The Year of the Cat

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There are two ways to get a car onto the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. The hard way is to combine a king's ransom in money with a crew of talented automotive designers and engineers, assemble a factory full of highly specialized equipment and then employ a couple of guys willing to drive around tight circuits at speeds reaching 320 km/h.

The easier alternative is to buy a ready-made team. Not content with supplying the engines for 175 Grand Prix winning cars starting with Jim Clark's victory in the Dutch Grand Prix in 1967, the Ford Motor Company has taken the fast track to greater grand-prix prominence by acquiring the Stewart racing team, started just three years ago by former world champion driver Jackie Stewart and his son Paul. The Stewarts will continue to provide the expertise while Ford contributes the legendary Jaguar brand and its associated glamour. This weekend in Melbourne a Stewart-produced car in a more sprightly version of Jaguar's traditional British racing green livery will roll onto the grid for the first outing of the new Formula One season to mark the return of Jaguar to the big-time racing it abandoned in 1993. Since its foundation in 1922 Jaguar had been racing its cars, with three World Sports Car championships, two Daytona 24-hour victories, a Monte Carlo Rally and seven Le Mans 24-hour titles to its name.

The choice of Stewart was easy. Though a young team in F1 terms, it had already shown that it was ready to compete with the more established equipes. Better yet, Stewart has been using Ford engines to win one race last season and finish fourth in the constructors' championship. So with Stewart on their side, the only question for Ford executives was whether to race under the name of the parent company or to go with the sizzle of its subsidiary, Jaguar.

As Ferrari has demonstrated so flamboyantly there is no better way of appealing to the racer that lurks in the id of every man than in the most glamorous of motor sports. The gleaming red cars fuel the fantasies of motorists the world over. Ford's problem was that, instead of associating the brand name with luxury and performance, most people think "family car." So to grab a little gilt by association they decided to push the Jaguar name. Jaguar, meanwhile, is trying to increase its share of the market currently dominated by Mercedes Benz and BMW and increase production from around 50,000 vehicles a year to 250,000 and eventually 400,000. To do so, the British-based carmaker is expanding a series of chic, sporty models, starting with the XK8, launched in 1997, the X400 series coming in 2001 with the two-seater F-type still in prototype. Though Jaguar's market was young and trendy in the 1960s when the E-type was the epitome of motoring elegance, the customer profile these days is a lot older. The company believes that in order to attract a younger customer they have to project a more youthful image.

That's where Formula One comes in. There is no more colorful, dynamic motor sport than F1. With a worldwide annual TV audience of 40 billion spread across 209 countries, the four-wheeled advertising billboards that flash across the screen in a scream of engine noise and cloud of brake dust are just the vehicles for reaching a youthful and committed public. Advertisers love Formula One, and for that reason Formula One teams attract sponsorship deals that bring in millions--last season Ferrari's lead sponsor, tobacco giant Philip Morris, paid an estimated $74 million to paint its Marlboro brand name on the bodywork. That's just as well, because Formula One is not a cheap business. A team may number between 200 and 500 people, with an annual wage bill of up to $48 million and have a turnover of $132 million for McLaren, for example, or more than $240 million for Ferrari.

Creating a winning formula in motor racing is a bit like breeding and training a horse to win the Kentucky Derby. Merely throwing money at it won't buy success, as last season's new team on the grid, British American Racing, found out. Craig Pollock, manager of 1997 champion driver Jacques Villeneuve, spent an estimated $185 million buying the Tyrell team and building a state-of-the-art factory to house an elite squad of designers, engineers and aerodynamicists. But they failed to score a single point in the season.

Jaguar don't expect to become champions this year, or next. But Stewart's building program over the last three years will give Jag a flying start. "We have got to aim towards being podium finishers, (in the first three), and if we are, then from time to time we may be able to achieve a victory," says Jackie. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone is cautious. "It's not that easy to walk in and be successful," he says. "They are going to find it a bit of an uphill struggle, but I'm sure they're going to make it."

Ford is not alone in seeing the sales potential of F1 involvement. Mercedes, which has made engines for McLaren since 1995 and this year took a 40% stake in the company, values its investment. According to Jürgen Hubbert, a member of the board of DaimlerChrysler, which owns Mercedes, the image of the company has been transformed by its association with the McLaren team. "It would have cost us two, three, four times as much in advertising to get the same exposure that we receive from Formula One," he says, and cites increased sales of cars in the same silver as the race car--up from 20% in the mid '90s to 36% today--as evidence of the cost-effectiveness of their investment.

Even with big injections of cash into the team Jaguar can expect to come no higher than fourth in this year's championship. The chief combatants will once again be Ferrari and McLaren, with the yellow Jordans hoping to finish closer to the top two than last year. After Michael Schumacher slammed his Ferrari into a tire wall during the British Grand Prix, breaking his right leg, McLaren could, and should, have had the championships sewn up over the next few races. But a combination of equipment failures and driving mistakes by 1998 champion Mika Hakkinen took the contest to the wire. After a controversial disqualification, then reinstatement, of the Ferraris in the penultimate race in Malaysia, Hakkinen went on to win the final contest in Japan and become champion for the second successive year.

Schumacher's exit from championship contention allowed Ferrari's second driver, Eddie Irvine, to become Hakkinen's chief rival for the drivers' title. For this season Irvine has joined Jaguar, but Fast Eddie is unlikely to trouble his former colleague too much. Schumacher, universally acknowledged as the best driver on the grid, is the dominant human factor now that he is fully fit again. Hakkinen will have to perform consistently, as will his car, to give himself a chance of a third championship. "There's only one guy now," says legendary driver Stirling Moss, who regrets that Schumacher is so much better than the rest. "You can't expect him to put on as good a show as he could against someone of his own stature."

As the drivers start the engines of their thoroughbred machines on Sunday and Formula One begins its 17-race world tour the fans, the teams and their financial backers will be looking forward to a classic season. And Jaguar will be purring along in the fast lane.