Power Strangers: Asiatech’s short F1 stint

After seven years in Formula 1, Peugeot Sport decided to pull the plug on its engine supply program having achieved relatively little during its time in the sport. Spiralling costs and the deterioration of the partnership with Prost Grand Prix became the final nail in the Peugeot coffin, and the French marque instead elected to concentrate on its successful WRC program.

Instead of closing the whole engine program down completely, Peugeot sold their engines and rented out its premises in Vélizy-Villacoublay to an unknown group named “Asia Motor Technologies”. AMT had no previous motorsport involvement whatsoever, and was a brand new company headed up by Argentine designer Enrique Scalabroni.

The vastly-experienced Scalabroni was one of the main players in the Asiatech story.

The vastly-experienced Scalabroni was one of the main players in the Asiatech story.

Involved in the success at Williams during the 1980s, Scalabroni had also spent periods at Ferrari, Lotus and coincidentally at Peugeot Sport’s endurance program, which won the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hours. A true journeyman, Scalabroni’s last real involvement in Formula 1 was at the prospective Ikuzawa team, who had hoped to reach the grid in the mid-90s but never managed to realise their lofty ambitions. Financier John Gano also joined Scalabroni in leading the AMT effort, looking after the commercial side of the business.

Gano and Scalabroni were the faces of AMT, keeping the spotlight away from the mysterious investors, although later it emerged that AMT was financed by a Japanese businessman named Hideo Morita. Hideo was the son of Akio Morita, one of the founders of the Sony Corporation, and the Morita family had been heavily involved in producing sake, miso and soy sauce for over 300 years.

Hideo had been making his own fortune in the leisure industry, and had invested in AMT to help expand Asia’s involvement in Formula 1. Morita also convinced other Asian investors – such as CNC machine giants Yamazaki Mazak – to sink their teeth into the AMT project, offering them the chance to put the Far East on the motorsport map.

As soon as AMT had claimed full ownership of Peugeot’s F1 program, they announced that they would be supplying the Arrows team with slightly updated versions of the 2000-spec Peugeot engines, to be rebadged as Asiatechs. Arrows’ owner Tom Walkinshaw, ever the deal-maker, had secured a technical tie-up with AMT which meant that he would receive the engines for free, an attractive deal following an unsuccessful in-house engine project before having to pay for Supertecs.

The Asiatech AT-01 engine was nothing more than a rebadged Peugeot. (F.X. Poupard)

The Asiatech AT-01 engine was nothing more than a rebadged Peugeot. (F.X. Poupard)

Modifying an A21 chassis to fit the Asiatech engine, Arrows was able to put in the pre-season miles at both Jerez and Valencia, and by the end were matching times set previously at the venues with the Supertec. Despite the engine’s new name, the reliability issues once again reared their head in Valencia, leaving Pedro de la Rosa stranded on-track as the former Peugeot unit cried enough.

Despite the early teething troubles, de la Rosa’s initial thoughts on the Asiatech were cautiously optimistic.

“The engine has surprised me because it has the same power as the Supertec” said de la Rosa at the Jerez test. “The power band is a bit smaller, but it’s better than I expected.”

Shortly after, de la Rosa was unceremoniously dumped for the 2001 season; Walkinshaw’s late displacement of the Spaniard in exchange for Enrique Bernoldi’s Red Bull money was another change to a seemingly-settled team. After a strong 2000 season in which Arrows placed seventh overall in the constructors’ championship, the switch to Asiatechs contributed to a disappointing year for the Leafield team.

This isn’t to say that the 2001 Arrows wasn’t a good car. An evolution of the successful A21 from the previous year, lead driver Jos Verstappen was often someone to watch at the start of races; the A22 chassis was equipped with a small fuel tank and, with a lighter car, the Dutchman was able to carve through the pack with consummate ease.

Verstappen tackles Imola in his Arrows-Asiatech. He only scored one point in 2001.

Verstappen tackles Imola in his Arrows-Asiatech. He only scored one point in 2001. (via Pinterest)

However, the A22 also had a tendency to fade into the background over a race distance, where the small tanks ironically became more of a burden. The net result of Arrows’ efforts over the year was a solitary point earned by Verstappen at the Austrian Grand Prix, with the Asiatech persistently struggling with power delivery and unreliability. An engine-related double-retirement at Monza was the lowest point.

By then, Arrows and Asiatech had agreed to part ways, with Arrows seeking to secure Cosworth engines having been unhappy with the rate of development on the Asiatech units. Although Asiatech had access to the majority of staff and equipment left at Peugeot’s facilities, they did not appear to be able to fund any meaningful improvements to the engine.

“The engine was exactly the same as the old Peugeot” says Sergio Rinland, who worked with both Arrows and Asiatech in 2001-02. “Because they rented the facilities in Paris, they didn’t have the money for any developments.”

The engineers tried to find some crucial reliability, but ultimately their efforts were not enough to keep Arrows interested. Wishing to keep their foot firmly in the F1 door, Asiatech came into contact with Paul Stoddart and Minardi for 2002.

Perennially short on cash, Minardi was looking to replace their geriatric “European” V10s – a derivation of the 1998-spec Ford VJ – but were not ready to break the bank. Ferrari and Ford presented customer options to Stoddart, but required in excess of $20m for a year’s supply. Asiatech would provide engines free of charge. With their current ties to the Asian market through Malaysian driver Alex Yoong, the Asiatech deal seemed to click nicely.

Asiatech clicked nicely with Minardi's Asian money in 2002 (via Pinterest)

Asiatech engines worked nicely with Minardi’s Asian backing in 2002 (via Pinterest)

To improve their own fortunes, Asiatech had been working on extracting more from the old Peugeot units. Designing some completely new internals, manifolds and cylinder head, Minardi received a completely overhauled engine which they hoped would bridge the gap to the midfield.

2002 started brightly for Minardi. At the season opener in Melbourne, rookie driver Mark Webber enjoyed a perfect home race to score the Italian team’s first championship points since 1999. Webber outqualified both Jaguars and, after prevailing from a first lap skirmish which took out a sizeable chunk of the field, he crossed the line 5th after absorbing a late challenge from Toyota’s Mika Salo.

Sadly, that was as good as it got; although the new Asiatech engines were better in every way, they couldn’t hope to hold a candle to the big-budget manufacturers, and Minardi scored no more points through the year. Meanwhile, Asiatech spent 2002 developing plans to increase its F1 involvement, intending to enter their own team using the former Williams facilities in Didcot as a base.

After the Arrows team hit the wall mid-way through 2002, their former technical director Sergio Rinland accepted an offer from compatriot and friend Enrique Scalabroni to produce some concept designs for an Asiatech F1 challenger.

“I was asked to design a car for them” confirms Sergio, “but it was only a concept, we didn’t really look at the detail designs.”

Nonetheless, the design was quintessentially Rinland; the twin-keel suspension mountings that he had pioneered at Sauber and Arrows were present, and the sculpted airbox was carried over from the Arrows A23 design. Asiatech showed off its design at the 2002 Italian Grand Prix but, just over a month later, any plans to join the F1 grid as a team were rapidly dashed.

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The Rinland-designed Asiatech A-001 concept. Shortly after, their operations were no more.

Wanting to be taken seriously as an F1 competitor, Asiatech had its heart set on developing a brand new engine for 2003, and to maximise the development over the year had set a price tag for any prospective customers. Stoddart was satisfied with Asiatech’s free supply, but hearing that Minardi would be charged for 2003, the Australian set about securing a customer Cosworth supply instead. With no customers on the horizon and the Asian funding starting to dry out, Asiatech closed its doors in October 2002.

“Because of a lack of funds guaranteed for the continuation of its activity”, the official statement read, “Asia Motor Technologies France SAS ceased its operations on October 31, 2002.” Peugeot, who was leasing the Vélizy plant to Asiatech, reclaimed some of its former assets whilst the rest was sold off as liquidated stock.

With some of the engines a snip at just $7500 per unit, the auctioning of assets resembled a well-known sofa outlet clearance sale. After all, Asiatech began life from the highly-combustible Peugeot engine project; perhaps a fire sale was a fitting end to their short-lived tenure in F1.

Big thanks to Niko Nurminen for the supporting research, and Sergio Rinland for his insight!