Behind the Grand Prix Scene




NO MATTER where you go for a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix you will be conscious of the name ELF, principally on the factory Renault cars, but also on petrol tankers in the paddock, oil containers, drivers’ overalls, circuit advertising, hospitality units and on a myriad of cars in the lesser categories of the supporting races. There may only be three letters in the name ELF but behind those three letters are more than 500 companies that form the group ELF Aquitaine whose business ranges from petrol to plastics and from oil to cosmetics. ELF was formed in 1967 and the petrol and oil side of things stemmed from the existing company of Caltex (France), and incorporated other French petrol companies the La Mure and Avia. From the very beginning the policy of the new company was to be evolved with technical activities in which they could supply knowledge (and materials) and at the same time get some feed-back into their own researches. France was at a low ebb in motor racing at the time, but there were signs of a resurgence on the horizon so ELF committed itself to the full support of motor racing, starting with Matra and Ken Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart. They spread out through Formula 2 and Formula 3, into long-distance sports car racing, into National racing in France and into racing schools and driver promotion. Among other things they involved themselves with the French side of Concorde.

The name ELF was conjured up on a “think-machine” that was made to search for a name that was brief, to the point, pronounceable in any language, easily written in any language, did not clash with any existing name and could not be confused with any other name. The three letters gave them all they wanted and when it was announced everyone in France said “Oh, of course! Essence, Lubrificant, Francais” (the petrol and oil of France). ELF is 67% government owned, the remainder being spread through small private share-holders.

They are now into their 14th year in motor racing and one can truthfully say that motor racing, in all its forms, is part of the overall ELF activity. They are not mere sponsors who pay money and claim advertising space. they support motor racing with technology and materials as well as money. The ELF hierarchy do not like to be thought of only as sponsors, for that tends to bracket them with cigarette companies, food companies, manufacturers of household goods and so on which have no direct involvement with motor racing other than advertising. The contribution of ELF goes much deeper than advertising. As can be imagined, for a company with oil drilling in the Sahara, gas extraction in the south of France, carbon fibre production, plastic of every sort, a thousand and one products from oil and so on, they have a very big research centre. This is situated south of Lyon, and here research is going on into just about everything of a technical nature and it is all available to the world of motor racing, or at least, to that part of motor racing that enjoys the direct support of ELF.

It was ELF that instigated the Renault-Gordini racing V6 engine which has seen Renault through F2, Le Mans and into Formula 1, and some idea of the ELF approach to business and engineering is the fact that the contract with Renault for Formula 1 was made initially for ten years. Apart from the supply of petrol and oil for the Renault Grand Prix team the ELF chemists and research engineers are constantly in touch with the Renault engineers on engine development. The support for Renault is so strong that the official name of the racing cars is actually RENAULT-ELF and we saw the co-operation of Renault and ELF two years ago at the French GP when the turbo-charged cars were devouring pistons in practice at an alarming rate, for no obvious reason. The “big guns” of ELF were there in an instant and petrol samples were rushed to the Lyon laboratories for strict analysis and a search for any likely cause from the fuel angle. There was none, the trouble eventually being traced to the piston manufacturers, but ELF were very quick to assure Renault that one avenue of investigation could be closed.

While Renault receive the full support of ELF other teams are partially supported with the supply of petrol, teams like Brabham, Lotus, Tyrrell, and McLaren running on ELF petrol with the availability of any technical resources that they may need. The Ligier team, now the Talbot team, also enjoy the support of ELF with the supply of oil and technical assistance, but whereas Renault have a long-term contract these other teams are on a year-by-year basis.

Among the activities of motor racing supported by ELF are two French driving schools, one at Magny Coors and the other at Paul Ricard and the top students from each school are taken in hand by ELF and promoted into the serious business of motor racing with an eye to finishing up in Formula 1. Contracts with drivers are strictly personal, no matter for what team they drive, and are on a year-by-year basis. Some firms like to tie a driver down for three or five years, but ELF feel this is wrong and a season’s liability is enough. If the driver is happy he will stay and if they are happy they will offer him another year contract, and then another and so on. The fact that Laffite, Tambay, Pironi and Prost are all ELF drivers speaks for itself. ELF do not believe in pouring money into the pocket of every young hopeful who thinks he can become World Champion. A young driver has to make the start himself by his own resources and initiative, preferably through one of the schools mentioned. Once he (or she) has proved himself, his future is confirmed for the power and might of ELF are then behind him. They can ease the path thto Formula 3, Formula 2 and Formula 1, or deflect it off into Le Mans and Endurance racing and so on. On the purely sporting side they encourage the activity of saloon car racing, with Renault 5 “boxes” but feel that the development of a front-wheel-drive saloon car racer is not the best way to go for arriving in Formula 1.

All this activity in motor racing and the total involvement with Renault and Formula 1 involves a lot of work and a lot of people. It comes under the department of Marketing, which embraces Sales, Publicity, Customer relations and Advertising. This department of ELF is situated in the centre of Paris and the 40 strong staff are presided over by Monsieur Francois Guiter, a very large severe looking man with the most gentle nature imaginable. He naturally exudes charm, diplomacy and a feeling of presence. His quiet and gentle nature, coupled to a firmness that is unshakeable, can often be seen in action in the Formula 1 paddock applying an air of calm over people who are becoming too agitated and excitable over nothing. Francois Gaiter is the manager of all ELF Marketing activities, not merely motor racing, and was with Caltex (France) before the formation of ELF Aquitaine. When the decision was made to associate ELF with motor racing Monsieur Guiter had no interest in motor racing and had never even seen a racing car. His outwardly severe expression breaks into a charming and friendly smile as he tells you that he likes peace and quiet as the normal order of things and “the first race I visited was the Monaco Grand Prix, I could not believe the noise and confusion”. Now he is fully accustomed suit and accepts it all as a part of the way of life that ELF have chosen to be associated with. Since that day in 1968 there has hardly been a Grand Prix without the presence of “Mr. Elf”, always dressed correctly like a normal business man. Not for him the razz-ma-tazz of sponsorship with everyone decked out in suits-of-lights like circus clowns, plastered with company advertising. In fact the only way you know that Francois Guiter or his assistants have any connection with ELF is to look at their official FISA armbands which merely say ELF.

For ELF motor racing is a technical exercise, a research and development activity from which they can benefit in their continued search to improve their products. An activity from which mutual benefit can be gained by those doing it and those supporting it. This is the outlook of the big manufacturers who are in racing, like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Renault and Talbot, as well as Porsche, BMW, Honda and Toyota who are coming in. ELF make no bones about the fact that if Mr. Ecclestone and Mr. Mosley want to turn Formula 1 into a public spectacle and an entertainment above all else, with no thought for the future other than money-making then they will pull out. If ELF pulled out of Formula 1 on a matter of principle rather than cost. then Formula 1 would die, for a lot of other industrial support behtnd the scenes would go with them. As things are at present ELF are fairly happy with the overall scene, though feel there are many details that could be tidied up, but Guiter’s personal surprise with the world of Formula 1 is the virtual lack of forward planning. He finds that mast people can only think a year or two ahead, when he has been used to industrial engineering in which 25 year plans are quite normal. He finds that many people in Formula 1 seem to live by the day, and shakes his head sadly at the thought, for he cannot take such people very seriously. ELF are very serious people for if they were not they would not have risen to the third largest industrial group in France in such a short time. — D.S. J.