Famous dogs, chocolate engineering, Jean Tinguely and Aerospace Alley

In recent years I have tried to avoid pre-season car launches. They're lovely because everyone is so cheerful and optimistic but they are always misleading. You can get carried away with all the enthusiasm and so when it comes to making pre-season predictions the heart sometimes rules the head.

But, despite myself, the other day I took a trip to Paris for the launch of the Prost-Peugeot AP02. It was pretty much what one would expect from a car launch with no frills. There were no acrobats and no exotic animals (except Olivier Panis). There were some rather dull speeches, a few silly questions and a noisy film. Prost and his men tried to get the media interested in the amazing machinery it has in its factory. When it came to lunchtime, however, I could not help but notice that some journalists were using computer-controlled electro-erosion machines as a place to perch their food and were slopping excess Beaujolais around. No-one in the F1 media cares about fabulous cutting machines.

What sells newspapers are stories full of human interest.

"Ach Gut," said as Austrian colleague. "I vos vanting to speak mit you about dogs."

"Dogs?" I said.

"Ja, hunds!"

"Huh," I said. "I have four dogs at home. One of them is named after FIA President Max Mosley and when Max annoys me I kick the dog. I used to have one called Bernie but that mutt was so much trouble that we had to give him away."

"Sehr gut!" he said, writing frantically. "Dogs are very gut for my business."

"I'm sorry," I grunted. "In my experience all dogs ever do is eat or escape and when they escape they eat the local chickens. Either way it costs money and is not good for business."

"But you see," he went on, "I haf written a book about the dogs of famous sportsmen. You may laugh but it vos number three on the best-seller list zis year in Austria. People, you know, zey really like animals. Prost has a dog named Fifi. Vhich racing drivers do you know haf dogs?"

I went to hide. When finally it came time to leave the party, the pretty smiling girls in Prost jumpsuits gave me a Prost steering wheel. It was made entirely of chocolate. I am not an expert in chocolate engineering but it looked brilliant to me.

That afternoon as I wandered down a blowy Champs Elysees, lugging my chocolate steering wheel (which was thankfully in a wooden box) wondering who on earth had come up with the idea.

It must have been a very afternoon in the Prost Press Office and the girls and boys must have had a few glasses over lunch. Well, they are French.

"Sacre bleu," one of them must have said. "Wat do you give to ze man who as ev-reezing?"

"Eh bah ouf!" cried another. "C'est clair. Un chocolate steering wheel!"

A few months ago I remember hearing that a Parisian chocolate engineer had built an entire Prost AP01, using the original chassis moulds. It was to be sent to New York for an exhibition but on the way was smashed to pieces by the airport handlers. Perhaps the bits were returned to Prost and he needed to get rid of them...

Still, I had a thing of beauty although it posed a problem: What do you do with a chocolate steering wheel? It is a work of art, you cannot break it up, but if you do not eat it it will melt or go mouldy.

Now there are some people out there (normally they have silly pigtails) who will argue that art can only be perfect for an instant and then it begins to fade. This theory was taken to an extreme by another man who has been in the news in Grand Prix racing in recent weeks: Jean Tinguely.

Tinguely made his name by creating machine-like devices which self-destructed because art is a passing thing... In 1960 Tinguely demonstrated his first large self-destructive sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It failed to destroy itself successfully and after catching fire had to be finished off by members of the New York Fire Department.

Tinguely's later works were more effective thanks largely to the use of explosives.

I did not go to the Sauber launch but it seems there was enough left by Tinguely for someone to create a museum in Basle and it was here that Sauber decided to launch its C18. All I can say is that it is a strange thing for a Formula 1 team to wish to associate itself with...

Anyway, back to the chocolate dilemma. What do you do with a chocolate steering wheel? In the end I concluded that I would get the local baker to mount the steering wheel on the top of my son's birthday cake. He and his little pals could destroy without guilt.

Chocolate is chocolate when you are five years old.

The baker was impressed. A brilliant piece of work, he said. It's almost impossible to engineer chocolate like that.

Aside from a lesson in chocolate engineering, the Prost launch revealed little and if I am totally honest I have to say that I probably learned more about Prost Grand Prix from the journey to and from St. Quentin en Yvelines than from the launch itself.

The British teams will tell you that the only thing that matters nowadays is to be in "Motorsport Valley" - which they compare to Silicon Valley in California - the home of software engineering. Motorsport Valley ranges from Northamptonshire through the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire to Berkshire and even as far as Surrey. Within this croissant-shaped area are located almost all of the major racing car companies of the 1990s including Cosworth, Ilmor, Stewart, Jordan, Reynard, Prodrive, Benetton, Williams, TWR Arrows and McLaren. Add to this a supporting case of skilled and experienced sub-contractors and suppliers and you can see why people think that you cannot do much in motor racing without being there.

Having visited Prost Grand Prix I am beginning to wonder if those people are right. Why? Well, follow this logic. Ask anyone important about the technology involved in F1 and before you can say "Yamazaki Mazak" they have used the word "aerospace".

Everyone is very proud that their ideas come from the aerospace industry and that they have aerospace levels of production. When you boil it all down what they are saying is that Grand Prix motor racing is an industry which translates ideas from aerospace into the automobile industry.

The obvious link is aerodynamics but where was it that advanced composite materials came from? Who developed finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics and other amazing electronic programs? I think you get the picture.

Then take a look at the biographies of most of the top F1 engineers for the last 30 years. The older ones all started out with aviation companies such as De Havilland and Handley-Page. The middle generation was employed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the youngsters come from Westland Helicopters or British Aerospace. In other words, a lot of the people in F1 came from aerospace.

Some of the more intelligent companies involved in F1 - McLaren being the obvious example - have formed partnerships to try to use some of the current aerospace thinking in the construction of their racing cars.

But it seems to me that Prost has taken a step further. He has turned his back on Motorsport Valley - and has settled in what we should probably call Aerospace Alley.

If you drive south-west out of Paris on the old main road to Bordeaux, you will cross the Seine on the Pont de Sevres. The road will then take you uphill into the woods of Meudon. You won't know it but you are passing close to the windtunnels of France's national aerospace agency ONERA - a Prost partner. You arrive in an industrial zone which they call-Villacoublay. Once this was the cradle of French aviation and the streetnames bear witness to the history. The Avenue Morane Saulnier leads away to streets with names like Dewoitine, Nieuport, Farman, Bleriot, Garros and so on. The Villacoublay airfield is still there but is now hidden behind the massive buildings of Dassault Aviation and Sextant Avionique.

Without noticing it, you have passed Peugeot Sport's headquarters. A couple of miles to the south of you are the jet propulsion center at Saclay, the nearby center for nuclear studies and the airfield of Toussus le Noble. There is also the ONERA research and development laboratories in the Fort de Palaiseau. There are no fewer than four Thomson electronics establishments within a few miles, not to mention the headquarters of Giat, which makes lots of secret military things. As you head west past Versailles, you pass through the St. Cyr L'Ecole area, home of the world-renowned Institut Aerotechnique. Turn off and go south and just before you reach Prost Grand Prix you pass the Fort de Bouvier in which the jet maker SNECMA has a testing center. In this part of the world, it seems, even the milkmen have degrees in aeronautical engineering.

If you are dealing with aerospace technologies, Prost logic says, why not go to where the aerospace industry is concentrated. A lot of bright young engineers will consider switching to F1 if the factory is close to where they already working.

It will be interesting to see what happens but I have a suspicion that in the years ahead we will see a lot of technical innovation from Prost...

...and not just in chocolate.

Print Feature