Walkinshaw target is flying Arrows

David Tremayne reports on the small Formula One team ready to upset the big players
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JOS VERSTAPPEN'S brilliant drive into sixth place in last week's Argentine Grand Prix signalled a return to centre stage for the Arrows team, for so many years a bit-part player in Formula One. It was a well- timed achievement, for Arrows' founders, Jackie Oliver and Alan Rees, were in the final stages of negotiating the sale of their team to Tom Walkinshaw, the founder of the TWR group and the architect of Benetton's success.

Indeed, some say that it was only the Scot's intervention to pay for the services of the engine genius Brian Hart that enabled the team to contest the Brazilian and Argentine grands prix at all. Yet, despite the poverty, the Arrows team is buzzing. This is partly because of Walkinshaw's impending purchase of the team, which enjoys the dubious distinction of going longer than any rival without a sniff of victory.

It is also because the Dutchman Verstappen - dropped by Benetton after a traumatic 1994 and sidelined last year when Simtek folded - has been leaving better-heeled rivals in his Footwork-Hart's slipstream. In Argentina last week he humbled the super-financed McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, and nearly accounted for Eddie Irvine's even pricier Ferrari too. Verstappen fought into fifth place, only to run wide on the final lap; but sixth was none the less laudable.

Oliver and Rees, themselves both former grand prix drivers, have always had an impressive record on the business side of racing. Their decision to lease the team to Wataru Ohashi, a Japanese businessman whose Footwork fast-delivery business put its name to the cars, proved to be a stroke of genius. They retained control, and after Ohashi had spent a rumoured $100m over five years, everything reverted to them in 1994. The need to retain the Footwork rather than Arrows name on the cars was an inconvenience born of the need to qualify for lucrative travel benefits, tolerable for economic reasons.

And now the final criticism of the cynics - that success on track would embarrass an outfit which has done nicely bumbling along in the midfield - is about to be silenced.

Walkinshaw demands success. His plans to buy the Ligier team from his Benetton partner Flavio Briatore were scuppered when the founder, Guy Ligier, refused to sell his 15 per cent holding. For Walkinshaw it was 100 per cent or nothing, and he withdrew and opened negotiations with Oliver instead. "We are not doing this for fun," he stresses. "We are doing it to create a team that can win grands prix."

Hart holds the key to that. His factory in Harlow employs only 21 people (around a quarter of Cosworth and Ilmor, who make the Ford and Mercedes engines), and he works wonders on a budget that would not keep Renault in crankshafts. That is one reason why he berated Verstappen in Brazil. When he ran into engine trouble, the Dutchman drove back to the pits rather than sparing the engine further damage by abandoning the car on the circuit. The result was a huge repair bill, but Hart can just about forgive that because of Verstappen's speed. "He is a natural racing driver," he said. "There is raw talent there. He has got to understand what you have to do over a race distance, but that will come with experience."

In fact, having been written off as a has-been at the age of 22 after being sucked into and then spat out of Benetton, Verstappen is making a second name for himself. A 24-year-old who likes to relax at home in Maaseik, in Belgium, with his three dachshunds, his first grand prix, in Brazil in 1994, was only his 51st car race, and ended when he barrel- rolled over Irvine. Later that year, Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died, and he himself was fortunate to escape when his Benetton caught fire at Hockenheim. Now he is recovering from "Schumacher's Team-mate Syndrome".

"The problem was I was new in Formula One, I was inexperienced. And I was telling Benetton that the car was no good. I couldn't understand that they didn't believe me. For me, the car was too nervous on the limit. You had to concentrate very hard to keep it on the road. With the Footwork you brake later and then you go a little bit sideways, and you know this is the limit." His ambition is now simple: "I hope my performances will wake up some people in the top teams."

If Walkinshaw's stated aim of having a team capable of finishing in the top three by 1997 bears its expected fruit, he may not even have to switch camps.