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Prost left in the lurch

ALAIN PROST was very unhappy when he discovered on Wednesday last week that he did not have Damon Hill for 1998. Prost and Hill were in the final stages of negotiation when Hill rang up and told Alain that he had agreed a deal with Jordan instead. Prost issued a statement saying that "the two parties have failed to come to a satisfactory agreement and discussions have now come to a close."

We understand that Prost immediately extended his option on Jarno Trulli until December 31 to give himself room to maneuver and he is believed to have contacted Chip Ganassi to discuss the possibility of the new CART Champion Alex Zanardi being released from his contract in the USA. This will not be easy because Zanardi is very highly valued by Ganassi's sponsor Target and we understand that the buy-out price for the contract could be as high as $10m. In addition to that Prost would then have to pay Zanardi's salary which would be at least $5m more. This would represent 25% of the Prost team budget, which is way more than Alain is willing to spend on a driver.

The obvious choice for the drive is, of course, Trulli but there may be a problem in that Jarno is rapidly becoming a man in demand. Back in 1995 when Jarno had done only half a season in German Formula 3 racing, three F1 teams began looking at him. The first was Sauber, the second Williams and the third Benetton. In the end Trulli signed a deal offered by Flavio Briatore.

Williams, however, is still interested in Trulli and although there is no room to race for the team in 1998, there could easily be an opening in 1999 as both Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen will be on the market again. Williams traditionally tries to keep ahead of the driver market, agreeing a deal with Frentzen, for example, at the end of 1995, a move which led to the dismissal of Damon Hill the following year. In order to keep hold of Trulli, Prost is understood to be offering him a three-year deal. Jarno may decide to take this deal but might prefer a one-year deal with Prost so that he could switch over to Williams in 1999. If Prost insists on a long-term deal, Jarno could choose to join Williams as its test driver next year on the understanding that he would race in 1999 and beyond.

Prost may have to accept a one-year deal with Jarno because there is no real choice for next year. Alain could take a risk on a Formula 3000 driver or go for one of the older F1 stars such as Gerhard Berger or Martin Brundle but it would probably be better to keep Trulli for another year and then find someone to replace him in 1999.

Prost has confirmed that Trulli will stand down next week at the Nurburgring when Olivier Panis returns to the team. Panis completed 500 miles of running over four days at Magny-Cours and is now fully fit to return.

We hear, incidentally, that Alain Prost has now found the last 15% of his 1998 budget and a new sponsor will be announced within the next few weeks.

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