MAY 29, 1995

The fabulous fading Mr. Prost

QUADRUPLE World Champion Alain Prost seemed to be well-placed to put together a deal to start his own Formula 1 team in 1996 - with Renault engines and backing from French sponsors Elf and Gitanes Blondes - but the word on the street in France is that Alain has failed to convince Renault to give him engines and is now losing interest in the project.

French papers have recently reported that Prost has had talks with Peugeot Sport about an engine supply, but a deal needs to be done soon if he is going to have a serious team for 1996. It is probably already too late.

Without an engine deal Prost cannot attract the big sponsors and it seems that Renault is not interested in supplying three teams and has no intention of giving up either Williams or Benetton. It remains to be seen whether or not the current fragile balance can be maintained without conflict.

Prost may yet put a deal together, using his friendship with new French president Jacques Chirac as a lever to force Renault to give him engines.

Gitanes Blondes and Elf have to decide fairly soon if they intend to continue to support Ligier next year. Renault does not appear to mind who it has for drivers so long as they are successful but Elf is desperate to place its young drivers: Olivier Panis, Franck Lagorce, Emmanuel Collard and Jean-Christophe Boullion.

The suggestion is that Elf might back the DAMS team if the Prost project fails to materialize, although Ligier boss Tom Walkinshaw is still desperately trying to convince the team's sponsors to stay.

Although the team is trying to avoid discussing the issue, there is little doubt that Walkinshaw intends to take the team to England as soon as possible - if the French money supply dries up.

Walkinshaw, incidentally, has signed up former Cosworth engine designer Geoff Goddard and current F1 opinion is that Goddard will design an F1 engine for Walkinshaw, who has the engineering capability to produce such a unit without too much difficulty. Speculation suggests that this could be badged as a Volvo V8, increasing Walkinshaw's involvement with the Swedish car-making firm.

If this is the case, the deal between Ligier and Mugen Honda - which is believed to be for 1995 and 1996 - will tide Walkinshaw over until his own engine is ready for action in 1997. The future of Honda in F1 remains unclear, although the Japanese have broken up with McLaren and Williams in the past and cannot supply Ferrari. The choice, therefore, if the team wants to win, would seem to be between Benetton (which is tied to Renault at the moment), a Honda F1 team or withdrawal from the sport.