Features - News Feature
SEPTEMBER 1, 1995
Team Prost - a dream or reality?
BY JOE SAWARD
It is six years since we first heard vague rumours that Alain Prost wanted to run his own Formula 1 team. In mid-1989, when he had fallen out with Ayrton Senna and was on the verge of leaving McLaren, he and engineer John Barnard came very close to doing a deal for Renault engines. The problem on that occasion was that the world was going into a recession and they could not find any sponsorship. Alain went to Ferrari instead. Two years later he was fired by Ferrari and found himself without a drive for 1992. Once again he began to look at doing his own team and had long negotiations with Guy Ligier about taking the French team. It failed and Alain joined Williams for 1993.
He was been retired now for nearly two years - working as a special ambassador for Renault. Everyone assumed that this would ultimately lead to a Prost-Renault car. A few months ago came rumours that Alain was upset because Renault had refused his demands and ay Hockenheim there came confirmation that the Prost-Renault relationship was over.
The Renault press statement was carefully worded with Prost being portrayed as a man looking for a new direction in his life, but insiders had no doubt that Alain was furious with the French manufacturer because of its failure to give him an engine. Alain quietly told French pressmen that the reason his team was still not a reality was because he could not get Renault to supply him with engines.
"I had an agreement in principal with some top engineers," he said. "I had also put together 75% of the necessary budget. I only needed to get a competitive engine for the next five seasons. I was going to present the new team on September 1 and the plan was to run a car in August 1996 and so be ready for the 1997 season. Renault did not want to follow me. In these conditions we no longer have anything to do together."
But has Prost really given up on his F1 dream? He says so, but there are indications that within a few months we may see a different announcement from Alain.
He once said of his driving that: "When I look fast, I'm not smooth and I am going slowly. And when I look slow, I am smooth and going fast" and a lot of people feel it is the same with his post-racing career. When everyone is talking about Team Prost Alain isn't doing much, but when the rumours fade he is busy putting together deals.
Rumours have now switched away from Team Prost and now centre on ideas that he will race a German touring car - he tested a Mercedes-Benz recently. There have been suggestions that he will be hired as a consultancy role with McLaren and even wilder stories saying that Ron Dennis might even hire him as an F1 driver once again.
This is hard to imagine because when Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola last year Prost said that - out of respect to his great rival - he would never race in F1 again.
He has now tried a quiet life with a few businesses to keep him busy but he has been unable to settle down. He wants to be involved in the sport again.
"Racing is a passion which still burns inside me," he says. "I cannot shake it off."
Having been at the top for so many years, Alain is not likely to want to compete in touring car racing. But is he sufficiently interested in business to be employed as a consultancy role. Many think he does not have the application necessary for business. But does he have the dedication necessary to run his own team.
In the modern era no top F1 driver has ever built a successful Grand Prix team. Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees and Dan Gurney (Eagle) all started teams which won Grands Prix but as F1 became more and more commercial in the 1970s and 1980s the teams either changed dramatically or died out. Brabham was taken over by Bernie Ecclestone; after Bruce McLaren's death his team was run by Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander until they were elbowed aside by Ron Dennis and John Barnard. Surtees closed after eight years in F1 and Eagle lasted only three seasons.
Men who had less success as F1 drivers had more success as team bosses. Guy Ligier's F1 career as a driver was short and unimpressive but his team, started in 1976, did well in its early years. Jackie Oliver's career as an F1 racer was moderate and when he founded Arrows it did not improve - and never has, even if the team continues to this day. Gerard Larrousse raced in one GP in 1974 but had his own team between 1987-94 - without much success. Arturo Merzario (who ran his own team between 1978-1979) and Hector Rebaque (1977-79) did little more than survive.
Clearly a top team manager needs different talents to a top driver.
But what is the four-time World Champion going to do?
Alain is smart enough to know his weaknesses. He will probably plan to leave the organisation, the technical side of the business and the financial management to people better qualified than himself. He is likely to be the figurehead of a team, looking after the public image, the media and the sponsors. Alain's strongest weapon is his international renown and reputation. He is a huge star, particularly in France. He was the first Frenchman ever to win a Formula 1 World Championship and is - quite literally - a legend in his own time.
And right now, despite the enormous success of French engine-builders in F1, France is desperate for a team it can call its own. The failure of Larrousse earlier this year was the final disaster for French racing teams, coming in the wake of the closure of AGS, the sale of Ligier to Flavio Briatore/Benetton/Tom Walkinshaw and the collapse of Formula Project, which had F1 ambitions but was running an Indycar team.
The takeover of Ligier was no great surprise as it came shortly before the end of French President Francois Mitterand's term of office. Mitterand and his allies in the French government have been pouring money into Ligier since the late 1970s - largely because Guy Ligier was a close personal friend and supporter of Mitterand. This relationship meant that taxpayers' money from the state-owned Elf, Renault, Loto and Gitanes Blondes companies - and several others over the years - was invested in Ligier.
With all the French teams now gone, some of that money may be available to other racing organizations and Prost is perfectly placed to take advantage of that money. He is a pal - and supporter - of the new French President Jacques Chirac, who is something of a racing fan.
Prost has always said that whatever happens he will not run an all-French operation - because the in-depth expertise available in Britain is far beyond that available in France - but Team Prost still would be a team with a French flavour.
There is no question that the man Prost wants John Barnard to run the technical side of his operation. The pair worked closely together at McLaren between 1984 and 1987, during which time Alain won two World Championships. A deal with Barnard would dictate having Team Prost's research & development facilities based in England, as "JB" will not work abroad. Prost does not mind that but his problem is that Barnard signed a five-year deal with Ferrari in August 1992 and, in theory at least, will not be available until August 1997. F1 contracts, however, are usually negotiable...
As the team organizer Prost will almost certainly have his trusted friend and one-time team manager in Formula 3 days, 48-year-old French aristocrat Hugues de Chaunac. De Chaunac was a racer himself until he formed the ORECA team in 1972. The team ran all the works teams for the Automobiles Martini company and was enormously successful, winning the 1975 European Formula 2 title with driver Jacques Laffite. Martini tried to enter F1 in 1978 with Rene Arnoux but the MK23 chassis did not have any ground-effect technology at a time when such things were vital and lack of performance, limited money and no FOCA travel benefits crippled the project after just a few races.
A disappointed, but wiser, de Chaunac went back to Formula 3 to concentrate on a new young driver called Alain Prost. In 1979 Alain won the European Formula 3 championship under de Chaunac's guidance and their friendship has continued. When Alain wants advice he often talks to de Chaunac, who is also his partner in a company called Pole Promotions, which used to organize the Pau F3000 race.
After Prost had moved into F1, de Chaunac concentrated on F3 and ORECA won nine French F3 titles in 11 years and helped a string of French drivers towards F1 careers. These included Jean Alesi, Erik Comas, Olivier Groulliard, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Yannick Dalmas and Jean-Marc Gounon. ORECA was also involved in rallying and desert events such as the Paris-Dakar. It was ORECA which gave Mazda victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1991 and it has since enjoyed a very successful double relationship with BMW France, running touring cars in the summer and ice racing in the winter. The ORECA empire has now expanded to include a large and successful fabrication and distribution business with motor racing parts and a public relations company which specializes in putting on racing-related events.
One of the most successful racing teams in existence outside F1, ORECA has impressive facilities at Paul Ricard in the south of France. For de Chaunac his only real failure was in F1 in 1978. F1 is unfinished business...
The financial side of the business is likely to be run by a more recent ally, financial and legal ace Julian Jakobi. Jakobi worked with Mark McCormack's International Management Group in the late 1980s, when Prost was run by IMG and he went on to work as Ayrton Senna's business manager. When Senna was killed Jakobi was the man behind the establishment of the Senna Foundation and is rumoured to have ambitions to put together an F1 team, which explains stories last autumn that there were long-term plans for a F1 team supported by the Senna Foundation.
Alain and Jakobi were together at the recent German GP and de Chaunac was also there, keeping a low profile but wearing a racing pass belonging to Jordan sponsor and Peugeot motorsporting partner Total.
This is no surprise because for some weeks there have been rumours that Prost and his men have been in contact with Peugeot Sport management and Prost has some strong allies at the Peugeot headquarters at Velizy. Peugeot Sport managing-director Jean-Pierre Jabouille was Alain's team mate in the Renault F1 team in 1980 while technical director Jean-Pierre Boudy worked closely with Alain at Renault in 1981-82-83. They are all old friends.
At the start of 1994 Peugeot tried very hard to convince Prost to join the then new McLaren-Peugeot team. Alain even tested a McLaren-Peugeot MP4/9 at Estoril, but decided not to join the new alliance - a wise decision.
Peugeot is still to win Prost away from rival manufacturer Renault and Jabouille is understood to pushing hard to get Peugeot Sport president Frederic St Geours and Peugeot-Citroen big boss Jacques Calvet to support Team Prost. Peugeot currently has an exclusive engine supply deal with Jordan which runs until the end of 1997 but might switch later or expand to two engine supplies.
Prost is no fool and knows that it he wants to enter F1 he must put together a strong package and allow plenty of time to have the team up-and-running. He says he has already aborted his plans for 1997 but it is quite possible that he is talking to Peugeot about a deal for 1998-2002.
In a recent outburst in a Swiss newspaper, Prost admitted that his ambition was to be an F1 team owner and launched a highly critical attack on the current generation of team bosses: "F1," he said, "needs a new team of able managers who want to question the system and look at the sport's problems through fresh eyes."
We shall have to wait and see if Prost's dream comes true. Whatever now happens we are unlikely to see Team Prost before 1998 and in the meantime Alain will have to continue to spend time with his children at his house in Switzerland; and continue to pop backwards and forwards to his flat in Paris and his house on France's Cote Basque, alongside the sunny south-western Atlantic coast near Biarritz, where there are hills up which he can cycle (his current passion), wonderful fish - his favorite food - and magnificent golf courses...