NEWS FEATURE

The Formula 1 Silly Season

The Formula 1 silly season is now virtually over as the driver market has moved along quite quickly in the last few weeks.

The FIA will shortly issue its list of drivers for 1994. This is not necessarily going to be a correct list of who will drive which cars, but it is a good indication.

The only major drive remaining open is the second seat at McLaren. Mika Hakkinen is confirmed as one driver and the team is expected to name Yannick Dalmas as its tester. But no-one - not even McLaren boss Ron Dennis - knows who will be the second driver.

All the indications are that Dennis has made Alain Prost an offer and is waiting for the World Champion to make his decision as to whether to renounce his retirement and rejoin McLaren. Dennis and Prost are rumoured to have dined together in Paris yesterday (Wednesday) but Frank Williams has said that Prost cannot join McLaren as alain has a contract with Williams, originally signed for 1994 and 1995.

Prost has spent the last weeks playing with the situation, dropping ambiguous hints that he might not retire and playing the teams and with the media.

Alain's close friends suggest that it is extremely unlikely that he will return because of his unhappiness with the way the FIA is being run. Prost is no fool and he will also know that he has had a very fine F1 career and a comeback will not do his reputation any good at all. To quit at the top - as Prost has done - the best way to bow out of any sport.

There are also suggestions that Prost is using the McLaren rumours to try and get Renault to help him to acquire Ligier. The French team is in a mess following the arrest of its owner Cyril de Rouvre, but it has very good connections within the French government and has extraordinary facilities at its high-tech base at Magny-Cours.

Having said that Renault is expected to supply Benetton in 1995 so Ligier may well be losing its Renault V10 engines, unless the decision is taken by Renault Sport to supply three teams.

So what happens if Prost does not join McLaren-Peugeot? Who will get the job?

Mark Blundell was a firm favorite for the job because of his connections with McLaren and Peugeot. He was the McLaren test driver in 1992 and the same year was one of the Peugeot 905 crew which won the Le Mans 24 Hours sportscar classic. Mark, however, has decided that it is not worth risking the wait to see what Ron Dennis does and has signed up to partner Ukyo Katayama with the revitalized Tyrrell-Yamaha team.

German F3 Champion Jos Verstappen had also been mentioned as a possible long-shot for the McLaren job, but he has now concluded a deal to be Benetton's test driver - in order to gain more experience as he has only been racing single seater cars for two seasons.

JJ Lehto was never really likely to join McLaren because of the presence of his fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen and he is now off the market, having signed to drive alongside Michael Schumacher at Benetton.

So who is left? There are veterans like Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto, Derek Warwick but neither seems to excite much interest at McLaren or Peugeot. There are also guys like Emanuele Pirro, who was McLaren's test driver as long ago as 1988.

Peugeot Sport has said that it would like to see a Frenchman as part of the team but if Prost is not persuaded it is difficult to come up with a French driver of sufficient status to justify his inclusion in the McLaren-Peugeot team. It would take PS boss Jean-Pierre Jabouille a lot of work to convince Dennis to take a driver like Philippe Alliot - who appears to be one of Peugeot's favored drivers. Dalmas is unlikely because his F1 experienced is now quite dated and with restricted running in qualifying, it is better to find someone who knows the race tracks.

One far-fetched rumour doing the rounds in recent weeks in Europe is that Dennis is still trying to get Gerhard Berger out of his contract at Ferrari so that the Austrian can rejoin McLaren. According to the rumour Berger would be replaced by Alliot - who is close to the new Ferrari boss Jean Todt and Berger would lead McLaren.

Well, anything is possible in Formula 1, but this looks like a long-shot.

Another possible McLaren candidate would be Martin Brundle - who does not seem to have any intention of staying on at Ligier - following the arrest of team boss Cyril de Rouvre the entire Ligier operation has ceased to function. Brundle was tipped to be very close to a deal to join the Jordan team, alongside Rubens Barrichello, but the announcement on January 20 that the team has signed Eddie Irvine for two years leaves Brundle with no back-up.

Certainly Dennis is not worried about not getting a driver and reckons that there are plenty of drivers who would fall over themselves to have a chance in a McLaren. When the time comes he will pick the best available, safe in the knowledge that 1994 is going to be a year when McLaren and Peugeot get to know one another and gradually build up to competitiveness. He may decided to take a driver for a single season and then find a top name for 1995 when the McLaren-Peugeot package will be stronger.

Elsewhere Footwork has still to confirm who will drive but with Lehto, Blundell and Verstappen all having signed elsewhere, there is almost no doubt at all that the team will have Christian Fittipaldi as one of its drivers. The other seats will probably go to Aguri Suzuka once again and if not it will become the property of whichever young driver can up with the most money.

Larrousse has now settled on his driver line-up of Erik Comas and Olivier Beretta and Minardi is expected as usual to go for Pierluigi Martini and a second paying driver, while Ligier has yet to make any decisions. Given the current situation and the backing the team enjoys from Gitanes Blondes, Elf and Renault one can expect to see Eric Bernard and F3000 champion Olivier Panis being signed up. Another Elf protege in F3000 Emmanuel Collard might be in with a chance at Ligier - he tested the car recently at Paul Ricard - but he is more likely to spend this year racing in F3000 and testing for the Williams-Renault team.

Of the two new F1 teams there is little progress being made. Both have now run their cars and each has signed one driver: David Brabham at Simtek and Bertrand Gachot at Pacific. Pacific has also named British F3 man Oliver Gavin as its test driver.

The identity of the remaining drivers is therefore largely based on who can come up with the most money. It is thus very difficult to speculate as it is never easy to know what is going in th boardrooms of big companies around the world. Certainly there are rumours that Emanuele Naspetti has money and Frenchman Jean-Marc Gounon seems to have access to considerable sponsorship from the French government. Brazilian Gil de Ferran is another driver tipped to make the break into F1 with backing from Sadia radiators.

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