Almanack: Driven man of power politics

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The Independent Online
A MISSIVE arrives from the McLaren-Peugeot grand prix team. Its principal contents are an interview with Jean Pierre Jabouille, the erstwhile Formula One driver now in charge of Peugeot Sport. The main thrust of the document is that 'McLaren-Peugeot cars rank with the best in Formula One'.

This is undoubtedly true when the cars remain in one piece. So far this season, though, their Peugeot engines have displayed a certain fragility, a tendency to succumb to mechanical indigestion during races. The team has not won a grand prix this season.

The most recent incidence was at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Martin Brundle's McLaren-Peugeot developed dyspepsia on the starting grid and expired with a loud burp and a spectacular blaze before it had gone 100 yards. Not pleasing for Brundle at his home grand prix, and not a terrific advertisement for the staying power of Peugeot engines, you might think.

But no. M Jabouille is at pains to point out that despite the flames and smoke and apparent lack of motivational power, what occurred was not an engine problem at all. 'Absolument non]' he claims. 'We started it up again after the race and there was nothing wrong with it]' (He's fond of exclamation marks.) But the flames and the smoke? 'Just oil spread on to the glowing exhaust system, nothing more.'

Silly us. And silly old Martin for leaping out just because of a little inferno. What was the problem, then, Jean Pierre? 'Thinking he was doing the right thing, Brundle allowed his engine to idle. Oil built up in the casing and, when he pressed the throttle for the start, the overpressure drove the accumulated oil out through the gaskets.' Of course. It was the driver, not the engine. No doubt McLaren's test driver, the Frenchman Philippe Alliot, whom Peugeot have been pushing as a replacement for Brundle in the race team, would not have made such an elementary mistake.

Why isn't Philippe in the car, then, Jean Pierre? 'We are faced with a cut-and-dried situation,' the Peugeot boss opines. 'The English teams do not think much of the French drivers.' About as much, in fact, as the English drivers think of the French engines.