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McLaren and Prost - a future together?

BEFORE he became a team owner Alain Prost spent the 1996 season as a special advisor to the McLaren with which he enjoyed such success in his career, winning three World Championships with the team in 1985, 1986 and 1989. Prost studied every aspect of the team and, in many respects, the team he built in France was a reflection of the lessons he learned at McLaren. But Prost Grand Prix has not been a success to date, indeed its progress seems to be going downhill. This year the team ended the season last in the World Championship behind even Minardi with only one eighth place to its name.

Alain Prost has not enjoyed himself this year but he says that he is not giving up. He will rebuild the team and he has an engine deal with Ferrari for next year. It is expensive but Prost had no real choice. No-one else wanted to give him engines for 2001.

But, in the longer-term, Prost's strategy seems to be the same as it was two years ago. Alain knows that beating the big teams is virtually impossible unless one can build up a similar industrial structure and to do that a great deal of money is necessary. To attract money one needs results and to get results one needs a good engine. Prost had hoped to convince Mercedes to supply him with engines in 2001 but the Germans said no. It was not because Alain's arguments did not make sense but rather because it was impossible from a practical point of view. With Ferrari competitive and Michael Schumacher at the height of his powers, Mercedes-Benz would benefit greatly from having more competitive cars to take points away from the Italian team. Prost would make a useful ally just as Sauber is supposed to be doing for Ferrari. The problem was that next year there are new engine regulations which ban the use of certain exotic materials inside the engines and that means that the 2000-spec V10s can no longer be used. The 1999 engines would not be competitive and Ilmor Engineering - which designs and builds the engines for Mercedes-Benz - does not have the capacity to produce two supplies of the 2001 engine. And even if the company could do it, McLaren would probably not like it.

But this does not mean that a deal is not possible in 2001. Prost has signed a two-year deal with Ferrari but it is fairly clear that he was forced into doing that as Ferrari did not want to make an investment in facilities and equipment if Prost was going to leave after a year. This is not really an issue as Prost can no doubt sell on the engines in 2002, probably to Minardi. It might cost a few million dollars to sort out the deal but nothing is impossible.

It is probably significant that Mercedes-Benz has announced its withdrawal from CART racing. Despite this Ilmor is keeping on the staff for 2001 to prepare a supply of customer engines for the US series. Ilmor does not need the money but it is a good idea to keep the staff employed. If there were no long-term plans in CART this would make no sense unless, of course, Ilmor is planning to provide a secondary engine supply in F1 in 2001.

What is perhaps most significant is that what Prost needs, McLaren currently has available. Prost Grand Prix needs a windtunnel. It has an old and not very good facility in Magny-Cours but the team has been talking about building a new one for the last couple of years. And yet nothing has happened. One has to ask the question why such a vital piece of equipment has been delayed to such an extent. The answer is that Prost is probably planning to save time and money by reaching an agreement to use the British Marine Technology Ltd. wind tunnel at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. McLaren has had exclusive use of the Teddington wind tunnel since it was privatized by the British government in 1982. The facility is of little use to BMT these days and McLaren has invested heavily in upgrading the facility although we believe the arrangement remains a lease at the moment.

McLaren will no longer need the Teddington wind tunnel when its all-new facility is ready at the Paragon Technology Centre in Woking. This is due to begin being used shortly which means that by the middle of next year Prost could possibly take over at Teddington. It is probably significant, therefore, that Alain has recently hired McLaren's head of aerodynamics Henri Durand, who knows Teddington well.

McLaren will also have the old Woking factory available soon as the whole group is due to move to the Paragon Technology Centre. This will probably not happen until 2003 but the old McLaren factory might serve Prost well as a new home for John Barnard's B3 Technologies. At the start of this year Prost announced that he would be funding the construction of a new technical facility to act as the "English technological arm" for the company. Nothing has happened since then and it may be that Prost has decided to wait until the Woking factory comes available. The McLaren factory is only eight miles from Barnard's current facility.

Prost says that the team will retain a French flavor and will continue to be based in France but this does not mean that the research, development and some of the production of the cars cannot be done in Britain.

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