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OCTOBER 19, 2001

Prost goes to the government

ALAIN PROST has met with Marie-George Buffet, the French Minister of Youth and Sports in his continuing campaign to secure funds for his struggling team.

Prost feels that his team has suffered from a lack of domestic support as the only French team in Formula 1. It was France which was the main pioneer in motor sport after all, which initiated Grand Prix racing in 1906 and enjoyed a long history of success and national prestige through the Renault, Peugeot, Talbot, Delage and Bugatti teams in the early days of the sport.

Thereafter the initiative passed between Italy, Germany and Britain and only in the 1990s did France become a dominant force once again in the form of the series of Renault V10s that powered Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to a string of world championships with Williams.

Renault has returned as a chassis and engine builder for the first time since 1985, but instead of an all-French team it opted to buy out the British-based Benetton team, and Prost has admitted that he would have preferred, in hindsight to base himself outside France in order to make a success of his Formula 1 ambitions.

"Technically we could be very, very strong in France because the technology is there and we are working much closer to some companies," he said. "But in terms of support and sponsors and everything it's - as you can see on the car - not a French sponsor and it's very disappointing but that doesn't mean you should stop and it's done. I don't regret anything."

The Prost team's financial plight reached crisis point in 2001, with an acrimonious split from sponsor acquisition specialists UFA was followed by increasing whispers in the paddock about a shortage of funds - with Prost even alleged to have met the wage bill from his own pocket on occasion. The transfer of Pedro de la Rosa to Jaguar and the arrival of Tomas Enge as a replacement for the injured Luciano Burti brought in funding, but it is not known whether the team can meet enough bills to continue into 2002.

Despite all this Prost insists that he did not go cap-in-hand to the government. "Most importantly, I have not asked the Minister of Sports for anything on account that it is not up to her to fix the team's problems," he explained.

"It is simply important for her to be kept up-to-date on what is going on, why the French drivers are having problems and why we cannot find French sponsors."

The quadruple world champion's team was originally the famous Ligier outfit, which itself enjoyed considerable government support and the involvement of such major national companies as petrochemical giant Elf, tobacco brand Gitaines and the both the Talbot and Renault motor manufacturers.

Already Prost has sold a significant stake in the team to the Brazilian Diniz family, and relies on the South American TV network PSN for much of its current budget. Having declined the Diniz family's offer to buy the team - and thereby its debts - for a dollar, Prost's grueling schedule, which has taken him to Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Italy in recent weeks - must continue against the backdrop of global recession if he is to save his team.