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SEPTEMBER 28, 2000

Prost and the French

The announcement that Gauloises Blondes is not going to sponsor Prost Grand Prix next year is an earthquake in Formula 1 sponsorship circles. To understand the full significance one must know that Gauloises is a brand of a company called the Societe d'Exploitation Industrielle des Tabacs et Allumettes (SEITA). This was France's national tobacco company until it was privatized in 1995. However, the French government still retains a share of the company and remains in control.

The decision not to continue with Prost was not, however, taken in the corridors in power in Paris. Our sources at SEITA say that the company had every intention of continuing with Prost Grand Prix in 2001 but the team has rejected them.

The French government has been backing the team - in its various different guises - since Guy Ligier launched his F1 team with backing from SEITA's Gitanes brand in 1976. The Gitanes branding remained on the cars until the end of 1995 when it was decided to concentrate on the Gauloises brand instead.

The details of why Prost decided to cut his links with the government are not yet clear. In a press statement SEITA (which is now part of a bigger tobacco group called Altadis) said that the investment needed in Formula 1 nowadays was not justifiable. Such excuses are often used in F1 when a sponsor has been ousted because they will not pay the asking price. The implication in all this is that Prost is now confident that he has a big new sponsor for next year.

The most important aspect of the decision is that the split cuts the final umbilical cord which existed between Prost and the French government. It is believed to have been this link which led Prost to decide to fire Alan Jenkins in May rather than kicking out a number of old Ligier staff who were opposed to Jenkins's approach. In doing so, Prost must have know that he would lose all (or most) of his English engineers (which has happened) and one can only conclude, therefore, that he had no choice but to make the otherwise illogical decision. Without such constraints in the future, Prost can do as he pleases. Whether this will eventually mean that Prost will relocate the team England remains to be seen but this is the logical course of action and without pressure from the French he will be able to do so. Prost cannot have been happy with Renault's attitude towards him in recent months. The state-controlled car company refused point black to supply him with engines and the decision to end the relationship with Gauloises may be related to that.

The big question now is where Prost is going to get his money for 2001. There have been rumors of deals with Telefonica and with Parmalat but these both involve the need for the team to take a driver. In recent days we have heard stories of a possible tie-up with the giant Belgian brewing company Interbrew, which in the last few months has been expanding rapidly with the acquisitions of Bass. Interbrew is a company with a very carefully thought out brand management, specializing in local growth while also maintaining a number of international brands, notably Stella Artois and Labatt. The latter was one of the Williams team's sponsors when Alain Prost was driving for the team in 1993 so there is a connection there. It is worth noting that there could easily be a connection between Interbrew and the Diniz Family as a sponsorship deal is return for positioning rights in the Diniz Family's supermarket chains in South America is a feasible deal.