Delirium Tremens

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The deal of the decade?

Footwork and Porsche are now counting the cost (and the embarrassment) of rash promises and wishful thinking.

The laughter, it has to be said, cannot have been lost on the luminaries of either Porsche or Footwork, that day in April when we attended the presentation of the new Footwork FA12. It was a typical new F1 car launch, with the usual fanfares and hopes set against the background of Porsche’s lavish Reading facility. All very impressive, very plausible. Nothing to provoke amusement there.

It was when Hans Metzger rose to tell us about his latest F1 engine that the mirth began. It is important to bear in mind that this is the man who created, among others things, the TAG Porsche turbo V6 which swept all before it during the apogee of its McLaren reign from 1984 to 1985, and battled strongly with the Honda V6 for another two seasons.

Important, because the moment eyes were set on his V12 in Suzuka the previous year, few could believe just how many of the basic tenets of F1 engine design appeared to have been forgotten. “When we were first shown the plans for it, I knew it was going to be big by the amount of time it took to unfold them!” said one laconic F1 designer. “When we saw it, we thought Porsche had built a truck engine,” said another. They were cruel, but basically right. Compared to Yamaha’s V12, also displayed in the Suzuka paddock, it was a giant. Sources spoke of an initial weight of 220 kilos, compared with around 170 for a Honda V12. And although it was a big stable, it was also woefully short on actual horses.

Metzger opened his remarks that day by denying categorically that his new baby was overweight and underpowered, then added in the same breath: “Our development programme will be aimed at reducing the engine’s weight and increasing the power.”

The laughter reached guffaw proportions among the more cynical media representatives as they took time off from fluttering in their dovecotes.

I was reminded of that episode recently when I re-read the Reuters pull of a statement issued by Porsche in Stuttgart in September. It said that the company would return to F1 in mid-1992, and that it still wanted to be part of the Grand Prix circuit. The interesting bit was the rider ‘but only with a competitive engine and a competitive team’ (my italics). That smacked of the pot calling the kettle black, for after the abysmal performance of the engine it ill behoved Porsche to start slinging mud at Footwork, whatever the latter’s failings might have been.

By Suzuka the marriage between the Stuttgart company and Wataru Ohashi’s Footwork organisation was finally over, but only after a great deal of talking to untangle the legal side. If I’d spent the better part of $20M on an engine that is basically two TAG V6s mated together, and had seen it race only six times (all of them bad), I think I’d be a mite put out, too.

If there is a lesson to all this unhappy saga — and make no mistake, unhappy it most certainly has been — it has to be that although people such as Ron Dennis make it all seem easy at the front of F1, it certainly isn’t. Jack Oliver, principal of Ohashi’s team, admits he made mistakes when putting the deal together. He is not, shall we say, a man conspicuous for his levels of success in F1, but he does very nicely, thank you. Footwork is one of the few teams currently unaffected by the cold draught of recession sweeping through the senior racing category’s portals, and had the necessary money to burn. It certainly went up in flames.

“I signed it before I saw the actual engine. I came away believing I’d done the F1 deal of the decade, based on Porsche’s past performance. Can you blame me?”

For once, Jack, no. Like Dennis in 1983, he believed he had enlisted the technical resources of one of the few European companies that seemed to possess the potential and the will to take on the Japanese. And based on the performance of the TAG turbo, who indeed could have blamed him for thinking he had pulled a real stroke? The problem was the timescale, allied to the naivete of Porsche’s senior motorsport management.

“Our partnership just didn’t reach the targets we had outlined for a development year. Not at all,” says Porsche’s motorsport PR Manfred Jantke with evident embarrassment. “The elements seemed to be there: Footwork had a modern new factory, we had our facilities. We had a reasonable budget. But the time-frame was wrong. When the deal was signed with Footwork our engine was just an embryo.

“The FA12 did not appear until late April. There was just too much optimistic, wishful thinking. On both sides.”

Jantke is a racer, a man who has been at the centre of Porsche’s motorsport activities for many years. The embarrassment clearly hurts somebody more used to the sharp end of the grid.

“I say that you cannot blame any one person for a bad job. The contract was made and signed but there was no realistic time base. The second problem is that the Porsche engine was designed and developed outside of the car. We had no idea when it was designed where it would end up. We now know that the modern F1 car is so sensitive that the engine and chassis must be designed and developed in parallel at any moment. That was a major weakness in our package.”

It is also something that any keen student of F1 could have told Porsche years ago. Sadly, some people learn lessons the hard way. Whether personal blame can be attached or not, Dr Uhlrich Bez, head of the motorsport side of the company, was removed from his job with great speed recently, and is generally adjudged to be the man carrying the can for the disaster by Porsche insiders. On him has fallen the blame for being too optimistic, and for under-estimating the current stakes in F1. Even by the standards with which Porsche was familiar up until 1987, things have moved on at rapid pace, and Dr Bez was adjudged to have acted precipitously by his seniors in committing so soon to a racing programme.

None of this has done Porsche’s image any good, just as it didn’t at the end of 1962 when the company withdrew from its first, quasi-successful F1 campaign just as Dan Gurney felt it was beginning to make some serious progress. Within racing, where memories of the abortive CART campaign are still all too fresh, or in the roadcar marketplace, where 944s sit by the unsold fieldful, Porsche is now fast losing credibility. Were it not for the underlying arrogance of that April press call and that press statement, the disaster might have been treated more leniently. As it is, the racing world thinks Porsche has shot itself in the foot. The point is not lost on Jantke, nor on the urbane Max Welti, on whose shoulders ultimate responsibility for the motorsport side now rests.

“All of this has hurt Porsche very, very much,” admits the former. “Motorsport is the most important ambassador for what Porsche can do, and for the past 40 years we have had a high reputation. There has been considerable damage, enormous damage and loss of face for Porsche.”

Now, like the bewildered spouse in a broken marriage, Porsche is trying to pick up the pieces. The oil surge problem that beset the V12 when it was installed in the Footwork FA12 (but not, interestingly, when it was used initially in the A11C) has finally been cured and the cars achieved more than a GP distance in testing at Paul Ricard in September. They were, however, still no faster than their interim siblings which were powered by a near 25 year-old Cosworth engine.

“The FA12 was the front half of a Camel and the rear half of a horse! The car was designed by Alan Jenkins and we ended up grafting on the rear end of Ross Brawn’s old design,” Oliver points out, at the same time admitting that Footwork has had its own problems during the season. Nevertheless, the lack of sparkle of the latest Porsche V12 has again embarrassed Porsche considerably. Where Honda can apparently create an all-new version of its RA121E between the British and Hungarian GPs, Porsche has struggled all season to cure an inherent problem, and there is still no sign of the promised lighter unit originally intended to race at Suzuka. Now, we are told, such development has fallen into the 1992 programme.

Almost certainly Porsche will now pull out of racing, to conduct a much-needed post mortem, and the talk is of a full return with another team by 1993. As Footwork moves on to Honda/Mugen V10 power and tries to forget the disappointment of what should have been Jack Oliver’s triumphant year, Porsche is giving Welti the space to plan for the future. This time, the engine will be designed in consultation with the designer of the intended team, so the package can be integrated fully. Metzger will once again go through the monthly ‘arguments’ he once enjoyed in the days he worked with John Barnard. Like Jantke, Welti is a racer, and the main Board has signalled its intention to stay in the arena and let him fight, rather than turn tail and run barefoot on the jagged shards of its credibility.

That, at least, is a start.– DJT

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