OCTOBER 16, 2001
F1 holds its breath as clock ticks on Prost team fate
It is now three months since Pedro Diniz and his father Abilio bid a nominal sum for the control of the team in return for assuming debts which were believed to be well in excess of $20 million.
At around the time of the Italian GP, Prost had been expected to announce the identity of a major new sponsor, hotly tipped to be Saudi Arabia's Prince Al-Waleed who owns stakes in Citibank and Canary Wharf amongst his various diverse investments. It was understood that his contribution would have enabled Prost to fend off what looked increasingly like a hostile bid for the team as well as help fund its continued use of Ferrari V10 customer engines in 2002.
Yet the absence of a firm sponsorship deal seems to have left Prost on the ropes. Despite paring his budget down to what must be regarded as austerity levels by the standards of contemporary F1, Prost still spent around $20 million on running his team this season - and that's before expending almost the same figure on leasing the Ferrari engines. True, he has managed to claw back some funding by letting Jean Alesi leave the team mid-season - and his contract for Heinz-Harald Frentzen to take over the seat involved no payment up-front to the German driver, merely $60,000 bonus per championship point scored. And Frentzen never scored a single point for Prost.
There had been less focused speculation that a ticket to ride on Bernie's F1 express, as a signatory to the Concorde agreement, might guarantee a buyer from the ranks of those car companies not yet involved in the F1 business. Yet in the current economic climate the strategy seems to be to batten down the commercial hatches and any funds not yet allocated to the F1 business are not likely to be made available.
If Prost goes down, then it will be a battle between Minardi and newcomers Toyota to earn the lucrative 10th spot in the constructors' pecking order which ensures a share in the 47 per cent commercial rights dividend payable under the terms of the Concorde agreement. But for the moment, Prost is working flat-out to resolve the dilemma, even if it appears to be an uphill struggle.