Modern Times

If a litre of optimism is worth a second a lap, a lot of lap records will be broken this year. As each Formula One team has launched its new car to the press we’ve been subjected to buckets of fine words and dry ice. And the more there is to prove, the more theatrical the launch – none more so than for this season’s completely new team, British American Racing.

Actually, these days no team is ever completely new in F1. You no longer gain admittance to the club without taking over someone else’s membership card. The eight-figure sum BAR paid for the Tyrrell team had not much to do with Tyrrell’s assets or its recent results, and everything to do with the value of getting through Bernie’s front door. Plus, you don’t get off the ground today without being an entrepreneur who speaks F1’s special language, and has the budget to bring on board the people who already know the ropes – drivers, designers, managers, engineers, truckies.

Craig Pollock, the man who persuaded British American Tobacco that they wanted their own racing team, understands all that very well. While looking after Jacques Villeneuve’s interests, he has made himself a shrewd expert on the politics and the hidden agendas. Villeneuve himself, despite a difficult year at Williams as reigning champion, remains one of the half-dozen best drivers in the world: and no-one else in history has ever won the World Championship in only his second Formula One season.

Reynard Racing Cars arrives in F1 with the extraordinary credential of having won its first race in every formula in which it has competed, from Formula Ford up to CART – although Adrian Reynard and Rick Gome now play down a lighthearted remark of Adrian’s that their goal is to do the same in F1. Malcolm Oastler, who designed the BAR 001, has a string of winning F3000 and CART cars to his credit, and also on board are ex-Jordan design engineer Andy Green and the talented former Ferrari aerodynamicist Willem Toet. Walk around BAR’s smart new factory in Brackley and you’ll see many more familiar faces, like team manager Greg Field who’s arrived from Benetton, race engineer Jock Clear and team physio Erwin Gollner, both of whom followed Villeneuve from Williams.

I don’t think the BAR boys will maintain Reynard’s record and win their first F1 race. But, as I forecast elsewhere in this issue, I do think they could be challenging for best team in Division Two which means fighting for third place in the Constructors’ Championship with Jacques’ and Jock’s old team, with Andy Green’s old team, and with Greg Field’s old team. If they give as good as they get in that fight, they will have made a startling debut.

Mind you, achieving the miracle and winning their first F1 race would not be a first. Back in 1977, Wolf was no less of a new team when Walter Wolf parted with Frank Williams and hired Harvey Postlethwaite to build a new car, Peter Warr to run it and Jody Scheckter to drive it. Round One was the Argentine Grand Prix, and Jody won. After two more victories, he finished second in the World Championship and fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, quite a feat for a single-car team.

More recently, Jordan’s 1991 debut season was remarkable. They came fifth in the constructors’ championship, and they didn’t beat that until their eighth year Which serves to underline another aspect of new-team-ology: however good or bad your first year is, your second will be worse. More is expected of you, yet usually less is achieved. Jordan, Stewart, Sauber and Prost have all followed this pattern and gone backwards in Year Two.

Of course, the road to Grand Prix glory is littered with shattered hopes, and many’s the trumpeted F1 launch which has failed to deliver what it promised. In the last decade, until F1 effectively became a closed shop, many teams have come and gone, some bravely, some ingloriously: like AGS, Andrea Moda, Coloni, Dallara, Eurobrun, Forti, Lamborghini, Larrousse, Life, Lola, March, Onyx, Osella, Pacific, Rial, Sirntek, Zakspeed. During that same period Prost has bought Ligier, but only Sauber, Jordan and Stewart have launched as all-new teams and lived to tell the tale.

During the half-century of the World Championship, no disaster is more notorious than the original BRM, that monstrously complex supercharged V16 machine which was going to bring technological and sporting glory to post-war Britain. It finally made its debut, 18 months late, at Silverstone in August 1950 and broke its transmission on the start line. By the time the car had been made half-way raceworthy, the rules had changed. It wasn’t until ’59 that a BRM finally won a proper Grand Prix, with the Championship title coming three years later courtesy of Graham Hill.

France’s post-war Grand Prix effort, the 1947 government-backed CTA-Arsenal, also broke on the grid of its first race, and never reappeared. And who remembers the Bellasi, the Aston-Butterworth, the Scirocco or the Klenk? Some, like the Maki, never started a race. Some that did didn’t get far: it is the Shannon that surely holds the record for the shortest race career of any F1 car, achieving less than a mile of one Grand Prix.

In F1 you look ahead, not back, so I doubt if anyone at BAR is aware of any parallels with a team launched, with similarly excellent credentials, in 1963. Like BAR, and like BRM and CTA, its name consisted simply of three initials: ATS (no connection with the 1980s German team.)

AT’S’s coup was to hire an ex-World Champion as their Number One driver, Phil Hill, who, like Villeneuve, had won his title two seasons before and hailed from North America. A new factory was set up in a town beginning with B (Bologna) and the team was also built around some highly experienced and successful F1 people, including designer Carlo Chiti and team manager Romolo Tavoni who both came from Ferrari. But the project was a disaster: the cars only appeared at five races, were never remotely competitive, and almost always broke down. At the end of the year the backers walked away and the team was no more.

Having had some fun with history, I must concede that there are far more differences between BAR and ATS than there are similarities. From the start British American Racing has operated like a properly-funded outfit that means business, and clearly it intends to win. But it’s a hundred times more difficult to break into F1 now than it was back in ATS’s day, and a thousand times more expensive, and Mr Pollock knows too much to think anyone will give him an easy ride.

Not that he minds: he relishes a fight. And already he’s deep in one, with the FIA. Sponsorship today is all about branding, and part of Pollock’s original proposal to the tobacco giant was that they should use each car to promote any brand they wanted, depending on which marketing strategies were operating in which countries at different times. So at the launch Villeneuve’s car was in the strident red and white colours of one cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, while team-mate Ricardo Zonta’s was in the more sober blue colours, familiar from World Championship rallying, of 555.

Not acceptable, says the FIA: we now have a rule that says both cars in a team must look substantially the same. I can paint my cars how I like, says Pollock, and I’m challenging your right to stop me. The dispute is being heard by international lawyers in Lausanne as I write, and BAR has earned already a place in the history books as the team that challenged the governing body’s authority before it had even run a race.

But, however that argument turns out, it’ll all be forgotten the moment the red lights go out over the Melbourne start line. There’ll be no more fine words and dry ice: it’ll be time for real motor racing. As Jack Brabham used to say back when a race began with a local dignitary brandishing the national flag: When the flag drops, the bullshit stops.

That’s when we’ll find out, in the vast launch spectrum that spans Wolf to Shannon, exactly where BAR belongs. Good luck to them.