FEBRUARY 3, 1997
Prost and the French
France has had a curious fascination with all-French operations but it has brought little success. Matra chassis won the 1969 World Championship but the driver was Jackie Stewart, the engines were built by Ford and the Tyrrell team was British. Ligier (which took over the Matra operation) scored the first all French victory in F1 in Sweden in 1977 with a Ligier-Matra driven by Jacques Laffite. Major success did not come for Ligier until it switched to Ford engines in the late 1970s. In the same period Renault Sport tried to show the world that French engineers could beat everyone. They could not.
After Renault Sport's F1 team broke up it was left to Ligier to fly the French flag but after the arrival of composite chassis technology in 1983 Ligier won nothing. The team survived thanks to Guy Ligier's friendship with President Francois Mitterand. By the time Ligier sold his team in 1992 he had spent an estimated $250 million of French government money in 17 years.
France is currently very strong in F1 engine design but it is still lagging behind the British is chassis technology. Ligier initially used composite chassis built by Advanced Composites in England but in 1989 hired English composite experts to build the first in-house chassis. By 1991 he had given up trying and sold the team to Cyril de Rouvre.
A few months before the sale Ligier had meetings with Alain Prost, the then Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy, Renault chairman Raymond Levy, Francois Michelin (chairman of Michelin and a major shareholder in Peugeot-Citroen), Jean-Luc Lagardere (chairman of Matra) and Alain Guillon (chairman of Elf) in an effort to put together a better team, but no-one seemed interested in backing him.
De Rouvre had little success before he was arrested on fraud charges in November 1993. The team was sold to Flavio Briatore, who saw an opportunity to grab Renault engines for Benetton and was offered the team cheap. He seemed unsure what to do with it and after a confused period in 1995 he settled on the idea of selling it to Tom Walkinshaw. Ligier - who still owned 15% of the shares - blocked the sale and the arrival of a new French government saw moves to return the team to French ownership. President Jacques Chirac ordered his Minister of Youth and Sport Guy Drut to examine ways in which Ligier could be used to promote French technology.
Drut and Briatore met early in 1996, the Italian agreeing that he would sell the team if the right package came along. Walkinshaw walked out and bought Arrows leaving Briatore to run the team again. Prost and Drut have been trying to put together a competitive package for Ligier ever since.
There is no question that when he does take over Ligier Prost will not be relying on French engineers. In all likelihood he will recruit Ferrari technical director John Barnard to head his chassis department. Barnard will only work in England. Prost has also been seen in recent months meeting with Adrian Reynard, one of the few major racing car manufacturers who is not currently involved in F1. Reynard may build the cars to Barnard's designs.
The intention appears to be to use French money and engines and have the chassis built in England. This is entirely logical. Prost will be the front man of the operation but the race team is likely to be run by Hugues de Chaunac, the 50-year-old French baron who has been Prost's mentor since his early days in racing. De Chaunac owns and runs the ORECA team at Paul Ricard.
Keeping the racing team in France - and running a French driver - are probably essential to guarantee the continued support of French companies despite the fact that because of France's curious employment laws it costs the same to have 120 people working in France as it does to employ 220 in Britain.
Prost is promising an announcement about his plans within the next 10 days.