MAY 28, 2008
Prost emerges from the shadows, hoping to save the day
Alain Prost was been invisible in Formula 1 since Prost Grand Prix collapsed in 2002. This was largely because of the debts that the team left behind, which were reckoned to be in the region of $30m.
Prost moved on to race in the Trophee Andros ice racing series, hooking up with Toyota and for the last two years has been able to win the title. Toyota recently announced that it is terminating the project and thus far Prost has not announced any replacement deal. However, he did turn up in Monaco last weekend and was talking to the French F1 media about becoming "an advisor" to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, in relation to the French Grand Prix.
"I cannot say more at the moment," he told L'Equipe, the daily sports newspaper. "We have to wait to see in the weeks ahead".
There is much happening at the moment with regard to the French race. The FFSA has a contract for the race until the end of 2009 - even if that contract may not be completed - but for 2010 and beyond the race contract is up for grabs. The FFSA will be involved in any case as it is the sanctioning body for the event, but it is entirely possible that the promotion could be taken over by a different organisation. It is thought unlikely that there will be a promoter willing to take on the full risk of a Grand Prix, without financial help from government sources at some level or other. In France there are several levels of administration which can help fund events, at local, regional and national level.
In the past private promotional firms and local government have joined forces to create joint-stock companies and this is the most likely outcome.
The financing of the French Grand Prix remains the issue and while the central government might conceivably fund a race, it is more likely that the politicians will look to a region which is willing to contribute financially. Bernie Ecclestone has made it very clear that he wants a race in Paris and this makes sense from his point of view. The bad news is that inside the "peripherique" ring road, there is no room for an event at any of the parks and exhibition centres. A street race is a terrific idea, but it is hard to imagine that this will be possible with a city government that is doing everything possible to reduce the use of cars in the city.
Prost says that Paris represents "what F1 wants today in terms of prestige, hotel capacity etc" but he reckons that having a race in the city is simply not possible. There are more opportunities outside Paris as land is more readily available, although there is going to be an environmental lobby against most of the projects. The FFSA's idea of hosting the race in a new park at Satory in Versailles was perfect, but the event became a political issue in the recent local election and the pro-race candidate was defeated. The problem with most venues is economic. Making an investment for the kind of infrastructure now required by F1 may be possible in some regions, but the problem is that those willing to pay most are undesirable for F1 in terms of location and glamour. Much work has been done in recent months in relation to land that was formerly owned by the French military. The army has slimmed down considerably since 1996 when President Jacques Chirac announced an end to National Service and declared the intention to create a new professional, flexible, and highly mobile army. Bases all over the country have been closed, creating opportunities for the development of the land. The project at Satory was a perfect example of that. The FFSA was hoping to build a semi-permanent facility, along the lines of Melbourne's Albert Park, in order to reduce the initial investment. The military cutbacks have had a dramatic effect on many French towns. These had become economically dependent on the military, notably in the north and east of the country. There is some potential to use racing to revive economies in these areas, but it makes little sense to build a new racetrack in the middle of nowhere when one has a facility at Magny-Cours that is not working for the very same reason.
Prost made the point that France is in danger of losing its entire racing history if it is not careful. There is just one F1 driver, no teams (Renault F1 is French in name only, although there is an impressive engine-building facility at Viry-Chatillon). Now, Prost says, France is in danger of losing the Grand Prix as well.