Modern Times

Now the new Formula One season is properly up and running, the fortnightly rhythm of real racing is gradually overwhelming the political issues that filled so many column inches during the winter.

But the subtexts will still be there: Bernie Ecclestone remains determined to amend the financial structure of Formula One, with or without the participation of traditional City institutions, and despite the slow growth of his pay-per-view digital TV deals. The end of tobacco promotion in Europe looms relentlessly, notwithstanding those mass resignations from the European Commission. And the arguments bubble on about whether to restore overtaking by increasing mechanical grip (big fat slicks) and reducing aerodynamic grip (those big wings that make such good advertising hoardings) and indeed about whether frequent overtaking in a race is even desirable. FIA President Max Mosley has been quoted as saying he thinks more frequent overtaking can be confusing for the non-enthusiasts that make up the majority of F1 's world TV audience.

Another subtext which will, I believe, have a major effect on the face of Formula One Over the next decade is the ownership of motor car manufacturing across the globe. For the British public this is much in the news, as BMW persuades the Labour government to pour £200 million into helping their Rover plant at Longbridge to survive. Rover's problems sparked off a management struggle at BMW which led to the departure of both the top men: one of them, Wolfgang Reitzle, was promptly snapped up by Ford to head their Jaguar and Aston Martin divisions. Remember that BMW is returning to F1 as Williams' new engine partner - as well as running a long-distance sportscar which won the recent Sebring 12 Hours first time out - and that Ford is expected to put the Jaguar badge on its works F1 engine, and possibly on its entire relationship with Stewart Grand Prix, as early as next season.

But for us, the most significant news from a road car manufacturer has been Honda's confirmation that it will be back in Formula One next year, not just as an engine manufacturer but as a complete team. The Japanese carmaker is setting aside an eye-watering budget of £600 million over five years, and top design and team management talent has been recruited. Since 1985, when Renault and Alfa Romeo pulled the plug on their full-blown operations and became mere engine suppliers - albeit in the case of Renault an astonishingly successful one - no mainstream car manufacturer has tried to field both F1 car and engine, even if the relationship between Fiat and Ferrari has grown ever closer.

Since motor racing began it has been used as a sales and promotional tool by road car manufacturers. Henry Ford himself drove one of his cars to victory at Grosse Point in 1901, and a three-car Works team of 100hp Austins ran in the 1908 French GP. The Mercedes and Auto Union teams in Hitler's Germany provided an early example of using racing victories to enhance national prestige. But by the 1950s, when the World Championship was established, Formula One had become a discrete activity that did not really benefit, nor benefit from, the general motor industry. Alfa Romeo abandoned Grand Prix racing at the end of 1951 to concentrate on becoming a profitable road car manufacturer, while Enzo Ferrari always said he only built road cars to help finance his lust for Grand Prix glory. For Maserati, road cars were then an equally fringe activity, while Lancia found it all too expensive, handed its team to Ferrari and went back to making Aurelias.

In sports car racing, Jaguar showed how motorsport could be used to build an international brand with a string of triumphs at Le Mans, which boosted its sales figures around the world. But it was left to Mercedes Benz to be the first serious car manufacturer to take on F1. The three-pointed star arrived in mid-1954, with budgets and facilities undreamed of by the Grand Prix world, and almost inevitably carried all before it. Then, having dominated for a year and a half, the Mercedes directors considered the image-building job both of their road cars and of Germany's post-war prestige had been done, and withdrew.

The second road car manufacturer to take the F1 plunge was also German. Porsche realised that the layout of its successful small sportscars could be adapted to the 1.5-litre formula, but it only ever won one race - Dan Gurney's 1962 victory at Rouen - and soon concentrated on sportscars once more, going on to become perhaps the most successful marque of all time in that category. When it eventually returned to F1 it was as an engine builder under contract to TAG, helping McLaren to win 25 races and three drivers' championships between 1984 and 1987.

But in the mid-1960s two things happened to show that the big car makers were waking up to the importance of F1. Ford, a mighty manufacturer with a long-standing image of producing dull, cheap, dependable cars, won Le Mans and then in 1967 put its name to a Cosworth V8 which became the most successful racing engine of all time, winning 155 Grands Prix over 16 seasons. By then Ford's image had become one of building cars with very high performance per pound sterling. And in 1964 Honda, hugely successful in the motorcycle world as manufacturer and race winner but new to building cars, entered the fray for five seasons.

Ritchie Ginther won once in the transverse engined V12 car, and John Surtees once more in the more conventional Lola-chassised effort, but after Jo Schlesser was killed in their air-cooled V8 at Rouen, Honda withdrew. In overall terms the programme had been unsuccessful, but it was a significant overture to Japanese participation in F1. Honda returned in 1983 to produce some of the most powerful engines in F1, powering the World Champion five years on the trot, and its relaunch next year as a full-blown team will have much experience and heritage to draw on.

By current standards, of course, Honda is not one of the small roster of giant road car manufacturers that dominate the market. The really major players now number half a dozen: Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, VW and now Nissan-Renault. Renault, having withdrawn from F1 as an engine manufacturer at the end of 1997, was rumoured to be planning a return, but its new stake in the debt-laden Japanese giant - which makes it Nissan's biggest shareholder and effectively gives it control - has cost over £3 billion. It'll be no surprise if it's putting F1 on the back burner.

General Motors has long since turned its face against big-time involvement in motorsport even if it is spending a comparatively tiny sum on a Corvette programme to try to puncture Chrysler's Viper balloon at Le Mans. VW hopes to win Le Mans with Audi, and is talking about using racing to maintain the power of its Bentley and Lamborghini brands, but big boss Dr Piech steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any plans for F1. But Toyota is widely expected to be in F1, all guns blazing, within three years.

Ford, of course, has for more than 30 years been the biggest racing fan of all, and I have already outlined on these pages its long-term strategy: to win in F1 with the Jaguar name, in sportscar racing with the Aston Martin marque, and of course in rallying with Ford itself - a task which Colin McRae and the new Focus have set about with gusto. And of course Daimler-Chrysler is reigning F1 world champion, through the Mercedes-badged Ilmor engines that power the McLarens. There are already rumours that, in the same way that Mercedes eventually bought the performance development specialists AMG, so it will sooner or later buy into McLaren, which currently belongs 60 per cent to Mansour Ojjeh's TAG Group and 40 per cent to Ron Dennis.

So, in F1 terms, two of the Top Six are already firmly into F1, and one more will be in soon. Go down the ladder one rung to the medium-size manufacturers, and you find further involvement. Fiat owns Ferrari, and invests hugely in its F1 programme. BMW's Williams deal we've already mentioned. Peugeot is the motive force behind Prost. And then there's Honda already, through its Mugen subsidiary, making Jordan's engines. The reasons for this interest from the major car makers are obvious. The huge costs of F1 start to look like good value in marketing terms when the immense TV audiences are taken into account. If Honda's five-year budget produces race wins it will sell more Hondas - although how many more sales are needed to justify 1,600 million is a moot point.

So if F1 can maintain its global TV popularity, the loss of tobacco money won't be a problem: plenty of multinational companies will want to ride those audience figures to market their products, car makers among them.

All F1 has to do is look after the show, and keep it exciting enough to hang on to the audiences. Which reminds me: I'm not sure Max Mosley is right about overtaking...