Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1997
BY JOE SAWARD
His F1 career came to a close at the end of 1993 when he was dropped by Williams, which wanted to take Senna instead.
Now, at 42, Alain Prost has bought the Ligier team - renamed it Prost Grand Prix - and is planning a new career as a team owner. In fact it is 10 years since Alain first said that he would one day like to run his own racing team. He looked at seriously late in 1989 when he left McLaren and had serious discussions with his friend and mentor Hugues de Chaunac and with John Barnard, the chief designer at from McLaren for much of the six years when Prost was with the team.
After he left Ferrari at the end of 1991 he had talks about buying Ligier and indeed a deal was agreed on condition that Renault would agree to a five-year engine supply deal with Alain. Renault refused.
At the end of 1993 Alain retired from F1 - forced out by Williams which had decided to sign a deal with Ayrton Senna instead. For a year or so Prost seemed to be struggling for motivation. He tested for the McLaren-Peugeot team but decided not to race. He signed up to be a commentator with French television and as a special ambassador for Renault. He didn't seem to know where he was going in the long-term.
"I have always done a lot of things outside F1," he explains. "I cannot just stay at home and just play sport or go cycling. I have to work. I have done a lot of things outside F1 - in business. Some are working very well but I did not have the same interest and passion. I don't really care about them. When you are 40 - which is still very young - and you are looking for something to do I decided it was best to do something in the environment I knew best, which was F1. It was a challenge but it is my passion."
And so Alain tried once again to get Renault to agree to an engine deal. Once again Renault bosses said "Non". The French government had just changed but Renault was preparing for privatization. Frustrated, Alain terminated his agreement with Renault and went to work as a consultant for the McLaren Mercedes team. At the same time he continued to work to try to convince Peugeot to join his planned team. This time he was successful and on February 13 this year he signed a deal to buy Ligier and the following day announced a three-year deal with Peugeot.
Prost has been working hard in recent months to put the deal together and he reckons that he is very different man to the one who retired from F1 at the end of 1993.
"If I had been in the same situation three or four years ago as I was a few weeks ago, I don't think I would have been able to do the deal," he admits. "I am a different person now. Before I was too much of a racing driver in my head. The mentality of a driver is very different to that of a team owner and it takes a long time to change.
"The big difference is that as a driver you always have the choice to change. You have a lot of freedom. If the car you are driving is no good you can always change the next year. If you are the team owner you have to think about the long-term future. A driver has to be competitive all the time. Now I am not a driver and I know that I am going to have to work hard to be successful as a team owner."
McLaren boss Ron Dennis and Renault boss Patrick Faure both used to say that they never thought Alain would ever be a team owner because there was far too much involved in the job. When reminded of that, Alain smiles.
"I don't know about Ron," he says, "but maybe the others who said that were a little bit scared by me. They know me and they know that if I am motivated I will work very hard. Maybe they said that because they were afraid because I work harder than they do!
"Really I do not care what people say. I have my reputation as a racing driver. I could stay at home and not risk my reputation, but that is not the way I look at life. If I am not a good team owner how is that going to change my life? I always knew that it would be very very difficult. You always have more problems than you thought. Every day you get bad news and good news is not normal. That is the way it is. That is part of the challenge. The team is small, the facilities are small, the budget is small compared to the others, but the package we have is working well. The package is right. To be comparable with Williams, Benetton or McLaren is going to take a lot of time. The most important thing is that we know that it is important not to think that all you need to do to be like Williams and McLaren is to add 100 more people. This is not the right thing to do. I know what I want to do but I do not know if I m going to be able to do it the way I want because of money and timing. That is part of the challenge and that is what I like. My mission is to put together a strong team. That could take one year, two years or three years. I want it to happen as soon as possible. Right now we have a good relationship with the people from Honda and from Bridgestone; our aerodynamic department is working well; the weight distribution of the car was done considering the tyres we would be using, all these small things add up. We are not miles off the pace. The package is working well."
Pre-season testing was very impressive and the team went to Australia with the world expecting great things from Olivier Panis. He finished fifth, the first Bridgestone runner, a minute behind the winner after nearly 60 laps. One second a lap behind. It did not live up to the expectations but the impressive thing for those in the know was that Bridgestone had had to design tyres without any data about the levels of grip at the Melbourne circuit. It will be a similar story in Brazil and Argentina but when the F1 circus returns to Europe we can expect to see the Bridgestone tyres becoming more competitive.
"A lot of people in the world may say Prost should now be a winning team and if we do not win they will be disappointed," says Alain, "but I prefer this risk than people having no expectations at all! The other danger is that the team is very competitive as it is and now I am saying I want to change it to be a winning team. It is difficult to tell people that you have to change. I don't want to change the team, but I want to improve some weak points and make the whole thing better."
The way Grand Prix racing is these days, changes have to be made a long time in advance before one sees the results of the work. Is Alain planning some fast decisions?
"I think it is going to be a step by step process. I know some things that I am going to do but I cannot tell you at the moment."
There is a lot of talk about the team being moved from Magny-Cours. Does Alain think it is possible to run a competitive racing team these days from a small town in the middle of nowhere?
"That is the key question at the moment. I cannot tell you 100%. I would be tempted to say no but on the other hand there are some advantages. Formula 1 is always like that. I want to see a little bit more before I decide. If I want to change, however, we will have to do it as quickly as possible before the team grows too much. Whatever happens I will definitely keep it in France."
Back in 1989 when Prost first talked seriously about running a team he aimed to go into partnership with John Barnard. Will he be involved?
"It is my job to consider everything that will improve the team and, for sure, I am talking to John. There is no question about that. But I am talking to other people. At the same time I do not want to upset what I already have. There may be different solutions to the kind of thing he was doing at Benetton and at Ferrari. Whatever I have always been close to John and we never had any problems and I have always felt that he was motivated to work with me again.
"He understands F1 very well. I have read some not very good articles about him and Ferrari recently and I do not think they are very fair."
The intention, therefore, is not to have a French national racing team?
"It is impossible to have a French national team or a 100% French team. It would be too political. I kept reading things about this in the press when I was negotiating to take over the team. It was very difficult for me because I had to be discreet. It is my team and my aim is to have a winning French team, based in France, but not a 100% French team. I want it to be international and some of the sponsors are not going to be French."
But there ahs still been a lot of help from the French government?
"It is a helped to have the French government motivated being by Grand Prix racing. They know how important sport is in France. I don't know if it is the same in other countries. They did some opinion polls this year asking what people thought were the important things and the result was unbelievable - they said sporting results! People like to win and, sure, there are a lot of problems in France at the moment, but there is no reason why we should not have a strong F1 team. If you have the country and the government behind you that is important. F1 is good to show the world about French high technology and French car companies. It is important. But I do not like to ask for things. I like to be very independent. I know if I need to ask I can do it but I also know I will be able to do it if the government changes."
Alain's recent experience as an advisor to McLaren and his six years with the team - during which he won three World titles - would suggest that he is likely to base Prost Grand Prix on the way McLaren works. Did he learn a lot working there in 1996?
"Sure. Really a lot. Even if the car was not the best last year the team is still an example for everyone. When I talk to the guys in my team I often talk about McLaren and show them that Ron's team has something."
Now, however, Alain is out to beat his former employers Dennis, Frank Williams and Ferrari.
"The objective is to beat the best team - whoever that is. The aim is to progress quickly to become a winning team which is competitive every year. You never know whether you will be World Champion or not because sometimes you don't have exactly what you need but you are at least competitive. That means that every year you need the right budget and the right technical things."
It all sounds very logical. But are there not times when Alain feels that he would like to get back into an F1 car and drive it - if only to help the team develop, as he did with McLaren.
"I've thought about it," he smiles, "but I have no time. And if you have no time, you do not have the right attitude to do it properly and if you do not do it properly it is bad. If you want to be competitive you need to do a lot of mileage."