NOVEMBER 3, 2000

A good move for Prost

AS we have been predicting, Alain Prost has signed up Joan Villadelprat and Henri Durand to be managing director and technical director of Prost Grand Prix.

AS we have been predicting, Alain Prost has signed up Joan Villadelprat and Henri Durand to be managing director and technical director of Prost Grand Prix. The appointments help the process of internationalization that the team has been undergoing in recent months and that should help Alain to attract new people and to alter attitudes within the team itself and within France.

Villadelprat will take over the role previously filled by Jean-Luc Gripond, while Durand will work with the team's young engineering team: head of design Jean-Paul Gousset and assistant technical director Loic Bigois. Both Durand and Gousset have extensive international experience in Formula 1 with British teams.

Villadelprat, a Spaniard, has been involved in Formula 1 since he was a member of Ron Dennis's Project 4 team when it took over McLaren back in the autumn of 1980 and he stayed with the team for six years until moving to become chief mechanic at Ferrari. After a brief spell at Tyrrell he joined Benetton and was largely responsible for running the team during the successful years on the mid-1990s.

The appointment is significant in that Villadelprat is used to running a team by himself, leaving the team principal (at Benetton this was Flavio Briatore and later David Richards) to deal with the political and strategic issues. If Alain Prost allows Villadelprat to do the job properly, the team should make considerable progress, as Villadelprat will also be able to rely on the expertise of sporting director John Walton.

Having said that Villadelprat is not known for being a diplomat and he is used to getting his way. The staff at Prost, or at least the older members of staff who joined the team from Ligier, are used to having a say in what happens. It was an internal revolt that resulted in the departure in the middle of last year of technical director Alan Jenkins when Prost decided that he had to keep the French happy rather than hold on to Jenkins at all costs.

Since then the French influence over Prost Grand Prix has waned considerably. Peugeot is no longer the engine supplier and Gauloises has ceased to be the title sponsor. Renault refused to supply the team with engines. France did not come to Prost's rescue in his time of need.

The result of all this is that Alain is less under the thumb of the French government but he is struggling to get a decent budget. But he is not exactly penniless either. Yahoo! is believed to be contracted to supply at least $20m. There should be another $8m from Agfa and PlayStation. The team's income from television will be cut dramatically next year because the team was not one of the top 10 in the Constructors' World Championship but it should bring in another $5m.

This means that Alain has enough to pay for his Ferrari engines - but that is all. He needs to find money to cover the running costs of the team and replace the money lost with the departure of the French backers. That amounts to around $30m. He can find a third or perhaps more of the missing money if he signs up Pedro Diniz and does a deal with Parmalat but he is still on the lookout for a big sponsor. The advantage he has is that the car is currently devoid of decals and so there is a lot of space to sell and with a Ferrari engine deal the team should be in a position to perform better next year.

Prost has some powerful partners in Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and Bertelsmann and between them they should be able to come up with the money needed, if only as a means of advertising some of their diverse products.

When all is said and done, however, Prost's biggest problem is not money. Formula 1 teams can find money these days if they have space available on the cars. The problem is keeping hold of that money in the long-term. To achieve that a team needs to have results which promise better things.

Prost's biggest problem remains the belief in France that the team is somehow owned by the French people and that it must do things in a French way. The evidence that this is not the way to go is easy to put together. One simply needs to analyze the results of Ligier and Prost since the modern age of Formula 1 began in 1982. Even when the team had access to good engines (thanks to the French government) the results were disappointing. Being the French national team is more of a burden than an advantage.

This problem may ease with the arrival of the new Renault Sport team in 2002 but until then Prost needs to go on balancing the need for internationalization with the need for money. As the only totally French team he has access to sponsorship which is simply not available to other teams. To date he has used this wisely. However, without results French non-government money will dry up. The big French companies which are not influenced by the government are few in number and their bosses tend to be men who demand results. They would not have been successful if they had been any other way for the system does not make it easy.

The convoluted French employment laws mean that it costs Alain twice as much as other teams to employ people because he must match their salaries with payments to the social security system. The big players within the team are, in all likelihood, not covered by these rules as they are employed by offshore companies owned by Prost but the main workforce cannot be run in this way.

Prost says that this is something he has to accept. He wants to stay in France and keep a French flavor to the team, but he knows that if he is to keep up with the technological advances in F1 he needs to have a base in Britain. Continental teams suffer as they are not part of the "Motor Racing Valley" system which exists in England. Secrets do not remain secret for long in Britain. Information is constantly passing between the F1 teams and engineers with new skills move rapidly from place to place. If you are out of that loop you are missing on the technology and that effects your competitiveness. This is particularly important in terms of composite technology and production techniques. To keep track of this Prost needs a British production facility and he has been planning one for some time, using John Barnard's B3 Technologies as a starting point.

France has a lot to offer in terms of high-powered engineers and aerodynamicists. The French engineering schools are very highly-rated and aerodynamics is more advanced in France because of France's role in the European Space Program. Prost has made a point of recruiting young engineers. The team started out in 1997 with just 60 people but has now grown to 230 and they have an average age of 33.

The implication is that Alain is not going to leave his factory in France and head off to England - even if it costs him more to be where he is. But he may be able to reduce his costs considerably by splitting the running of the team from the design and production. This is not difficult but it is when one tries to split these two from one another that problems begin (as Ferrari found when it established technical centers in Britain).

Prost however is clever. He is thinking much further into the future than a season or two. He knows what it takes to win in F1 and as long as the ambition burns he will move towards that goal. What he is not good at doing is managing the business on a day-to-day basis and Villadelprat is a good man to do that...

...if Alain will let him do it.