F1: Prost Grand Prix – What went wrong?

Source: boitierrouge.com

In February 1997, former world champion Alain Prost and Peugeot president Jacques Calvet announced the formation of a new Formula One team; Prost Grand Prix.

The successor to the famous Ligier outfit, the Prost team would carry out the formers’ existing contracts and ran Mugen-Honda engines, before switching to Peugeot for the 1998 campaign.

The team’s French connections were increased via French tobacco brand Gauloises, who would be the team’s title sponsor, and fuel lubircants Elf.

Prost would receive further backing from tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, French TV Channel Canal +, telecoms company Alcatel and Bic.

Alain Prost signed Oliver Panis and Shinji Nakano for the 1997 season and used the Prost JS45, which was designed by Loïc Bigois.

At the start of the season, Panis emerged as a surprise contender for the Drivers’ title and picked up podium finishes at the Brazilian and Spanish Grand Prix respectively, the latter of which he could’ve won if he hadn’t been held up by backmarkers.

The Frenchman was also in contention for victory in Argentina but retired due to an electrical issue.

Prost was impressed with his compatriot’s performance and gave him a contract to stay until 1999, and as the paddock moved to Montreal for the Canadian Grand Prix, Panis was third in the Drivers’ Championship on 15 points, behind Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve (30 points) and the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher.

However, Prost’s fortunes would quickly turn for the worse when Panis crashed heavily at Turn 5 after his car experienced a rear-suspension failure.

The aftermath of Olivier Panis’ incident during the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix, which saw the Frenchman fracture both of his legs. Image Sourced from Pinterest

The tyre barrier placed at this corner was ineffective, and saw the car go underneath it and hit the concrete wall head on; subsequently, Panis suffered a closed double fracture in both of his legs in the tibia and fibula.

This left Alain Prost in a difficult position, as he needed to fill the empty seat yet didn’t have an obvious replacement available.

Their test driver Emmanuel Collard was initially linked with a drive earlier in the season to replace Nakano, but despite a lot of mileage in F1 machinery via testing, Prost wanted someone with Grand Prix experience.

Martin Brundle was also in contention, as the Brit was still active having competed in the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nissan.

In the end, Prost signed Minardi’s Jarno Trulli and the Italian had some good spells in the car, taking fourth in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.

Trulli then went on to lead the Austrian Grand Prix later that year, and was on course for an impressive second place before the Mugen-Honda engine blew up in spectacular fashion.

Three months after his horrific crash, Olivier Panis returned to the team for the Luxembourg Grand Prix – which was held at the Nürburgring in Germany.

Olivier Panis climbs up the hill during the wet 1997 Monaco Grand Prix; a race he’d finish in fourth position. Image Sourced from gtplanet.net 

The one-time Grand Prix winner returned quickly thanks to successful surgery in which pins were inserted into his legs.

In his comeback race, Panis scored a point for his sixth-place finish, which helped Prost to end the 1997 season sixth in the Constructors’ Standings on 21 points.

For 1998, Alain Prost had reasons to be optimistic.

The team had signed Jarno Trulli on a permanent basis alongside Olivier Panis to replace Shinji Nakano, whilst Peugeot had introduced a revolutionary all carbon fibre gearbox for its V10 engine.

Prost also saw new sponsors arrive in the form of French lubricants Total, PlayStation and imaging and IT company AGFA.

Speaking at the team’s 1998 launch, Alain Prost outlined the team’s goals of the season:

“What is important is the objective is to be in between the top team as quick as possible, and the objective is to be there already this year”

The Prost AP01 sporting the infamous X-Wings during the 1998 Formula One Season. Image Sourced from Pinterest.

Prost had an early scare as the chassis for the Prost AP01 failed the mandatory FIA crash test three times before it was given clearance to race, and as the season wore on, it became clear that the car was nowhere near their highly set targets.

The Peugeot engine proved to be heavy and unreliable, meaning Panis and Trulli failed to finish many races.

Moreover, the engine’s weight issues upset the AP01’s balance and consequently left the designers unable to optimise the position of the ballast.

On top of this, Prost were in the process of moving their headquarters to Guyancourt in the western suburbs of Paris.

Unsurprisingly, Prost were unable to fight for points on a regular basis, with the team’s only point of the season scored in the dramatic 1998 Belgian Grand Prix courtesy of Trulli’s sixth place; a race in which only eight drivers reached the chequered flag.

For the 1999 season, Loïc Bigois was joined in the design department by John Barnard and Alan Jenkins and produced the Prost AP02.

Olivier Panis had the pins removed from his legs which gave the Frenchman a positive outlook for the forthcoming season:

“For me this a very important season, because now I have completely new legs, new car. Maybe it’ll be quite good.”

Alain Prost poses for the media with the Prost AP02 at Magny-Cours, alongside drivers Jarno Trulli and Olivier Panis. Image Sourced from Pinterest.

1999 resulted in minimal improvements for the French team, with Panis scoring two points for a pair of sixth places in Brazil and Germany respectively.

Trulli produced the team’s highlight of the season as he took second in the 1999 European Grand Prix behind the Stewart of Johnny Herbert.

At the turn of the new millennium, Jarno Trulli left Prost to join Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Jordan, whilst Olivier Panis joined McLaren as their test driver.

To replace them, Alain Prost signed veteran Grand Prix driver Jean Alesi, who was partnered with the 1999 Formula 3000 champion Nick Heidfeld.

Speaking with Motorsport Magazine in January 2017, Alesi discussed his time with the Prost team:

“I wanted to finish my career with Alain and give France a successful team – like Ligier had been.”

“When I signed I was extremely happy and excited, but with Peugeot engines there was no chance. That was disappointing.”

The Peugeot A18 V10 Engine which was used in the Prost AP02 for the 1999 Formula One campaign. Image Sourced from Wikipedia Commons.

On the racetrack, Prost continued to struggle.

Alesi had done well to qualify seventh in Monaco before he retired with a transmission failure and was running fourth in the Belgian Grand Prix before his car halted to a stop with a fuel pressure issues.

Further trouble struck in Austria, as Alesi and Heidfeld collided into each other at Turn 1.

Behind the scenes, the relationship between the team and engine suppliers Peugeot was souring by the second.

Alain Prost had stated that the engine’s teething problems was the cause of their uncompetitive form, whilst Peugeot retaliated and said that their engine was producing 792 bhp – a competitive figure for the time.

Speaking to ITV’s James Allen during the 2000 French Grand Prix, Prost gave an insight into the team’s situation:

“There is a huge support from the fans, obviously from France, but it’s not good to be in France with a French team, engine manufacturer.”

“It’s becoming too difficult, too political and it makes things even more difficult than it should be, so that’s what I mean by a lack of support.”

Jean Alesi lays down the rubber as he exits the pit lane in the Prost AP03. Image Copyright belongs to Rodrigo Mattar.

Things didn’t improve, and at the end of the season, Prost were classified bottom of the Constructors’ Championship with no points.

This cued a mass exodus of partners and sponsors.

Firstly, Peugeot quit Formula One to focus on their effort in the FIA World Rally Championship.

This was followed by Prost’s title sponsor Gauloises pulling the plug, after providing them with an estimated $21.82million for the 2000 season.

The tobacco brand said in a company statement: “The benefits of the partnership with Prost Grand Prix do not justify the constant rising investment required by this type of sponsorship.”

Total, internet search engine Yahoo!, PlayStation, AGFA and Bic were other examples of major sponsors to leave the team, which left a huge hole in their budget for 2001.

Prost managed to negotiate a three-year deal for the Ferrari engines – which were later badged under the computer brand Acer – were reported to have cost the team approximately $90million.

Team Principal Alain Prost in the pit lane during the 2000 Monaco Grand Prix. Image Sourced from prostfan.com

The recently retired Pedro Diniz became an unlikely lifeline for the team, and paid part of the lease for the Ferrari engine in exchange for ownership of the team, to which Alain Prost accepted. Diniz and his family also bought Parmalat backing to the team, with recruitment agency Adecco also joining as sponsors.

To the surprise of many, Jean Alesi stayed on with Prost in 2001 and was joined by Argentine Gastón Mazzacane, who bought sponsorship to the team in the form of the Pan-American Sports Network (PSN).

The Prost AP04 was designed by John Barnard and Henri Durand and saw the team switch to Michelin tyres.

Alesi managed used his experience to score four points, with a best finish of fifth in Canada.

After Germany, Jean Alesi had quit the team and was replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had been sacked by Jordan.

In the second car, things weren’t any better.

After four races, Mazzacane was sacked and had his seat filled by Luciano Burti who didn’t fare much better.

The Prost AP04 pictured in what would be the team’s final Grand Prix appearance at Suzuka during the 2001 Japanese Grand Prix. Image Sourced from F1 Fansite.

The Brazilian suffered two huge incidents, firstly at the start of the German Grand Prix after crashing into the back of a slow-moving Michael Schumacher, before tangling with Jaguar’s Eddie Irvine at Blanchimont during the Belgian Grand Prix.

F3000 driver Tomáš Enge was drafted in for the final three races of the season but failed to make an impact.

Midway through 2001, the Diniz family offered to buy the Prost team, but Alain was unable to agree on a compromise.

And although Prost claimed ninth in the Constructors’ Standings and had made their formal application for the 2002 Formula One season, the team went bankrupt with debts exceeding £25million.

After 83 Grand Prix across five seasons, Prost Grand Prix secured three podiums and scored 35 championship points.