AUGUST 14, 2000
How can Prost sort the situation?
ALAIN PROST could have only two weeks left to save the future of his beleaguered Formula 1 team, or face the prospect of a humiliating departure from the sport he so commandingly dominated during his career as a four times world champion driver with an all-time record 51 Grand Prix wins to his credit.
It is believed he is pinning his hopes on a 45 million pound deal with Bertelsmann, the German television and media combine, to take a major stake in the team which will enable him to remain in his current role as team principal.
If the 44-year old Frenchman is forced out of the business altogether by losing control of his team, it is unlikely he will ever return. Close associates say it is Prost's acute lack of decisiveness which has caused the team to drift into its current abject state.
At the height of his racing career, Prost rightly ranked as one of the greatest drivers of his era. Yet mechanics and engineers who worked with him report that he bit his finger nails blood raw as he agonized over minuscule technical details such as which springs to use on his car. None of those colleagues are surprised that the Prost grand prix team is currently reeling against the ropes.
In Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, both the Prost-Peugeots of Jean Alesi and Nick Heidfeld were posted as the first two retirements of the race.
"We have had the same problems for a long time," said Prost despondently, "and we are still not able to find the proper solutions. It is difficult for everyone in the team to work in the present circumstances, but this is not a valid reason for our lack of results."
At the present moment he has no engine deal for next season as Peugeot, his current partner, is pulling out at the end of this season after an acrimonious and unsuccessful partnership. His present title sponsor, the Altardis tobacco combine whose Gauloises brand have been associated with the team since it was originally founded by Guy Ligier in 1976, are demanding clarification of the team's plans by the end of the month otherwise
"Alain has been telling us for months that he will have a decision within the next few weeks," said an Altardis insider at Budapest last weekend. "Things can't just drift like this."
Bernie Ecclestone, formula one's leading power broker and commercial rights holder for the world championship, has intervened to help save the team. Last weekend Ecclestone and Prost were seen in discussion with Ferrari personnel as Prost tried to clinch a deal to lease customer V10 engines from the famous Italian team from which, ironically, he was fired as a driver one race from the end of the 1991 season.
The Ferrari engine deal is hugely expensive with annual lease fees of 16.8 million pounds, but it could be Prost's only realistic lifeline. Renault's senior management has made it clear that it will not supply customer Supertec V10 engines to Prost as long as Alain remains in control as they are not convinced he can get the job done..
However, Prost is also a close friend of Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt. "Jean is hugely loyal to his old friends and it would be totally in character if he tried to help Alain," said a mutual acquaintance.
Speculation that David Hunt, younger brother of the late world champion James Hunt, was poised to bid for the team was rejected by Prost insiders at Hungaroring last weekend.
However, insiders believe that this could be an effort to throw others off the scent and that Hunt is poised to make a bid for the team with support from private equity house Candover Investments.
Hunt is also believed to own the rights to Lotus, one of the sport's most famous names, which withdraw from formula one in 1994 with financial problems. If he bought Prost, it might be possible to rename the team.
All I can say is that it is my goal to get the Team Lotus name back into formula one," said Hunt today. "We are continuing to talk to several teams, but beyond that I have no comment to make."