Is the Prost really this quick?

THE big question in Formula 1 circles at the moment is whether the new Prost-Ferrari AP04 is really as quick and reliable as it appears to be - or whether the French team is running the cars very light in an effort to attract headlines and sponsors before the start of the new season in Melbourne. The team has yet to announce its sponsorship package and this is not expected until the Wednesday before the Australian GP. The sponsors are believed to include the PanAmerican Sports Network (PSN) and Repsol-YPF and may also see the continuing presence of Yahoo!. The team's new connection with the Diniz Family may also result in sponsorship from food companies involved with the Diniz distribution companies. Parmalat is almost certain to be one of them.

There is no reason why the Prost should not be competitive. It features a highly competitive Ferrari V10 engine and, if rumors are to be believed, the French team has also bought a Ferrari transmission, the gearbox, the rear suspension and some are even suggesting the rear wings as well. It is in Ferrari's interest to have a competitive secondary team to make life more difficult for West McLaren Mercedes and Prost may fulfil that role, particularly as the team is using Michelin tires, which could prove to be better than the Bridgestones at some races. It is not thought likely that the F1 authorities will make much of a fuss about the Prost as having a top French team to cheer is good for the sport. Rival teams may be upset but there is very little that can be done about it. It should be remembered that a few years ago Ligier used what was in effect a complete Benetton chassis and this resulted in Olivier Panis being able to win the Monaco Grand Prix for the team.

Prost designers will undoubtedly have designed the chassis and the arrival at Guyancourt of McLaren's former head of aerodynamics Henri Durand is a huge bonus. Prost may not have a very good windtunnel but Durand's experience will prove to be invaluable.

Good performances from the team are going to create new problems for Alain Prost because it is not expected that Gaston Mazzacane will be anywhere near the pace of lead driver Jean Alesi. In testing to date Mazzacane has also lagged behind the team's new test driver Pedro de la Rosa and this is bound to create pressure within the team for Mazzacane to be replaced by de la Rosa as the team cannot afford to waste a competitive car by having only one driver who is on the pace. Prost will need to convince Mazzacane's sponsor PSN that the change makes sense but as de la Rosa is a fluent Spanish speaker this should not be too much of a problem. PSN wanted Mazzacane to help them promote their digital TV coverage in Spanish-speaking Latin America and at the time de la Rosa was not thought to be available.

The lap times produced to date have been consistently quick and although they have not often been part of long runs, they are an indication that the car is fairly quick. There is no doubt at all about its reliability.

So on balance the car is probably going to be in a position to score points this year - which would make it a good bet for any big corporations looking for a last-minute sponsorship deal in F1. Orange landed a deal like that with Arrows last year, the deal being worked out by British marketing company CSS Stellar. This is run by Julian Jakobi - who also happens to be a long time Prost advisor and Pedro de la Rosa's manager.

Watch out for a big new deal for Prost...

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