Stewart geared for the big test

David Tremayne explains the business formula of a former grand prix champion
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JACKIE STEWART'S planned return to Formula One for 1997 is exactly what the sport needed. The deal, confirmed by Ford in Detroit last week, creates a team that has a real chance of becoming successful at a time when the obituaries of businesses such as Lotus, Simtek and Pacific - which succumbed to slow financial strangulation - are more familiar. But Ford's decision to back the former champion's completely untried F1 operation is also an indicator of the engine supplier's paucity of options.

The long expected move thrusts the 56-year-old Scot back into the limelight of the sport in which he won three world championships and had set, by his retirement late in 1973, a record of 27 grand prix victories. Since then the familiar jaunty figure has acted as ambassador and television commentator, and frequently been seen ushering young royals around the paddocks of the world. He and his elder son also set up Paul Stewart Racing to compete in the lesser formulae, and Stewart senior has been intensely involved in developing the handling of Ford road cars.

"I have never regretted for a single day taking the decision to retire when I did," he said, "even though I probably had a good few years left in me as an active driver." Yet there has always been about him the air of a star seeking a bigger role in what is quite the busiest "retirement" of any champion in history.

In 1990 he looked at opportunities to buy Lotus and another F1 team but decided the time was not right. As PSR grew he said: "It's a fantastically fast learning curve. We'll make mistakes and we'll make more mistakes, but I'll learn more positively than if I had naively jumped into a Formula One operation, where mistakes are a lot more expensive." Now the time is right, and Stewart has used his long relationship with Ford to create Stewart Ford, with himself as chairman and Paul as managing director.

Detractors suggest that Stewart may not be up to the task of running a grand prix team, pointing to PSR's bad results in F3000, the category just below F1, although they have been the champion team in F3. One seasoned observer believes that Stewart will be less comfortable when he moves from his cosy TV role as an expert after the event: "Jackie will find it's one thing to be the Monday morning quarterback that he's been, and another to run a competitive team in F1." Others think that the status and charisma brought by the tireless perfectionist can only be good for the sport.

It is too soon to speculate who will drive for Stewart Ford or who will design its new car but rumour suggests that Alan Jenkins will leave Arrows to fill the latter role.

Stewart has a year's lead-time to find the minimum of pounds 25m sponsorship he will need, and he is understood to be pursuing Malaysian interests. He is also a personal friend of King Hussein of Jordan, who has backed PSR in the past.

The move is an embarrassment for Peter Sauber's Swiss team, who will lose their Ford works status for 1997. Ironically, the last time that Ford gave notice before a season that they would cease supplying engines to a team - to Benetton in 1994 - they went on to win the world drivers' championship, with Michael Schumacher at the wheel.