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JANUARY 9, 2002

The sands are shifting at Renault Sport

THE announcement that 54-year-old Jean-Jacques His is to become managing-director of Renault Sport in Paris marks an important shift in Renault policy. His is an engineer and since 1984 he has been actively involved in research into racing engines mostly with Renault but briefly with Ferrari as well. His was the brains behind the Renault V10 which was so successful in the mid 1990s although he worked under Renault Sport technical director Bernard Dudot throughout the period. After Renault pulled out of F1 His became head of engine design for the entire Renault company before deciding that he would prefer to return to competition engines. He was appointed technical director of Renault Sport and was the man behind the wide-angle V10 engine, which was not very successful last year.

There have been some rumors in the last year that His was a better engine designer than he was a technical director and that might seem to suggest that his promotion could be a way of moving him out of the way. If that is the case (and there is not much evidence to back up the theory) it will be interesting to see who gets the job as the new technical director and whether or not he decides to continue the development of the wide-angle engine or whether Renault goes back to a more conventional unit at some point in the future.

His replaces Christian Contzen the 62-year-old marketing man who has been running Renault Sport for the last 10 years. Contzen's career began as an after-sales representative for Renault in his native Belgium in 1960.

The most interesting thing about the departure of Contzen is that it breaks one of Renault's strongest links with Flavio Briatore. Contzen was a major player in pushing through the deal to supply Benetton with engines in 1995 and later worked closely with Briatore when the Italian set-up Supertec in 1999. There have been times in recent years when Contzen seemed to be completely under Briatore's influence.

The departure of Contzen was presumably decided upon by Renault Sport chairman Patrick Faure. Faure is also close to Briatore but may not have quite the same level of devotion as Contzen has shown in the past.

One way or another, the removal of Contzen weakens Briatore's position within the Renault empire. For some months there have been rumors that the French are trying to find a way to ease Flavio out of his role as managing-director of Renault Sport UK and the stories were so strong that they warranted an official denial from Faure.

Faure was generous in his praise for Contzen, labelling him "the architect of Renault's success in Formula 1". Perhaps Bernard Dudot would not agree...