FEBRUARY 17, 1997

Prost takes over Ligier...

EQUIPE LIGIER GAULOISES BLONDES ceased to exist last Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, when Alain Prost signed a deal to buy the French team from Flavio Briatore, who bought the team early in 1994 because he was trying to get the team's Renault engine supply for Benetton.

Prost's purchase of the team is the culmination of 18 months of negotiation which was kicked off by the election of JacquesÊChirac as French president in May 1995. Chirac, a fan of Prost, let it be known he wanted the team to be used to publicize French technology around the world and Briatore came under pressure to sell the team to Prost. Alain, however, did not want to take over the team unless there was an engine deal in place and the French government officials were certainly involved in the campaign to convince Peugeot to join Ligier. Prior to that decision Peugeot's president Jacques Calvet had apparently decided to pull out of F1 because of the poor results achieved with Jordan. The final obstacle to the deal was Eddie Jordan who refused to agree to let Prost change the Ligier name. Peugeot did not want to be associated with the name Ligier and so refused to do the deal until Prost had sorted that out.

For nearly a month Jordan has blocked the sale despite heavy pressure from F1 bosses Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, who were keen to see the deal go through to keep Peugeot in F1. Jordan finally agreed to sign last Tuesday night - enabling Prost to go ahead and on Friday morning Alain was at Automobiles Peugeot headquarters in the Avenue de la Grande Armee in Paris to sign a three-year contract with the company for a supply of F1 engines for the 1998-2000 seasons.

A few hours later the FIA announced that it had agreed to an unanimous request from the teams to allow Ligier chassis to be renamed Prost. The new team is expected to be called Prost Grand Prix.

Jordan's only apparent concession is the possibility that Jordan could use Peugeot engines in 1998, despite the fact that Prost has what amounts to an exclusive contract.

"I'm not saying we will supply Jordan," said Calvet, "but the contract we've signed with Alain Prost leaves the possibility open."

Other Peugeot sources say there is no way that the French company will supply two teams.

As expected Prost has secured a three-year sponsorship deal with French TV company Canal Plus, which begins immediately. The company intends to use F1 to promote its pay-to-view satellite TV service, which will be using Bernie Ecclestone's FOCA "super-signal". The SEITA tobacco company will also be involved, continuing to publicize its Gauloises Blondes brand. Although there has been much political influence involved Prost says that he is the sole owner of the team and has paid for it with his own money - although he refused to say how much he has paid Briatore.

Prost says his budget from 1998 onwards would be in the region of $55m, which he believes will allow the team to be competitive. He said that he is already talking to sponsors, drivers and engineers about 1998 but is not intending to change things immediately.

"This year's car looks even more competitive," he commented, "and that progress has been made with a team. It would be foolish not to keep that team."

But Prost indicated that there will be changes ahead.

"The idea was to create a French team," he said. "Ligier are based in France and we will have a French engine and at least one French driver in 1998. But to have a 100 percent French team is impossible."

The implication of this is that Prost will be involving British engineer John Barnard in the design of the 1998 car. Barnard's Ferrari Design & Development company is going independent of Ferrari in a few months and it is virtually certain that it will conclude an exclusive deal to design cars for Prost Grand Prix.