Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, March 24, 2000

Teams Rev Up for Battle in the Brand-Name Game


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - It will be a pitiless war to the finish line once more between the 22 drivers of the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo on Sunday. But the tribal image suggested by the disparate colors and logos on their racing overalls and cars masks an ever-growing web of cozy power-sharing relationships among many of Formula One's 11 teams. This is especially true of the engines. Often the differences under the brightly-colored hoods are smaller than team names might suggest.

As team budgets inflate to hundreds of millions of dollars, and sponsors expect ever-quicker results, team owners do everything possible to snare the full technical and financial support of car manufacturers.

''Competing is all about winning and if you have a budget that's less than others then you can't expect miracles,'' said Luciano Benetton, head of the Italian clothing company that owned the Benetton team until it was sold to Renault, the French car manufacturer, last week for $120 million

Benetton, which used an off-the-shelf engine, won a constructors' title and two drivers' titles in 1994 and 1995, but went steadily downhill as car manufacturers began to invest heavily in rival teams.

Mercedes, which bought a 40 percent interest in the McLaren team last year, and Ford, which bought the Stewart team, will spend nearly $90 million each this year on Formula One. For this to pay off, they need not only victory but marketing exclusivity. That is where the brand-name game comes in.

Renault's publicity suggested the team left Formula One in 1997. That is not quite true. After its engines dominated the 1990s with six constructors' titles and five drivers' titles, the company withdrew its name, but its engines remained. Where the engine is made by a company other than the team owner, that fact is often reflected in the team name.

When Renault decided to end its association with Formula One, the engines were renamed Mecachrome -- after the French company that actually built and serviced the engines that Renault had designed and developed. Today, they are called Playlife at Benetton, and Supertec at Arrows. Supertec is the company set up by Flavio Briatore, the former Benetton team manager, to market the engines. But Playlife is a brand name of the Benetton clothing company, and it uses the engine to advertise itself.

Briatore, who used the Renault engine at Benetton, last week brokered the sale of Benetton to Renault, and he returns as team director. Although Renault's purchase of Benetton is effective immediately, the team will not race under the Renault name until it is ready to win and reap the marketing benefits.

Yet even before the sale, the secret was only as deep as the labels. Pat Symonds, the team's technical director, this year freely spoke of how they ''worked closely with Renault to produce a Playlife engine tailor-made for the car.''

''The new Renault V-10 engines will not be ready until 2002 for racing and that is when we start with that package as the Renault team,'' said Briatore. ''Until then, we have to do our job and to be competitive as Benetton.''

After the Sauber team lost its Mercedes engine to McLaren in the mid-1990s, the team turned to Ferrari for its engine, which it calls a Petronas after its Malaysian oil company sponsor.

After Ford went from partner to whole owner of the Stewart-Ford team, it changed the name to Jaguar. Much fuss was made over Ford's nominal withdrawal from the sport after 30 years. But the specs for the Jaguar show that it is still equipped with a Ford-Cosworth engine.

Ford no longer wants to associate its name with other teams so it has ceased selling engines elsewhere. That left Minardi, an Italian team that used a Ford engine last year, without one for the coming season. Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's chief executive, helped Minardi negotiate a deal with Ford to buy Cosworth's year-old inventory of engines, along with the design and tools, for $3 million. The engine was renamed Fondmetal, after a company that belongs to Minardi's owner.

Ecclestone also helped settle another incestuous battle when the British American Racing team struck a deal with Honda Motor Co. last year to partner it after an official eight-year absence from Formula One. But, like Renault, Honda had not entirely left the sport. It had worked with Mugen-Honda, which supplies engines to the Jordan team.

Mugen-Honda, run by Hirotoshi Honda, the son of the founder of Honda, started in Formula One in 1992 by selling the 1991 Honda engine. Although they are separate companies and their engines are different, Mugen-Honda has close technical links with, and is supported, by Honda.

Whether they can both survive in Formula One is another matter. Last year Jordan won two races and finished the championship in third place while BAR did not score a single point. But at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne two weeks ago both BAR-Hondas crossed the finish line in the points, while the Jordans dropped out with technical problems.

The Prost team, which persuaded Peugeot to supply it with engines instead of the Jordan team in 1998, this year arrives at the end of its contract with the French manufacturer. A series of deals with drivers indicates the direction the team's owner, Alain Prost, is looking. His new driver is Nick Heidfeld, a young German who last year won the Formula 3000 championship for the McLaren-Mercedes junior team, and who was also a McLaren test driver.

At Prost, Heidfeld took the place of Olivier Panis, who, in turn, took Heidfeld's seat as test driver at McLaren.

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