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Letter from Europe

10 November 1997

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

Oh dear! Did I get it wrong, or did I get it wrong? Merc are on a roll . . . indeed! When I met Mercedes-Benz's executives recently, they were certainly very bullish and understably so. The A class had thousands of orders, the Smart was about to be launched as the ultimate city car, the SLK had punters bidding over list price, the CLK had great press, and suddenly BOOOM!

Some excellent, responsible journalists in Sweden got into the A class Mercedes and, during a perfectly normal-for-the-territory 60 km/hour avoidance test, rolled it, putting three of them into hospital. Once this became known--first among the motoring press, then the daily papers, the magazines and finally the general public--all hell was let loose in Stuttgart. Now this is not the sort of thing Daimler-Benz directors are used to. Regular winners of awards from publications all over the world for cars and trucks, recalls and bad publicity are things normally associated with other, "lesser" brands. Yet, here was Jurgen Hubbert, head of Daimler's passenger vehicle division admitting that the revolutionary "A" class tipped over like Skodas in years gone by. He insisted that the accidents were caused by "extreme evasive manoeuvres" that normal drivers would not undertake. Absolute nonsense, of course, and he knew it. Mercedes cars have been sold in Finland, Norway and Sweden for many many years, and moose have been wandering across their roads since Eve offered that apple to Adam . . .

What I cannot understand is this: Mercedes, just like every other major automaker in the world, tests their cars under extreme circumstances. When the cars are finally revealed, there are always pictures taken during "secret" endurance tests taken in the Arctic or in Arizona. How is it possible that the German engineers carrying out these tests in the frozen North did not do a "Moose" test? After all, Scandinavia is an important market for all major car makers. A mystery.

Anyway, the blame--much to Akron's astonishment--has been firmly laid at Goodyear's door! So much so that their tyres are being replaced by other brands. What a fiasco, what embarrassment for a company that has just helped Jacques Villeneuve win the Formula One Championship in a Williams-Renault. The cars which have already been delivered have been recalled and are being fitted with a computer system that stabilises them, free of charge. The company also assured the press and public that in future all its cars will be subjected to the "Moose test".

In the meantime, fears remain that by trying to go "down-market" to capture young--Golf--drivers, Mercedes-Benz might alienate their older, richer, more conservative customers. Time will tell.

Elsewhere, in a cold, Italian court room, the prosecutor suggested that Frank Williams should be absolved of guilt regarding the death of Ayrton Senna at the Imola track on 1st May 1994. The team owner is not a technical person, and whilst he may have known about the change to the steering column, he would not have had any input into its design or manufacture. The design chiefs-- Patrick Head and Adrian Newey--are still being accused of manslaughter, but are likely to be getting off with a suspended sentence. Unfortunately, nothing can bring the Brazilian back, so at best the designers can learn from his tragedy. Small consolation for the loss of one of the all time greats. Although, to be fair--which is not easy for someone who loved him as much as I did--safety has improved dramatically thanks to the efforts of Max Mosley and his team within the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body . Since May 1994 there has not been a single fatality in Formula One. This year, for instance, the worst thing to have happened was a pair of broken legs--the unfortunate recipient being one Olivier Panis. He is already back in the saddle and is hoping for great things to come next year in the Peugeot-engined Prost.

Talking of Max, whom I have known for the best part of 30 years, he sold a beautiful dummy to the British Government. He threatened them with a Grand Prix only once every three years should they ban cigarette advertising in Formula One. The new Labour Government caved in like a pack of cards. There is a huge scandal in England right now because the Minister in question, a lady by the name of Tessa Jewel, is married to a businessman who, until recently, was a non-executive director of Benetton Racing--a team sponsored by the Japanese cigarette company Mild Seven. There have been rumours in the British Press about donations made by Max Mosley to the Labour Party and also--listen to this one--that Formula One Czar Bernie Ecclestone started to make donations to them, having switched from the Conservative Party!

On top of this we have allegations that Ferrari has been monitoring the Williams and McLaren pits during the European Grand Prix, we have the Schumacher trial coming up here in London tomorrow--Tuesday, 11th November-- where his punishment will be decided. All a bit tricky, because if he is not racing in, say in Australia, Argentina and Brazil, the number of spectators not to mention the number of TV viewers will drop dramatically if their hero--fallen or otherwise--is absent through a lengthy ban. The European Bureau of TACH will of course be present at the hearings, in force, and will report the results just as soon as these become available.