Stewart returns as a serious contender

Britain's most successful driver wants to beat the world again, says Derick Allsop
Click to follow
Jackie Stewart and Ford confirmed in Detroit yesterday their joint long-term assault on the Formula One world championship. Britain's only three-times world drivers' champion also acknowledged the five-year venture, which will take to the track in 1997, represents the greatest challenge of his life.

Have no doubts, this is a gamble for the head of Stewart Grand Prix. At the age of 56, most would be counting down to retirement, especially having achieved and earned all he has.

But now here he is, embarking on what he sees as the final frontier, an adventure more demanding than mere driving, but one determined by the head rather than the heart. "This is the most exciting thing I have ever done in my life," he said. But, tellingly, he added: "I know I will be putting my reputation on the line, but we will be doing the best job we can. I am not just here for the beer."

Stewart has never been a man to do things by halves, be it racing, pioneering safety measures, negotiating personal commercial deals, organising charity clay pigeon shoots and karting events, or entertaining the royals - and his Formula One campaign is planned not only to stay the course but to take on the most powerful.

Typically, he has landed an exclusive contract with his old cohorts at Ford - which ensures the exclusive supply of their best V10 engines - and will continue to exert his enormous influence this year to recruit drivers and staff, and raise sponsorship to fund an annual budget targeted at pounds 30m.

Stewart will now be embarking on a world-wide search for "partners" as he calls sponsors. "I think we are going to illustrate a new way of doing business in sport. The biggest, single, most important thing is the financial structure - that will allow us to meet the technical and personal requirements we need to be as competitive as possible.

"Formula One is by far the most competitive and highly technical business in motor racing. It took Frank Williams 10 years to get where he is. I hope it will take us less."

He will be chairman of the team and his son, Paul, head of the Paul Stewart Racing Organisation which laid the family foundations in the lower formulae, will be the managing director. The Stewarts are already seeking new premises to replace their present factory, at Milton Keynes.

"I have not lost the feel, I have not lost the passion for Formula One. Now is the time to go back in," Stewart said. "If you do it too early it can be extraordinarily expensive and cost you a lot of money. The time now just happened to dovetail nicely with Ford's programme for the future."

Ford, too, are going out on a limb by making this five-year commitment to a team that does not exist in Formula One terms. Only 14 months ago they were celebrating Michael Schumacher's first world championship. They, however, also feel the timing, as well as the opportunity, is right.

Stewart will find it difficult to unseat the likes of Benetton-Renault, Williams-Renault and Ferrari. Their resources alone will ensure they avoid the ill-starred experience of Simtek and Pacific, but winning at this level is another matter. Ask Ferrari.

Inevitably, David Coulthard, one of Stewart's proteges has already been linked with the team - he has a one-year contract with McLaren. So has the American, Robbie Gordon, which would provide an important Stateside connection for both Stewart-Ford and Formula One.

As important as drivers - assuming Schumacher cannot be lured - are designers and Stewart will try to secure some of the brightest men in the business of making Formula One cars.