Racing: Ford-Stewart can challenge Ferrari

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The Independent Online
GIBBY'S, Old Montreal. Friday evening. They cheered Jackie Stewart when he walked into the fashionable restaurant with his family, and patrons who knew him only by reputation rose to sing a spontaneous verse of Happy Birthday. And indeed it was. The triple world champion was in the mood for celebration. It was his 'fifty-tenth' birthday, son Mark had just made Jackie and his wife Helen grandparents for the fourth time - and there was the small matter the previous day of the sale of Stewart Grand Prix to Ford Motor Company.

You can take rumours of pounds 100m with sufficient salt to empty Bonneville, but either way Stewart was not looking too badly on it as he dined.

Ford first discussed collaboration with him and his elder son Paul four years ago, when the struggling motor giant appealed for guidance during the flight back to Detroit from Montreal. The result was the Stewarts' Proposal for Partnership, and the formation of Stewart Grand Prix. Ford pumped a significant amount of money into the venture - including, it is thought, the construction of the team's new 80,000 sq.ft headquarters - but precise figures have never been vouchsafed. In due course it was always expected that Ford would take a 100 percent shareholding, in line with the growing trend for car manufacturers to acquire existing specialist race teams, but the timing has been the surprise.

"It has become increasingly clear to us that the way forward in Formula One is to maximise your firepower," Stewart said. "We believe that selling to Ford has enabled us to do this." Stewart has thus locked Ford irrevocably into the motorsport programme, at a time when stability and the strength of financial and technical investment hold the key to the progress that has given dominance to McLaren (with Mercedes-Benz) and Ferrari (with Fiat).

"Formula One is a technical hothouse," a Ford spokesman said. "These days a team needs vast technological and financial resources. An independent team, even like Stewart Grand Prix with Ford back-up, would be unlikely to challenge the front -runners. To win the World Championship, we believe it's desirable to own and run the team ourselves."

The cars are expected to remain Stewart-Fords until the end of 2000, when the smart money is on a change of identity to Jaguar. Jackie and Paul Stewart will remain as chairman and chief executive officer, and deputy chairman, respectively, and Ford is clearly not going to squander its 30-year alliance with the bouncy Scot.

A solid result here for either Rubens Barrichello or Johnny Herbert might be the cherry on the birthday cake, but the team will continue its battle with Jordan in the 'best of the rest' stakes behind McLaren and Ferrari. In the Benson & Hedges team the German star Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who has systematically outperformed Damon Hill so far this season, may quietly be grinding an axe against Michael Schumacher, whose pace so far has increasingly made him the pre-race favourite. A year ago Schumacher accused Hill of trying to kill him after the Englishman resisted his overtaking overtures, then later put Frentzen off the track at very high speed after pulling out in front of him while exiting the pit lane. Frentzen, who supplanted Hill at Williams at the end of his championship year in 1996, has been the revelation of the year.

Trying to pin Frentzen down on his feelings about Williams is like trying to catch dollar bills in a hurricane. He is reluctant to admit that he's more relaxed in a team that listens to his contributions and appears to value them, but says: "I am enjoying being here. It's a good combination of understanding and its working very well. Everything is running so smoothly, it's difficult not to be happy." His relationship with his race engineer, a highly rated young guy called Sam Michael, may well be the cornerstone of his revival. "We are on the same wavelength," Frentzen says. "He knows what I want on the car, and there's a lot of information exchange."

During his Sauber days he admits that he meddled too much in engineering matters. At Williams he was firmly advised not to, then dismissed as a blockhead who understood little about technology. Jordan has given him a middle way that has propelled him back to the early days when he was billed as "the guy who is faster than Schumacher". Frentzen admits: "I learned a lot from Williams. The driver can be a very important tool in developing the car, and this has sometimes been disregarded at Williams." Not, it seems, at Jordan.

The Canadian GP frequently throws up a surprise result. Putting one over on Schumacher here would surely appeal to Frentzen's sense of justice, but he's far too genteel ever to admit it.