, McLaren and Ferrari have little to fear from upstarts at Toyota and Renault.

In the past, manufacturers have come into the sport with a lot of money to throw around, but their large, bureaucratic management structures mean that they are unable to take decisions as fast as the best F1 teams. Additionally, it seems to be a good rule of thumb that major motor manufacturers never quite get the art of producing good chassis right. This is perhaps not entirely surprising. Chassis building, even in the modern era of computer aided design and wind tunnels, remains something of a black art. Motor manufacturers have traditionally tended to believe that their own research departments should be able to do better than the small numbers of specialists employed by formula one teams. They tend to be wrong. Indeed Toyota, having made a terrible mess of trying to build their own F1 car in house, have now recruited ex Minardi man Gustav Brunner to come in and do the job for them. Renault, perhaps having learned the lesson of their previous attempt at Formula One, have opted for the route of buying an existing team, rather than trying to do the job for them.

A lack of in-house expertise is not the only problem facing manufacturers trying to create a successful Grand Prix team. Large organisations tend by their nature to be more political and bureaucratic than small F1 teams. Petty squabbles and power struggles between various factions within Ford, Jaguar and Cosworth have done much to distract Jaguar from the more important business of getting their F1 team on the pace this season, and it is known that not all the Ford board are particularly enthusiastic about motorsport. A possibly apocryphal story tells of how a prominent Ford man demanded to know at a board meeting "Who the hell is Edmund Irvine, and why is he the second highest paid man in the Ford Motor Company ?". If Ford's own board members do not know of their Formula One effort, then there must certainly be those who doubt the publicity value of spending so much money to be involved in the sport. A team such as McLaren or Williams need not worry about this. They are not in F1 for publicity, or marketing reasons. They are there to win, and only to win. The people involved in those teams know that there is no danger that the management will turn around the following week and close down the F1 programme. That feeling of job security and purpose inevitably results in more focused, motivated staff, which all too often can be the difference between winning and losing in Formula One. It is of course, always possible that this time it will be different. That this time, the money of the big car manufacturers will win out over the experience of the long standing F1 teams. It has already happened to the engine suppliers in F1. Certainly that is what the men on the boards of Toyota, Ford and Renault are hoping. However, history suggests that once again, the new upstart teams will be unable to challenge the dominance of the existing order. Its going to be interesting to watch them try though.

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