Modern times

In the tight-kint, suspicious world of Formula One, it's not easy to keep a secret. Just like the unlovely beargarden of modern party politics, there's usually someone with an axe to grind who is ready to betray a confidence. Gossip precedes most things that happen (as well as many things that don't), and rarely is one completely surprised by a piece of news.

Which is why the BAR reshuffle came as such a shock. When Craig Pollock, the smooth, adroit Scotsman who was, and still is, Jacques Villeneuve's manager, set up British American Racing around Villeneuve and BAT money in 1998, the promises of success were loud. And they got louder when Honda came on board as its engine supplier.

But the promises weren't fulfilled. BAT's 1,150 million investment over three seasons works out at more than 1,400,000 for every championship point scored. It took all of Pollock's persuasive powers, and his long and close relationship with Villeneuve, to keep the 1997 world champion from accepting more competitive drives elsewhere. He also had to fight off protracted efforts to unseat him by constructor partner, Adrian Reynard.

But Pollock survived all this. The challenge he couldn't resist came from another clever motorsport entrepreneur, who'd brought BAT more bang for its buck by carrying its 555 brand to World Rally Championship glory.

In 1998, Prodrive supremo David Richards made a brief foray into F1 when he became the team boss at Benetton, but he left after less than a season. Then, as Prodrive's rally successes with Subaru continued, he took over the TV rights to the World Rally Championship, aiming to bring the same commercial chutzpah to rally coverage as Bernie Ecclestone had done to F1. These responsibilities continue: but now Richards is also boss of British American Racing.

It was the manner of the coup which was so atypical of the leaky world of F1. One can only guess at how long Richards had been working on it in secret with BAT. But Pollock must have had very little warning, because the first Villeneuve heard of it was when his manager, mentor, confidante and long-time friend told him on the Swiss ski slopes on Friday December 14, while they were both taking part in a charity event.

The new BAR car was due to be launched to the world's press at the Brackley factory the following Tuesday: and on the Monday, a brief release from BAR announced that Pollock was leaving with immediate effect, 'to pursue', as the well-worn euphemism has it, 'other interests'. There was no mention of a successor. But, as the journalist assembled next morning, there on the platform with Villeneuve, Olivier Pant, designer Malcolm Oastler and the rest, was Richards. Coup completed: but job still to do.

These lurches at the top of F1 teams have happened before. When Jack Brabham retired from motor racing, he sold his shares in Motor Racing Developments to his partner, Ron Tauranac. But Ron found life hard without Jack — particularly as the Brabham team had to earn enough for Ron to keep up the payments to Jack for the buyout. Bernie Ecclestone came along at just the right moment, and by the start of the 1972 season Brabham was his, for a no doubt bargain basement price.

The changes at McLaren came about, as at BAR, because of dissatisfaction from a major tobacco sponsor. McLaren won championships in the 1970s with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt, but by '80 the results were not coming any more, and Marlboro was getting restive. It had had good results in F2 and Procar with an outfit called Project Four, run by one Ron Dennis. Ron had F1 ambitions, and he proposed a merger between his outfit and McLaren. He was robustly repulsed; but then, said McLaren's then boss Teddy Mayer, "Marlboro told us we had better do it, because we weren't doing any good alone". So McLaren International was born, with Mayer and Dennis as joint managing directors. By the end of 1982, Teddy was gone, and McLaren has been Ron's team for the past 20 years.

Formula One is so competitive, and the rewards so big, that you tend to get heavyweights running F1 teams — heavy in intelligence, in willingness to take risk, in desire to get their own way, and in ego. Almost invariably, the best teams have been controlled by a single, powerful autocrat.

It was ever thus: Enzo Ferrari himself is the prime example, not only while running his own team — which he ruled with a rod of iron, notoriously setting his drivers one against another — but also when he had responsibility for Alfa Romeo's racing programme in the 1930s. Raymond Mays was a man of a different stamp, and the whole BRM fiasco only gradually began to bear fruit under the benevolent despotism of Sir Alfred Owen. By that time Tony Vandervell, the portly self-made industrialist who had been one of BRM's original backers, had given up on Boume in disgust and started his own racing team.

Vandervell liked to do things his way, too: which in 1955 went as far as insisting upon driving one of the Vanwalls on the road from the garage in Spa down to the circuit before final practice for the Belgian GP. He got caught in traffic on the way and, by the time he trickled into the paddock, the clutch was ruined. The mechanics were distraught, the car's driver Mike Hawthorn enraged — he missed the session as a result — but Vandervell was unrepentant: "It's my bloody car and I'll drive it if I want to." Two weeks later Hawthorn had returned to Ferrari: three years on, however, Vanwall scooped the first constructors' championship.

Team Lotus, from its 1940s beginnings in a shed in Homsey until Colin Chapman's death in 1982, was always about one man, his design genius, his ability to motivate others, his powers of lateral thought, his uncompromising determination to go his own way. Bugatti was essentially the work of one man, too, and did not properly survive Ettore's death.

Today's F1 teams — notwithstanding the current might of Ferrari, with its Todt-Brawn-Byrne-Schumacher gang of four — are generally driven by one man: McLaren has its Ron Dennis, Jordan its EJ, Arrows its Tom Walkinshaw, Minardi now its Paul Stoddart. Williams is an exception, but then the partnership of Frank Williams and Patrick Head is exceptional in every way.

By contrast, Jaguar is a team without an egotistical autocrat Nild Lauda may do his best to fill that role but, when all's said and done, he's only an employee of the Ford Motor Co: it's not his team. Before Ford took over, it was Jackie Stewart's problem — and, on a far smaller budget, the results were much better.

But that's the way F1 is going. This year Toyota join Ford as a car maker doing F1 with a self-owned team. Mercedes have increased their ownership of McLaren. Honda have already tried to buy Jordan. Renault now own Benetton: Flavio Briatore remains at the helm, but one wonders who ultimately calls the shots.

And by 2008, F1 itself may be replaced by GPWC, a new company whose owners are BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Ford and Renault, with Honda and Toyota expected to join. Instead of Fl teams being owned by racers, like Williams and Dennis, they'll be owned by boards of directors and shareholders. That will mean less security, not more: a public company's bosses can change overnight; and in tough economic times, a board can suddenly fall out of love with motorsport as a promotional tool.

As for BAR, I wish David Richards every success in proving to BAT that the team Pollock created deserves its support. Key to that is, of course, Villeneuve, now one of only two world champions still in F1. Not surprisingly, he is dismayed by the recent turn of events. At the launch, with typical candour, the Canadian said: "If I could walk out, I would. But I have a contract."

No doubt that contract includes performance clauses tied to how good the new car turns out to be. Richards, with a straight-faced ingenuousness that would do credit to Bernie himself, said, "I am not familiar with the details of Jacques' contract." (DR didn't get where he is today by being unfamiliar with the small print of such contracts.)

But if Villeneuve doesn't want to race for Richards, Villeneuve won't swap with Button could put him in a Renault after all: or he might take a sabbatical, while he and his manager set up a nice little deal for 2003.