If anyone is wondering how serious is Mercedes' involvement in motor racing today, they should note the reaction of the firm's public relations manager, Bernd Harling, when I speculated that, "if Mercedes wins at Le Mans next year . . . ". He cut me short: "When Mercedes wins at Le Mans next year!"
From that source, I thought I should take serious note. Harling is a member of Mercedes' race committee, along with Dr Herman Hiereth and aerodynamicist Rudiger Faul, and the impression given now is that no effort will be spared to take all the laurels away from Jaguar. Peter Sauber has a handshake agreement (surely as honourable as Jackie Stewart's was with Ken Tyrrell) to continue to the end of 1990, when we expect the current Group C to expire, and no decision has yet been taken beyond that.
Many people expect an announcement at any time that Mercedes will return to Formula One, but Harling is determined to dampen these rumours: "We will decide this fall if we want to be involved in motor racing beyond 1990, and if so at what level. You needn't expect an announcement about Formula One because I doubt we'll make one.
"Logically we would have to decide, whether to build a 3.5-litre racing engine, which appears to be necessary to remain in World Championship racing in 1991, and set to work on it. However, a sports-car engine would not be the same as a Formula One engine, but we'd hope we can postpone that decision."
It was suggested that Mercedes might prefer to remain in the field of sports-cars, competing against other manufacturers, rather than in Formula One which is much more about personalities — though the German Press is stating, not even in kind terms, that Mercedes is wasting its time competing in Group C and should face its responsibility to enter Formula One.
Harling also mentioned that "Indy is something else on the agenda", in the sense that an American racing programme is under discussion, and linked rumours of McLaren 's involvement with this. Interesting, then, that McLaren designer Steve Nichols should have spent the weekend at Spa, attending team briefings as well.
It hardly seems likely they were talking CART racing, but entirely probable that Nichols was assessing the Group C effort, and preparing to check the design of the C10 in detail. Already designed by Leo Ress, this new Sauber will have a composite-materials chassis, new territory for Sauber and Mercedes. Any suggestions by Nichols about improving the design, in any way, would be very welcome at this time, and I would read no more than that into the visit.
Nichols would also be interested in examining Mercedes' 5-litre V8 engine, which will have four-valve cylinder-heads next year. It will inevitably be a little heavier, perhaps more bulky too, and might have an effect on the C10's handling.
The more efficient four-valve heads are now an official part of Mercedes' future model policy (even diesel engines will have them in time), and the new SL sports-car which we expect to see at Geneva next Spring will be powered by a 24-valve in-line six-cylinder, or a 32-valve V8. The racing programme will therefore tie in nicely with the advent of new technology, although the variable inlet-valve timing which will be featured on the road cars won't be seen in the Group C model.
Since becoming closely associated with Peter Sauber's team last December, on the strong recommendation of board member Professor Dr Werner Niefer, Mercedes has been able to establish clear virtues in its presence on the track, enhanced by success. Defeat by Jaguar in the team's championship will not have come as too much of a surprise — the real revelation of the season has been Sauber's competitive speed and consistency all season — but this title will be a main objective in 1989, along with winning at Le Mans.
Although Mercedes and Peter Sauber handled with great dignity their late withdrawal from this year's Le Mans due to concern over tyre-safety on the Mulsanne Straight, and generally heard nothing but sympathy for their predicament, they cannot afford to be caught out again in 1989. Only a victory, or something close, will expunge the embarrassment of the events of June, and I'd expect the entire resources of Daimler-Benz to be made available.
The relationship between Mercedes and Sauber is not the same as that between Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw Racing. The former commissioned TWR to design, develop, build and race the XJR-series racing cars powered by Jaguar V12 engines, and even the power-units are wholly developed by TWR. The cars belong to Jaguar though, and the sponsors' contracts are with Jaguar.
Peter Sauber started his programme in 1985 with hidden help from certain people at Mercedes, and the Stuttgart manufacturer became involved officially only last December. Daimler-Benz produced the sponsor (AEG Olympia), further developed the twin-turbo engine, and greatly assisted with the development of the Hewland VGC transmission aided by the British company, Staffs Silent Gear Ltd.
That relationship has imperceptibly changed during the course of the season, and I judge that Mercedes is now fully in control of tectutical matters, leaving Peter Sauber, Max Welti and Dave Price to take care of the actual running of the cars. Given that level of involvement today, Mercedes could move in pretty well any direction it wanted in the next two or three years, keeping (as Bernd Harling said) its options open for as long as possible. For sure, the three-pointed star is back on the circuits now, and its profile will become ever higher in the 1990s. MLC