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Ford Taps An Old Soldier For Jaguar

by Larry Roberts

February 12, 2001

Things happen fast in international Formula One racing and in this case I'm talking about the corporate level. A recent report that we received announced that Niki Lauda, three-time World Driving Champion, had been tapped to be the Chief Executive Officer of the Premiere Automotive Group. The organization was developed by Ford a year or so ago to encompass Jaguar, Lincoln, Saab, Aston Martin and Volvo under a single directorship and was to be located in Southern California.

Actually, Lauda's appointment is to the office of Chief Executive Officer of another new Ford organization, the Premiere Performance Group, whose function is to coordinate the various Ford splinter groups involved with Jaguar's Formula One effort.

Originally, the present Jaguar Formula One organization was owned and operated by Jackie Stewart, another former World Champion, and his son, with some under-the-table help from Ford Racing. It was an underdog team whose marginal successes were lauded by competitors and the media alike. Things started to sour, however, when Ford bought out the Stewarts but left them ostensibly in charge. Once the Jaguar name was applied, the Stewarts were out and the Ford press corps rolled in. It was rumored that the Stewart mystique was thought to be drawing attention and publicity away from the Jaguar corporate image.

After that, every Jaguar defeat was spun into a victory and the racing community began to have its doubts. Even the glossy Jaguar Racing magazine that suddenly appeared with classy ads for "competition-based" sports apparel couldn't overshadow Jaguar also-ran performances.

Late last year, Ford hired Bobby Rahal away from his admittedly temporary position as head man of the ailing Championship Auto Racing Teams and his own Rahal Racing CART team. The salary wasn't mentioned, but it had to be pretty high to coax Rahal away from what must have been for him a comfortable lifestyle in familiar surroundings. It also brought him into the maelstrom and intrigue of the international Grand Prix world. His statement then was that he'd have to pull all the loose ends together for Ford and then added the wry comment that if he didn't, "..they'll have my head."

So far, Ford hasn't decapitated the under-the-gun Rahal, but neither has he been offered a knighthood by the British government. Jaguar still hasn't come up with a potential winner in its new R2 car but it has tested slow and has some serious shunts.

It makes one wonder about the rationale behind recruiting the aging Lauda after he had just sold his relatively successful small Austrian airline, Lauda Air. At the press conference that introduced Lauda to the media, Rahal pontificated more like a press officer than a racer, offering lofty platitudes rather than concrete plans. The only thing that he said about Lauda's participation in the program was that "...when it comes to discussing budgets, I know he'll be on my side."

Lauda may also have to be there to catch Rahal's head if and when it falls. If he is, the very straight-talking ex-champion will no doubt tell Ford, Jaguar, et al, exactly who was to blame for the looming Jaguar fiasco and why.