Green, or yellow?

Mercedes will not be competing in Formula 1, either in 1992 or the foreseeable future. That was the surprise message from Mercedes-Benz AG chairman Prof Werner Niefer on November 26.

Quite plainly, Mercedes is no more obliged to participate in motor racing’s highest echelon than any other manufacturer. But it differs from other F1 absentees in that its recent behaviour was geared quite clearly to a future in the category, a discipline it hadn’t tackled since 1955.

Last summer, it hired the well-respected design skills of Dr Harvey Postlethwaite; an F1 chassis was known to be under development in Switzerland, at the base of Peter Sauber, the man whose organisation created the Group C racers which had returned Mercedes to the motorsporting limelight in recent years; it was actively developing young, Teutonic drivers within its junior Team, a major part of its assault on the Sportscar World Championship. By the end of 1991, both Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger were in F1, thanks to Mercedes-Benz’s deutschmarks.

These were not the actions of a manufacturer planning a future in touring car racing…

So why the sudden change of heart?

In its official statement, the Stuttgart giant rambled on about environmental concerns, which is a quick and easy means of scoring PR points, particularly in Germany, where the Green Party holds more political clout than anywhere else in Europe.

But where does Mercedes-Benz’s withdrawal – which also precludes any further Group C participation, despite the series’ welcome reinstatement leave Sauber, its erstwhile partner, which has an embryonic F1 car on its books? Niefer stresses that Sauber will not be left in the lurch. He would not be drawn, however, on the specific nature of any future collaboration. The Swiss is tipped still to be working towards an F1 programme under his own name in 1993, though he says that he cannot continue along that route without major commercial backing.

Could Porsche’s bitter experiences in the early part of the F1 season, and the subsequent negative publicity, have caused tremors within the Daimler-Benz boardroom? Could it be that Mercedes-Benz is merely waiting to see how such a project might fare, before agreeing to lend its proud name?

There is a precedent for this. Sauber ran Mercedes-engined sportscars long before the factory stepped in with some cash and a few pots of the famous silverpaint. It was only when Sauber had honed the sports racers to a competitive pitch that the factory lent its support . .

Perhaps that it is being too cynical. The tone of Mercedes-Benz’s statement suggests that there really is no question of a return to F1 in the near future. “We are convinced,” said Niefer. “that the real challenges for Mercedes-Benz do not arise from acquiring a good image by participating in Formula 1 racing. Especially since Formula 1 continues to be the World Championship for drivers, rather than being a competition of marques.”

Funny that nobody appears to have pointed out as much to Honda, which has squeezed great PR mileage out of its considerable F1 successes since the mid ’80s. Is it also too cynical to suggest that Mercedes has opted out of direct confrontation with Johnny-come-latelys such as Honda?

When a car manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz’s worldwide standing eschews participation in the recognised pinnacle of motor racing to concentrate on a domestic touring car programme (where, it points out, it has been able to develop compatible catalytic converters and ABS systems) someone, somewhere, will sooner or later sit up and take notice. Our feeling is that Mercedes-Benz might have couched its statement in terms that seemed less negative in regard to the benefits of a category of racing which has helped it build the reputation in which it is still happy to trade.

If a giant such as M-B spurns F1 on ‘environmental grounds’. FISA needs to make absolutely certain that it is equipped to cope with whatever political pressure may, as a result, be brought to bear on the sport. SA