Features - Year in Review
NOVEMBER 17, 2001
F1 may well be a highly lucrative business if you're at the sharp end of the game, but bumping along at the back of the bus can be as painful as any other commercial enterprise. Prost may have started the year with a half-decent car which really looked quite promising during pre-season testing, but the politics stemming from the split shareholdings which controlled the company ensured that it was one non-stop migraine factory for the retired triple World Champion.
One major plus point was the replacement of the brittle Peugeot engines with bullet-proof customer V10s from Ferrari. The AP04 chassis was developed by former McLaren aerodynamicist Henri Durand who took over as technical director for Prost at the start of the year while the regular management of the team was entrusted to the highly experienced Joan Villadelprat.
Yet the team was desperately short of money from the start, having lost several major backers including Gauloises, PlayStation and Yahoo at the end of 2001. Nevertheless they scraped up some support from Acer computers and the south American media group PSN, the latter deal also including the uncompetitive Gaston Mazzacane who partnered Jean Alesi only until the fifth race when he was booted out in favor of Luciano Burti.
The management structure had also been further complicated by the fact that Pedro Diniz and his millionaire father Abilio, the Brazilian supermarket magnate, had become 40 per cent shareholders in the team. It may have paid the $18 million Ferrari lease fees, but the team was still desperately short of operating cash and had to muddle by with little more than an additional $20 million - absolutely peanuts by contemporary F1 standards.
After an initially promising spurt it was clear that Prost was going to struggle, particularly bearing in mind that the car's Ferrari-inspired rear suspension was designed to work in conjunction with Bridgestone tires rather than the Michelins used by the French team.
Alesi drove well for a handful of Championship points, but then had a blazing row with Prost post-French GP. That led to an exchange of terse letters and Alesi's decision to leave the team, something which at least saved Prost some much-needed cash. He was replaced for the Hungarian GP by Heinz-Harald Frentzen who had just lost his seat at Jordan following - coincidentally - a similarly fraught disagreement with his proprietor.
Ironically, Frentzen came to be regarded as a more effective test and development driver, methodical and logical rather than emotional and impulsive like the popular Alesi. The mild-mannered German driver was also given much of the credit for nudging the engineering team in the right direction when it came to a late season rear suspension update. It was a step in the right direction, sure enough, but like so much at Prost during 2001 it was probably a case of too little too late.