Mercedes-Benz -we are here to win!
by Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief
At first glance it seems a bit odd that Mercedes Benz would want to go motor racing in the United States. Business is booming, it looks as though they will sell over 100 thousand cars in 1997. So why spend money on racing? DEMOGRAPHICS! The answer from the MB people was slightly longer but this word is the gist of it. They do not want to fall into the Cadillac trap, namely growing old with ageing customers. There are only so many captains of industry driving S class V12s hence the new image, the new advertising aimed at younger potential customers. People in their 40s who could maybe afford 40 thousand dollars but certainly not 90!
There are C class cars under that, there are E class cars at around that figure and the new SLK sportscar will also enter the market at or around 40 thousand dollars competing head on with the BMW Z3 and the new Porsche Boxster. Later on this year there will be an off-road car as well to be built here in the United States.
All in all an expanding product range in need of a more youthful image. Hence the great C36 ads doing a Steve McQueen impersonation and the CART racing team. Whilst they will not say in so many words clearly MB do not relish the split in Indy car racing. Having seven great drivers and motor racing wizards such as Roger Penske they would obviously prefer racing at the Indy 500 and winning in front of 400 thousand people plus millions of TV viewers.
For the time being the CART series is holding its own and the overseas races such as Brazil, Canada and Australia are clearly very beneficial. Having said all that if peace were to break out tomorrow morning between the warring factions MB would be very happy about it!
In 1997 the team will have an evolutionary engine, based on last year's IC108C. There are a number of new regulations for the new season, amongst others the intake manifold pressure is reduced to 40 inches from 45, a move expected to reduce engine output by about 100 horsepower. There is some talk about this move being linked to increased safety but that is a load of rubbish. If you are unfortunate enough to hit a wall at 190 miles per hour at the wrong angle the consequences will be the same as hitting it at 200. By all means build stronger cars and more protection for the drivers but that is a different matter.
The seven drivers are a fair old mix. We have Al Unser Jr of the legendary American racing family, Mark Blundell from Britain, formerly of Formula One fame, Paul Tracy from Canada, Mauricio Gugelmin from Brazil, Dario Franchitti from Scotland plus Patrick Carpentier and 21 year old Greg Moore. He is the latest Canadian sensation, following in the footsteps of Gilles Villeneuve and his son Jacques.
Whilst the MB CART team have every reason to be optimistic the Stuttgart-based industrial giant is also hoping for similar success in Formula One. During recent testing Hakkinen es Coulthard were very quick indeed so who knows, maybe by next autumn we will be saluting MB engined cars and drivers on both sides of the pond. One or two people such as Jacques Villeneuve might see it slightly differently but if MB do not become champions it will not be for lack of trying!