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The plans and politics of Alain Prost

Alain Prost is a pocket-sized person, but as a racing driver he was a giant. Now 42, the twisty-nosed, curly-haired Frenchman has embarked on a new career as a Formula 1 team owner, his intention being to go on winning.

It is a rare thing for that to happen.

The great Formula 1 drivers who set up their own Grand Prix teams after retiring as drivers all failed to win a single race as a team owner. Admittedly Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren drove their own cars to victory, but once Jack had retired Brabham did not win anything until the team had been sold on to Bernie Ecclestone. The McLaren team won a four races in 1968 and 1969 but did not become a major force in F1 until 1976 - six years after Bruce McLaren's death. Others such as John Surtees and Emerson Fittipaldi were totally unsuccessful.

Prost aims to change all that.

His career as a driver between 1980 and 1993 broke many established records and demolished long-standing myths. Traditionally a World Champion always has a bad year after a title-winning season. In 1986 Prost became the first man in 26 years to win back-to-back titles. The critics reckoned that France would never have a World Champion because of the national temperament - but Prost came along and won the title four times. It was Alain who beat Jackie Stewart's total of 27 Grand Prix victories, a record which had been unbeaten since Stewart retired in 1973.

When Prost finally retired in 1993 he had won more Grands Prix than anyone else in motor racing history and his record of 51 victories is likely to remain unbeaten for years to come. There are only 16 or 17 races a year and so anyone starting out in F1 with the intention of beating his record will need to win every race for four consecutive seasons.

For a couple of years Prost did nothing, playing about with a few businesses he had established and living quite happily off the vast amounts of money he had made as a driver. But the competitive urges did not go away.

"I cannot just stay at home and play sport or go cycling," Prost admits. "I have to work. I have done a lot of things outside F1 - in business - and some are working very well, but I don't really care about them. There is not the same interest and passion. When you are 40 - which is still very young - and you are looking for something to do the best thing to do is to be involved in an environment you know well. For me that was Formula 1."

A lot of people in Formula 1 - including McLaren boss Ron Dennis - said that Prost would never become a team owner because it was too much work for a Grand Prix driver to be able to cope with, and Prost admits that since buying the Ligier team in February he has worked harder than ever before in his life.

And it has not been plain sailing. June was a particularly bad month. In the space of just a fortnight Prost lost almost all of his political power base, when Alain Juppe's Republican government was swept from office, leaving President Jacques Chirac to cohabit with a Socialist government, which had no intention of helping out Prost. If this was not bad enough the team's number one driver Olivier Panis crashed heavily in the Canadian Grand Prix and broke both his legs.

The accident was really the end of any hopes that Prost had of the team figuring strongly in the World Championship. Panis's replacement Italian Jarno Trulli had too much to learn in too short a time. He did a spectacularly good job - and was on his way to victory in Austria when his engine failed. Prost has signed him up as Panis's team-mate in 1998.

The problems with the government are being overcome as well. Juppe's ministers Jacques Toubon (Interior) and Guy Drut (Sport) played a major role in helping Alain gain control of Ligier and in convincing Peugeot to be his engine supplier in 1998-2001 and there were extensive plans in place for the authorities to fund the construction of a new factory for Prost close to Versailles in the south-western suburbs of Paris.

The Socialists stopped that idea in its tracks and so Prost turned to private enterprise to fund his ideas, signing deals with Gauloises, Bic, Alcatel and Canal +. There will be more money in 1998 from oil company Total - which backs all Peugeot's sporting activities.

"I like to be independent," he says. "I know I will be able to do it if the government changes. It is impossible to have a 100% French team. It would be too political. It is my team and my aim is to have a winning French team, based in France, but I want it to be international and some of my sponsors are not going to be French."

But, like it or not, the French public sees Prost as being their team, running in French blue.

"They did some opinion polls this year in France asking what people thought were the important things in life," Prost says with some amazement. "The result was unbelievable. They said sporting results. People like to win. 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.

"F1 is good to show the world about French high technology and French car companies. It is important."

When he took over the team in February there were only 92 staff. Ferrari had 400, McLaren 275 and Williams 240. Competing with the big operations was not going to be easy.

"The team is small," Alain admits, "but the package is right. To be comparable to Williams, Benetton or McLaren is going to take a lot of time. My mission is to put together a strong team. I know what I want to do, but I do not know if I am going to be able to do it the way I want - because of money and timing."

The team will soon reach 140 staff - many of them international recruits - and if all goes to plan the team will be moving into a different new factory near Versailles in February or March.

The message if clear. Neither politics nor money are going to stop Monsieur Prost.

"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 that means that every year you need the right budget and the right technical things.""The objective is to beat the best team - whoever that is."

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