Motor racing: Pollock primed to rock the boat

British American Racing's new machine is stirring up politics of envy in the world of Formula One
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The Independent Online
IN FORMULA ONE, waiting around is a way of life. Most of the time the reason is some high-technical hitch, the sort of nuts-and-bolts problem that afflicts even the best-prepared outfit.

But, at Silverstone this week, the British American Racing team's unveiling of the latest entrant into the grand prix circus was delayed for several hours not by some decent engineering reason, but by the fact a few sponsorship stickers had failed to arrive in time for the photo-shoot scheduled to take place before the car took to the circuit. And until those stickers arrived, the garage door stayed closed, with the car shrouded in a tailored blanket.

The cynics loved it. "Says it all, doesn't it," a Formula One veteran said. "Look over there." He pointed down the pit lane, at a distant group of men in pale blue bending intently over a stationary racing car. "There's the Benetton boys, getting on with it, getting the laps under their belt. But that other lot are in the garage, worrying about having their pictures taken. To me, that says everything."

British American Racing's car, the BAR-Supertec 01, has yet to turn a wheel in anger. It makes its race debut a week on Sunday, in the Australian Grand Prix. But already in their short existence the team have managed to attract a degree of resentment remarkable even by the standards of Formula One, where the competition sometimes seems to be fuelled by a particularly volatile blend of spite and jealousy.

"There's a lot of people in the pit lane," a member of another team said, glancing over at the closed door, "who'd be happy to see that lot fall flat on their faces. They're working to a different agenda. It's all about selling fags, isn't it?"

That may seem unfair. To an extent, almost everyone in Formula One is there to sell fags. In the sense that all the top teams rely on the subsidy of tobacco companies, British American Racing are no different from McLaren, Ferrari, Williams, Jordan or Benetton. It's just the way they've gone about it that puts other people's backs up.

Their managing director, Craig Pollock, has never been one to bother about popularity contests. A 43-year-old Scot with piercing blue eyes and a deceptively relaxed manner, he came into the sport as the manager of Jacques Villeneuve, whom he had taught to ski at school in Switzerland before shepherding him through his ascent to the world championship.

Pollock brought a hard and unsentimental business head to bear on the matter of putting together a team that could succeed in a ferociously competitive sport.

Having negotiated a pounds 250m five-year deal with British American Tobacco, negotiated a deal with the designer and constructor Adrian Reynard, and secured Villeneuve's signature as the No 1 driver, he bought the necessary entry ticket into the closed shop of Formula One teams by paying Ken Tyrrell a sum of around pounds 15m for his outfit, which had been languishing among the also-rans for several years, and relocating the new enterprise to a purpose-built facility in Brackley, down the road from Silverstone.

As a result of the deal, last season was supposed to be Tyrrell's swan- song, a lap of honour for a man whose enthusiasm and sportsmanship had graced the game since the late 1960s. But Pollock's insistence on utilising the services of Ricardo Rosset, a hopelessly uncompetitive Brazilian driver who bought his seat with a large amount of personal sponsorship money, was enough to alienate the old patron, whose ability to spot embryonic driving talent had always been his greatest asset. Tyrrell quit midway through the season, which upset a lot of people who thought that this was not the way that he should have been made to go.

Opinions stiffened in mid-summer when Adrian Reynard, a gifted designer whose cars enjoy the distinction of having won their first race in every formula they have entered, said that he saw no reason why they shouldn't emulate the feat in the highest category of all. That was when the hard men started to put the boot in.

"Formula One is a bit more difficult than that," Patrick Head, the forthright technical director of the Williams team, said. "A lot of the people at BAR have come from other teams, but if they're able to design a new car and run at the front straight away, it would surprise me."

Ron Dennis, whose McLarens won last year's world championship, was similarly dismissive. "They'll find it somewhat more difficult than they anticipated," he said. "It isn't that easy." Michael Schumacher, the double world champion, also weighed in. "It takes a long time to get a team running right," he observed. "It took us [Ferrari] a long time, and it will take them just as long. It would be more than a surprise if they got around our cars."

For a brand-new team, winning your very first grand prix would bring amazing publicity. And it's not impossible. When Mercedes-Benz returned to Formula One in 1954 after a 15-year absence, Fangio drove their spectacular streamlined car to victory at Rheims first time out. And in 1977 the Wolf- Ford of Jody Scheckter took a maiden victory in the Argentinian Grand Prix, the season's opening race and the team's debut.

"It was all a bit different then," said Harvey Postlethwaite, who designed Scheckter's Wolf and is directing Honda's Formula One project. "We had a very small team, but it didn't matter. We had a very good driver. That was probably the single biggest ingredient. He was a star. The car wasn't bad, and the engine was a Ford, the same as everybody else's, except Ferrari."

Scheckter had an unspectacular qualifying session in Buenos Aires, and started the race from the sixth row of the grid. But by the end of the first lap he was up to fifth place, and a few retirements gave him the lead by three-quarter distance. The celebrations were long and loud.

"But the gap between the newly arrived and the long established is probably far greater now than it was then," Postlethwaite continued. "In those days, if you had some bright engineers and a reasonable budget, there was enough scope within the regulations to use your imagination in building a car. You could come along and get well up the grid. Nowadays it's much more difficult because everyone's got the resources and everyone's doing an enormous amount of development work. I won't say it can't be done, but it's a lot, lot more difficult."

Pollock seems to have made his team's task even harder by his insistence on using the cars to promote not the customary one but two of his sponsors' brands of cigarette. When the cars were first shown to the media, at the beginning of January, they were painted in different fag-packet livery. Villeneuve's was in the red and white of Lucky Strike while that of his team mate, the 22-year-old Brazilian Ricardo Zonta, was in the blue and yellow of State Express 555. Pollock knew that this contravened the FIA regulations stating that teams must paint their cars in similar livery, but he announced his intention to challenge the principle, and to take it to the European Commission if necessary.

This affront to the governing body brought a series of sharp responses from its president, Max Mosley, who had been suspicious of Pollock and Villeneuve since the latter's uncompromisingly critical remarks about changes to the technical regulations a year ago. Mosley accused BAR of "sticking two fingers up at the FIA and the whole Formula One establishment".

The FIA's arbitration procedure found against Pollock, and ordered him to pay legal costs of about half a million pounds. Further, he was summoned to explain his conduct to the World Council, the FIA's disciplinary body, on 12 March, a week after the opening race at Melbourne.

Their car's initial tests were conducted against this background of bickering. Unsurprisingly, it suffered a series of teething troubles, which cheered up the cynics. But in general its performance was creditable, suggesting that Villeneuve would at least be able to put up a respectable showing in the season's early races.

As a result of the FIA's summons, this week's launch of the new livery - in which the cars are painted with one design on the right-hand side and the other on the left - was accompanied by a sudden blanket refusal to talk to the media. Although the team was supposed to have taken a vow of omerta, one team member was willing to speak about his relief at the decision to unify the paintwork, meaning that the team will be able to travel to the races with one spare car rather than two, thus simplifying the logistics.

The biggest problem the team faces, he said, is sorting out its internal organisation. "Practically everybody here has worked for one of the big teams. They're used to those teams' well-established structures and relationships, where everybody knows what his function is without even having to think about it. We're still at the stage of saying: `Hey, I thought you were supposed to be doing that.' It'll come, but it'll take time."

Villeneuve, he thought, was benefitting from a more positive atmosphere than the Canadian had experienced in the demanding environment of the Williams team, where drivers thought to be underperforming are often harshly criticised by the management.

But still, although they won't talk about it, the possible consequences of next month's rendezvous with the World Council threaten to overshadow their debut. "Whatever happens to them at the FIA," one observer said, "whatever is said to them and whatever punishment is handed out, they should do nothing. They should just say: `Yes, sir. No, sir. Very good, sir.' They'll just have to put up with it." For those who aspire to win, the first lesson may be in how to lose.