APRIL 10, 2000

Prost's engine situation

IT is becoming increasingly clear that Alain Prost's relationship with Peugeot - and probably the French car company's involvement in Formula 1 - are coming to an end.

IT is becoming increasingly clear that Alain Prost's relationship with Peugeot - and probably the French car company's involvement in Formula 1 - are coming to an end. In last Saturday's Le Figaro newspaper Alain was less than flattering about his engine supplier.

"Let's say we haven't managed to really tune our violins with Peugeot," he said. "I expect a constructor to get involved 100Êpercent. We don't have the team France deserves. I've always said I was doing this project for France. If we don't make it, it's France that will have lost."

"I've not enjoyed much these last two years," he continued. "Not at all in fact. I'm hoping for better days."

The breakdown of the relationship has created a lot of rumors in the Formula 1 paddock and while the general consensus is that Prost will have a second supply of Mercedes-Benz engines next year, there have also been rumors of deals being discussed with Renault and Ferrari. While there is obviously superficial logic for both deals, neither really makes sense for Prost as the Ferrari deal would be expensive and would require the current relationship between Sauber and Ferrari to lapse and the Renault deal would be a political nightmare as the revamped Benetton team cannot really be seen to be losing to a customer operation.

There is considerably more logic to a Mercedes-Benz deal as it would enable McLaren to have some back-up in its battle to beat Ferrari. Prost has well-established designers and a good showing by a Prost-Mercedes team would take some points away from Ferrari. In addition it would enable McLaren to keep an eye on Michelin tire development as it is almost certain that Prost will switch to the French rubber. There is further industrial logic to the deal as Prost is currently in need of a good windtunnel facility. The plans to build a new windtunnel at the Prost factory in Guyancourt are on hold because the team does not have the money it did a couple of years ago. The old Ligier windtunnel at Magny-Cours is still being used but it is out-of-date and other top-level windtunnel facilities are few and far between. The problem is that even if work starts now a new tunnel will not be effective until the 2003 season. However McLaren is about to move its entire aerodynamic program to the new windtunnel at the Paragon Technology Centre in Woking. This will leave the windtunnel which McLaren currently uses - at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington - available for another team and it would make sense for Prost to use this as Teddington is in within easy reach of John Barnard's B3 Technologies operation in Shalford, Surrey. Using the Teddington facility would give Prost a very quick boost in performance and if it was part of a Mercedes deal would be a cheap option.

However, there still appears to be some reluctance on the part of McLaren (which has the right to veto a second engine supply) to agree to a deal for Prost despite the fact that it makes perfect sense. McLaren is trying to figure out how to beat Michael Schumacher in a competitive Ferrari. One option is to bolster the driver line-up by hiring Jacques Villeneuve as MikaÊHakkinen's team-mate. Villeneuve is certainly quick and mentally tough but there is not a great deal of logic in replacing David Coulthard as he is still a very strong team mate for Hakkinen and he does not currently have an obvious team to which he can move for a more competitive car. If the Scotsman does move he will have to go through at least one year and perhaps two of a rebuilding process. It might be better for him to stay at McLaren for one more year before going off to become an undisputed number one driver elsewhere. McLaren also needs to be careful that hiring Villeneuve would not destabilize Hakkinen. The Finn currently is able to (just) beat Coulthard and he is comfortable with that. But last year when Coulthard put him under pressure Hakkinen did not react well and hiring another driver might do more damage than good.

One way around this problem would be for Mercedes to organize the transfer of Villeneuve to Prost in place of (or as partner to) Jean Alesi. This would greatly strengthen the team. It has to be said, however, that there are some in the paddock who believe that the rumors about Villeneuve and Mercedes are only a smokescreen for real talks which are going on between the Canadian and Renault. Jacques would be a good choice to lead the Renault F1 team as he was the last Renault World Champion and is the nearest thing France will have to a top driver for the next few years.