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Prost confirms Panis and Gauloises

ALAIN PROST confirmed that he has re-signed Olivier Panis to drive for his team for the next two seasons. Panis has been out of action in recent races following his leg-breaking accident in Montreal but is expected to be racing before the end of the year and hopes to add to his points score.

Prost confirmed that he believes that Olivier has been an important part of the team's improvement in recent seasons and said that he wants to keep Panis on to maintain stability. He is also obliged to have one French driver as part of his deal with the SEITA tobacco company - which owns the Gauloises Blondes cigarette brand.

Prost also announced that the SEITA (Societe d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes) has agreed to sponsor the team for another three seasons. The relationship between the team and SEITA is the longest-standing in F1, dating back to 1976 when the SEITA funded Guy Ligier's entry into F1 with its Gitanes brand. When Ligier ended up in the hands of Italian Flavio Briatore SEITA significantly scaled-down its involvement in the team by around 30%. The involvement has now been significantly increased with Prost expected to receive at least $25m from the company, which is aiming to expand its sales in the developing markets in Eastern Europe and in Asia.

The Prost budget is believed to be in the region of $50m for the next three years but Alain says he wants to increase the money by 15% before the start of the new season. This would give him a budget of $60m which is on a par with the big combines such as McLaren, Williams and Benetton.

The team has yet to decide on a second driver but Prost has now confirmed that he does have an option on Italian Jarno Trulli, who has been racing for the team since Panis's accident. We understand that Prost is a little concerned that Trulli is a little inconsistent at the moment and there have been talks with Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger and Damon Hill. While the team would probably like another top driver to partner Panis, Prost does not really want to spend too much money on his drivers as he has major capital costs in the next few years as he sets up his new factory. Trulli would be a great deal cheaper than Alesi, Berger or Hill and would be a good investment for the future. Peugeot is understood to be keen on Hill - because of his knowledge of the Renault V10 engine - but we hear that Prost is not willing to consider a deal of more than $3m with a $100,000 a point bonus. Such a deal might add up to considerably more than Damon is being offered by Sauber ($20m for a three-year contract) but we understand that Bernie Ecclestone wants Damon to join either Jordan or Benetton.

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