At this time of year all F1 teams are full of optimism, sure that they have the pieces in place and that that this will be their big chance. Meanwhile, we all look at testing times for guidance on the season ahead.
Sometimes, as last season, those times do give us a pretty good clue as to what’s going to happen. Folk who watched Brawn GP’s early testing pace and quickly placed bets were laughing all the way to the bank. Testing doesn’t always tell the full story, and neither do team principals, as the following cautionary tale from early 2001 indicates.
At the time Alain Prost was relieved to have finally split with troublesome Peugeot, and had instead forged a new engine and gearbox (and rear suspension) supply deal with Ferrari. The package look impressive in testing, with Jean Alesi setting quick times, and to team insiders it seemed certain that good results would achieved, the sponsors would come knocking, and all would be fine.
Some experienced people had joined, while Pedro Diniz – now retired from driving – had taken a commercial interest. Extra support came from an Argentinian driver with backing from a Latin American TV company (sound familiar?) in Gaston Mazzacane.
There was an elephant in the room, however. In those days private teams faced crippling engine bills, perhaps four or five times higher than the Cosworth fees of 2010. Towards the end of the previous season someone had given me a copy of a provisional contract between Prost and Ferrari, and it indicated that he would have to pay $28m, $30m and $32m for the privilege of using the Italian engines over the next three years – and it was weighted so that he was always paying well in advance.
Once the season started, the AP04 proved to be less than stellar. There were no results, and the sponsors didn’t come. Test driver Pedro de la Rosa defected to Jaguar Racing even before the first race, while Mazzacane soon disappeared and was replaced by Luciano Burti. A frustrated Alesi eventually fell out with Prost, and swapped seats mid-season with Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who actually didn’t do too badly.
But it was all to no avail. The numbers just didn’t add up, and that winter Prost GP folded seemingly without any serious attempt being made to rescue France’s only F1 team. It had all seemed so promising just months earlier…
Alain Prost looks ahead (First published February 2001)
Last week I asked a Williams man how Bridgestone and Michelin were comparing in testing. “Well, Barrichello’s done an 18.6s at Barcelona in last year’s Ferrari,” he remarked, “and Alesi’s done an 18.6s in what is basically last year’s Ferrari. So I’d say they’re about the same.” This I might add was said with a straight face, and barely a hint of irony…
A miracle appears to have taken place these last few months in the Paris suburb of Guyancourt. After finishing last season in a dire state, Prost Grand Prix is heading towards Melbourne with unbounded optimism. The team boss looks like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, and there’s talk of podium finishes, and of a revitalised Jean Alesi. The oldest driver in F1 has been topping the testing times, and cannot wait to get to the first race.
It’s all very different from last season, when the relationship between Prost and engine partner Peugeot imploded, and the team failed to score a point. “On the human side I think it was the hardest season of my career,” says Alain Prost of 2000. “It was very, very tough for many, many races. When I was a racing driver I won races and I won the World Championship, and I knew that it was difficult, and when I bought the team I knew that it would be difficult. I always had a plan of five years before we could manage to build a decent racing team.
“Anyway, even with that we managed to build a new team almost, with a new spirit and philosophy, in the last few months. It’s been a lot of work, a huge amount of work. We have a good base with the Ferrari engine. The car is performing very, very well. We know it’s far from what it could be, and far from maybe what the top teams are going to do. We are not in the same category, but it’s really a good start.”
Ferrari is the key to the revival. Prost somehow persuaded Maranello to release a second customer supply alongside that of Sauber, and he later added a separate arrangement for gearboxes, instantly removing a good 75% of any team’s potential new car gremlins.
But it’s come at a huge cost. The engine deal alone totals $90m for the years 2001-2003, which represents a monthly bill this season for $2m [a large chunk had been paid in late 2000], while an extra $5m down payment on next year has to be found in September/October. And the gearboxes cost extra. That’s a massive financial commitment, and the deal includes obligations to Ferrari that some team bosses would not accept.
But with access to the engine that won the 2000 World Championship, plus the bullet proof transmission that partnered it, Prost now has credibility. And that has already paid dividends, not least when Pedro Diniz provided much-needed funds at a critical time, and got a stake in the company. The Brazilian is taking his new role very seriously.
“It was very complicated, a pretty complex operation,” says Pedro. “But in the end it was a good deal for both sides, for me and for Alain. Of course my father helped me to do this deal, but it’s my business and I’m going to take care of it. I have a good relationship with him, and we talk a lot. He’s a very good consultant that I can use. He’s given me some tips on how to run my stuff, and it’s very good that I can have them for free!”
Diniz has been hard at work on raising funds: “Definitely the Ferrari engine costs us quite a lot of money. Our budget is pretty high, so that’s why we’re still working on selling our packages of sponsorship. I can say that 80% of our budget is already committed.
“We’re working hard on that. We have this sponsorship from PSN which is signed already, which is quite substantial for us. We’re working on some other deals and hopefully they’re going to be concluded soon. We have two other sponsors that are already concluded, but we’re going to present the whole car with the full package in Australia.”
Nobody’s pretending that Prost is suddenly a contender for victory, and Alain admits that quick testing times have been deliberately sought to boost the confidence of both the team and the driver. And of course any potential sponsors.
“You never know if the teams are running with more fuel or less fuel,” says Diniz, with tongue firmly in cheek. “But it’s important to know the potential of the car, and it’s not bad. Even on the long runs Jean was very competitive compared to the other teams. He was much quicker than Jaguar, and that gives us good confidence, and I think it’s a good start already.”
With so many of the top teams pushing the boat out on development, reliability in the early races could pay dividends.
“With Peugeot we broke 59 engines last year. In the first test at Magny-Cours we did already 60 laps on the first day, and everybody was very impressed. Even Jean said, ‘This car never stops – I’m not used to that!’ Last year they couldn’t do 20 laps until May, so that’s a big change. I think everybody’s very motivated and that’s very important.”
One of the biggest boosts to morale has been the arrival of Joan Villadelprat. Prost’s mechanic at McLaren in the eighties, the Spaniard was operations, team or factory manager at Benetton for a decade, right through the Schumacher years.
“He’s organising the team very well,” says Diniz, “and I think the team is much much more efficient too. Our production is working very well. We said we’d run the car for the first time on January 15, and we did, without having a delay.”
Another new arrival is former McLaren aero expert Henri Durand. He was too late to have much influence on the new car, but is working on an update package for Imola. And only last week the team confirmed that Pedro de la Rosa had joined, amidst speculation that he will eventually oust second driver Gaston Mazzacane.
“We signed him as test driver, and that’s it really,” says Diniz. “We thought it was a very good opportunity to have a test driver with good experience, and we couldn’t miss that opportunity. So we signed him. Gaston is our Grand Prix driver, and it should stay like this for the whole year. But of course if we have any problems with any of our drivers, Pedro is our reserve driver, and he will take the car.”
Might that include Mazzacane being too slow?
“You’re saying that…”
Don’t expect Alesi’s place to come under threat, however. His faith in Alain’s ability to put the deal together has been repaid, and by all accounts he’s raring to go.
“I think Jean is very good when the car is going well and when everything goes well,” says Prost. “He’s a more than Latin person and character, and he likes it when everything goes well around him. So we’ve managed to have a new structure, a new sprit around him, and it’s a new ambience.
“I must admit that he didn’t fit very well last year, but not too many people fitted very well in our team last year, and with the atmosphere being different he really is new born. He’s lost about 6kgs, done a lot of sport, and he’s very motivated for this year. So I think he’s going to have a good season.”
And are podiums a serious possibility?
“I’m quite sure. One hundred per cent sure. With reliability we could have maybe done one or two last year, so why not this year?”