Features - News Feature
JUNE 6, 1997
The Secret Plans of Alain Prost
BY JOE SAWARD
Four-time World Champion Alain Prost has been a team owner for less than five months - but already he has made his mark on the sport he once dominated as a driver. On the race tracks Prost driver Olivier Panis has been competitive. In Brazil he finished third; in Spain he was second behind Jacques Villeneuve, putting himself third in the Drivers' World Championship.
It has been remarkable when one considers that the team began the year with only 92 staff, compared to the 400 at Ferrari, the 275 at McLaren and the 240 at Williams.
"The team is small," says Prost with pride, "but the package is right. To be comparable to Williams, Benetton or McLaren is going to take a lot of time. My mission is to put together a strong team. I know what I want to do but I do not know if I am going to be able to do it the way I want - because of money and timing."
So what is he planning?
We know already that the team will move to a new base in February next year. The town of Versailles has promised to build Prost a factory for which he will have to pay $3.6m over the next 12 years. The immediate cost to buy the land and build a factory - $6.3m - is being taken care of by the town of Versailles and a regional development bureau.
Having friends in the French government has been a big help for Alain.
"It is a help to have the French government motivated by Grand Prix racing," Alain admitted earlier this year. "They know how important sport is in France. You know they did some opinion polls this year asking what people thought were the important things and the result was unbelievable - they said sporting results! People like to win and, sure, there are a lot of problems in France at the moment, but there is no reason why we should not have a strong F1 team. If you have the country and the government behind you that is important. F1 is good to show the world about French high technology and French car companies. It is important.
"But," he added, "I do not like to ask for things. I like to be very independent. I know if I need to ask I can do but I also know I will be able to do it if the government changes."
In June that happened. Alain Juppe's Republican parliament was swept away in elections, leaving President Jacques Chirac to cohabit with a Socialist government.
It was a setback for Prost. Chirac and his ministers had helped Alain a lot. The President, his Sports Minister Guy Drut and the Minister of Justice Jacques Toubon all helped Prost to gain control of Ligier and convince Peugeot to supply him with engines for 1998-2001. After months of negotiation Prost bought the team on February 13 and the following day announced the three-year deal with Peugeot.
The Socialist government will not be very helpful to Prost. The announcement of the team's move from Magny-Cours to Versailles caused a storm of outrage among socialist politicians from the Magny-Cours area. The team had been moved there in the late 1980s as part of a Socialist plan to revive the local industry. Prost demolished that idea.
Since the takeover, however, Alain has relied on private money, rather than government funds. He has signed three-year deals with Bic, Alcatel and Canal Plus and, for the rest of this year at least has the support of SEITA, the recently-privatized national tobacco company which markets the Gauloises Blondes brand of cigarettes.
In the future, however, Alain says the team will have more international backing.
"It is impossible to have a 100% French team. It would be too political. It is my team and my aim is to have a winning French team, based in France but I want it to be international and some of the sponsors are not going to be French."
Alain's first moves as team owner were to put in place a new marketing structure. He hired Gerard Seizille of TAG-Heuer to be his Marketing Director. Interestingly, he also entered into a commercial relationship (via a Swiss company) with Craig Pollock, Jacques Villeneuve's manager.
This connection was fascinating not just because Villeneuve might end up driving for Prost, but also because Pollock and his partner Julian Jakobi had been looking to start up their own team with Reynard Racing Cars and with British American Tobacco.
It would seem likely, therefore, that we can expect to see Prost cars supported by BAT's Lucky Strike with the cars being built by Reynard in England.
When the Versailles authorities revealed its plans for the new factory it announced that it would be building a 45,000 sq ft research and development building and a 22,500 sq ft workshop. The size of the factory suggests that Prost is not planning to build his chassis in France. The place is simply too small.
Coincidentally, Reynard has been buying land and is planning a new headquarters and Pollock has been involved in moves to buy the Tyrrell team - which would be fastest way to get a good factory and a team of people capable of building a car for Prost in time for the 1998 season.
Prost GP - whatever finally emerges - is going to be a much bigger operation than it currently appears to be but, for now, Prost refuses to say exactly what he is planning to do.
"The objective is to beat the best team - whoever that is," he says. "The aim is to progress quickly to become a winning team which is competitive every year. You never know whether you will be World Champion or not because sometimes you don't have exactly what you need but you are at least competitive. That means that every year you need the right budget and the right technical things."
Putting the deal together is an enormous challenge - and a lot of hard work - for Prost.
"I cannot just stay at home and play sport or go cycling," he says. "I have to work..."