AUGUST 23, 1999
Heidfeld tests for Prost Grand Prix
FORMULA 3000 CHAMPION Nick Heidfeld tested for the Prost team last week at Silverstone. The German driver completed 32 laps in a Prost-Peugeot AP02 before being sidelined with a hydraulic failure. His best lap was a 1m28.51s. The test has led to considerable speculation that Heidfeld will race for Prost next season. This would not be a surprise as McLaren has been looking for an F1 team in which to place Heidfeld now that he has won the Formula 3000 title. Nick is one of several drivers backed by Mercedes and McLaren who are being prepared for McLaren drives in the future. These include Ricardo Zonta (who is currently with BAR but is still under long-term contract to McLaren) and Brazilian Helio Castro Neves in the United States. The problem is that placing drivers is not at all easy for McLaren, but unless it can keep up the flow, the drivers it has invested in will disappear to rival teams. This is what happened to earlier McLaren drivers Jan Magnussen and Dario Franchitti.
In a perfect world McLaren and Mercedes would have a second F1 team to train the drivers, but the possiblity that McLaren might buy into Prost and use it as a feeder team have been greeted with annoyed denials from both McLaren and Mercedes.
Alain Prost is expected to lose both his current drivers at the end of the year but it seems virtually certain that he will run Jean Alesi next year in one car. His deal with Gauloises (a cigarette brand owned by the Societe d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes) insists on there being at least one French driver in the team. That deal still has another year to run although it is unlikely that Prost will let go of the SEITA connection as the company has been a sponsor of the team dating back to 1976 when the company funded Guy Ligier's entry into F1 with its Gitanes brand.
The fight for the second Prost seat seems to be between Heidfeld and the team's test driver Stephane Sarrazin although Pedro de la Rosa should also not be discounted. There is talk that Olivier Panis is still negotiating with Prost but he is expected to go to Arrows next year in order to keep Renault happy.
Sarrazin's performances in Formula 3000 this year have been impressive but he is not currently in the same league as Heidfeld. This is partly because the Gauloises Junior team is not a match for West Competition and it is not impossible that as part of the deal to run Heidfeld, Prost has negotiated a drive for Sarrazin with the McLaren Formula 3000 team. This would give David Brown's team a topline driver for next year as Mario Haberfeld, the man who was supposed to step into Heidfeld's shoes, has been a great disappointment this year and is not expected to be retained. Sarrazin would be the perfect man to lead West Competition next year and would then be in a position to move into F1 with Prost when Heidfeld moves on to replace David Coulthard at McLaren - a move which would please Mercedes-Benz.
De la Rosa should not be overlooked as he would give Prost access to Spanish sponsors including the local tobacco company Tabacalera, which is in partnership with the SEITA. De la Rosa has a healthy budget from oil company Repsol, which may be useful in the future if Prost's backing from Total is affected by the current takeover battle going on with Elf.
It should be noted that de la Rosa is managed by Julian Jakobi, a longtime Prost collaborator and trusted adviser.
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