Mercedes-Benz won the recent Indianapolis 500 with an invincible display of German power, right? Wrong. What Mercedes did was to buy its way into the winner's circle through a side door marked 'British technology'. Competition success is rarely what it seems these days.

As motor-racing fans know, the Penskes that dominated this year's Indy 500 were made in Poole, Dorset. And although their 1,000bhp engines carried the Mercedes name, they were conceived, designed and built for the race by Ilmor Engineering at Brixworth, Northamptonshire. Mercedes's master-stroke came from an accountant's pen.

It paid for the development costs of an engine made by a firm with a remarkable record in the US. Bearing the name of its former client, Chevrolet, it had won six Indy 500s on the trot. Mercedes gambled that Ilmor could make it seven.

Whatever the (undisclosed) cost, Mercedes, which also bought Chevrolet's 20 per cent stake in Ilmor, got a bargain. The Penskes trounced the opposition in front of a television audience of hundreds of millions. It was the motor-racing coup of the decade.

Mercedes used to design and build its own competition cars, and race them with military precision and conspicuous success. But the cost was astronomical and the brain drain huge, to the detriment of other development programmes. Now, Mercedes concedes that it is too big, bureaucratic and inflexible to meet the fast-moving demands of top-level motor sport on its own. It has taken the path of other makers seeking to boost image and sales through motor sport - entrusting the job to experts.

Penske be will running Mercedes-badged Ilmor engines throughout the IndyCar series next year, as Sauber does in Formula 1 now. Another specialist, AMG, is responsible for the spectacular Mercedes racing saloons that draw huge crowds to the German Touring Car Championship, plus an international television audience estimated at 60 million.

Ford has approached motor racing in this way for decades. Half the cars competing in the US Nascar saloon-car racing series (which has a bigger following in the States than Formula 1 or IndyCar) masquerade as Fords, although they have little in common with production models except body panels.

The front-running Ford Mondeos in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) are closer to the real thing than their Nascar counterparts, even though they use Mazda engines developed by Cosworth and are prepared and raced by an outside specialist - Coventry-based Andy Rouse Engineering. On a higher plane, engines bearing Ford's logo are front runners in Formula 1 and IndyCar; there's a Ford V8 in Michael Schumacher's Benetton, another in the Lola of 1993 Indy champion Nigel ManseIl. Both are designed and made by Northampton-based Cosworth Engineering, Ilmor's great rival and

inspiration.

Renault's competition activities roughly mirror Ford's in Europe, but its engineers are more closely involved. The French giant's Formula 1 racing engine, used by the Williams and Ligier teams, was designed and built by an in-house cell staffed by up to 150 specialists. Peugeot's Formula 1 engine is also an inside job. Like Renault, Peugeot stops short of building the cars on grounds of cost and competence: McLaren does that for them.

For the same reason that every car competing in this year's Indy 500, the US's biggest sporting event, was made in Britain, Fiat, owner of Ferrari, also came here: its major design centre is in a suburb of Guildford, in Surrey. No other country has an engineering infrastructure so finely tuned to motor sport. 'Great Britain is an island full of specialists, an ideal place to perfect racing-car technology,' says Mario Illen, co- founder with Paul Morgan of Ilmor Engineering.

Among the British Touring Car Championship entries, the Alfa Romeo 155 was built by the company's motor-sport division, Alfa Corse; and Peugeot claims to have developed the 405 racer in- house (with a little outside help), using a small but historically successful competition department.

Renault's BTCC Laguna racers, prepared and run by Renault Dealer Racing, also depended on factory expertise at the prototype design stage. BMW Motorsport acts as an umbrella for its racing activities: Motorsport is responsible for design, but the cars are built and campaigned by outside specialists such as Schnitzer, which is behind the BTCC campaign. All the other teams in the series employ outside specialists: Volvo relies on TWR, Toyota on the Toms team, Mazda on RD Motorsport and Zytec. Janspeed Engineering is responsible for Nissan's entry, and the Mallock team for Vauxhall's Cavaliers.

Whether competition success sells cars is open to question: Lancia's six consecutive rallying world titles did nothing for its British wing. And racing certainly no longer proves that a winning 'maker' is technically superior - merely that it has spent its money better.

(Photograph omitted)

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