Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, August 8, 1997

Formula One Adieu: Renault on Last Lap

Can Peugeot Race Into the Gap?

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - A driver is only the most visible part of a Formula One team. Behind him are the mechanics, the tire makers and the car constructors. All are driven by the engine manufacturers.

Just as drivers come and go and in between dance between teams, so too do the engine makers. This season marks the long farewell of one of the best-established and most successful, Renault, while Peugeot, a relative newcomer, is still struggling to make its mark. But the rivalry between the two French manufacturers means that Renault's retirement from Formula One is not entirely what it seems.

As this Sunday's Grand Prix of Hungary carries the season well into its second half, Peugeot is still chasing its first victory, while Renault's chances of saying adieu with its sixth constructors' title are beginning to fade. The two drivers in the Williams-Renault team trail the total of the Ferrari rivals by nine points. The Benetton team, also powered by Renault, lies third, a further 16 points back and unlikely to catch Ferrari.

Two weeks ago a Jordan-Peugeot driven by Giancarlo Fisichella, a young Italian, led the German race, until it was passed by a Renault-powered Benetton driven by Gerhard Berger, the veteran Austrian. The Jordan then blew a tire, and dropped out.

Berger gave Renault its second victory in a row, sixth of the year and 91st since it started in Formula One in July 1977. Only Ferrari and Ford engines have more victories, with 111 and 174 respectively. Ford celebrated its 30th anniversary in the sport in June, while Ferrari has been racing since the modern championship era began in 1950.

In June 1996 when Renault announced its forthcoming withdrawal, it said its last goal was to win a total of 100 Grand Prix. For that, it needed to win 20 of the 25 remaining races. With only seven races left, Renault can no longer do it.

''The 1997 season is a lot more difficult than we had imagined,'' said Jean-Jacques Delaruwiere, Renault Sport's spokesperson. He said that winning another title has now become ''more important than the 100 victories.''

The German race showed just how competitive things have become for engine manufacturers. The top five finishers all used different engines: Renault, Ferrari, Mercedes, Mugen-Honda and Peugeot. A Ford and a Yamaha also finished. The eighth contender, the privately-built Hart, did not.

Peugeot has faced an up-hill battle since it entered Formula One with McLaren in 1994. That year it achieved eight podium finishes, but never won. McLaren, which had been the dominant team in the 1980s, then broke its contract to sign with Mercedes, and Peugeot signed for three years with the small Jordan team.

The Peugeot is now considered the most powerful engine in Formula One. But it takes more than raw power on the straight to win a race. Engines must deliver high-performance in all track situations - flexibility has been one of the Renault's biggest assets. And they must marry well with the chassis.

After three disappointing seasons, Peugeot was close to quitting this year. Then Alain Prost, the four-time world champion, persuaded it to join him in a so-called all-French team. Last February Prost bought the dying Ligier team (powered by Mugen-Honda engines), and signed a partnership with Peugeot that will run from 1998 to 2000.

This team, says Jacques Calvet, President of Peugeot SA, will have what it takes to win a title next year. He said, however, that the goal was to be world champions, ''within the three years of our first collaboration with Prost.''

This season the Prost team lies fifth in the constructors' table, behind Ferrari, Williams, Benetton and McLaren - who between them have won half the constructors' titles since 1950.

In January, when news leaked out that Peugeot would sign with Prost, Renault announced that it would still supply engines to Formula one, but under another name - Mecachrome - and at a price.

''For 20 years Renault Sport was what you call a cost center,'' said Delaruwiere. ''So if Renault Sport wants to continue to survive, then it's going to have to make money, just like any commercial subsidiary of Renault.''

Mecachrome - a French company that has assembled the Renault engines

for 20 years - will buy the license to the engine and rent it and its technicians to teams for about 100 million francs ($16 million) a season. Renault technicians will in turn be rented to Mecachrome.

It is customary for an engine constructor to offer free engines to top teams, as Renault does to Benetton and Williams, in the hope of obtaining victories and the publicity that goes with them. Weaker teams usually have to pay for their engines.

Victory in Formula One gives an engine manufacturer a prestigious image in the marketplace, and as Calvet said, it also helps the company by providing a ''motivation of the technicians, engineers, and workers.''

But not even the best engine may attract top teams if they have to pay for it. While Williams has been unable to find another engine supplier and has signed with Mecachrome for two years, Benetton is still negotiating with Mecachrome, and has been in contact with other engine manufacturers.

Is Peugeot pleased to see the Renault name disappearing at the end of the season? ''For us it's important to show our own technology and to make it win against the other top constructors,'' said Jean-Claude Lefebvre, Peugeot's spokesperson. ''We're not in Formula One to beat Renault. We're in Formula One to become world champion.''

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