Features - News Feature

FEBRUARY 1, 1997

Team Prost


It is eight 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...

It is eight 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. These failed and so Alain sat out the 1992 season and signed a deal to join Williams for 1993. He won his fourth world title and retired, taking on a new role as a television commentator and a special ambassador for Renault. But the Renault agreement was shortlived. In July 1995 it was suddenly cancelled. 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."

Prost turned his attention to Renault's rival Peugeot. At the time Peugeot Sport's managing-director was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Alain's team mate in the Renault F1 team in 1980, while Peugeot Sport technical director Jean-Pierre Boudy also worked with Alain at Renault in 1981-82-83.

At the start of 1994 Peugeot had 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 wanted to be involved with Prost but it had a problem. It was tied into an exclusive deal with Jordan until the end of 1997. At the time a frustrated Prost gave a highly critical interview to a Swiss newspaper, admitting that his ambition was to be an F1 team owner."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."

Unable to move in 1996 he joined McLaren to act as a consultant - and to see how a top team is run - but a lot of people in F1 wondered if he really had the dedication needed to be an F1 team owner. McLaren boss Ron Dennis was one of them.

"He knows just how much it takes to run an F1 team," said Ron. "And I don't see him doing it."

Patrick Faure of Renault said much the same. You need different talents to be a top driver and to be a team owner.

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.

Graham Hill's team ran between 1973 and his death in 1975; Chris Amon's team opened and closed in 1974; Emerson Fittipaldi's survived from 1975-1982 before it shut down.

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.

Alain is smart enough to know his weaknesses. He has probably planned 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. Larrousse flopped, AGS closed down, DAMS failed to get off th ground and then in 1994 Ligier was sold to Flavio Briatore.

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.

The new French President was Jacques Chirac, a pal of Prost, and something of a race fan. He immediately ordered his Minister of Sport Guy Drut to find a way to get Ligier back into French hands to use it to showcase French technology.

Prost always said that whatever happened he would 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.

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.

Throughout the year Prost, Drut and others worked towards their ultimate goal of buying Ligier and convincing Peugeot to supply the new team with engines. One by one the problems were overcome and on February 13 in Geneva Alain finally signed a contract and Ligier was his...