Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, December 3, 1998

After Bumpy Year, Prost Looks to a New Formula

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
GUYANCOURT, France - My back lies at a forty-five degree angle. My knees are raised chest high. A wooden rim blocks my view of the ground for several meters ahead -- as it is supposed to. I'm not lying in an up-ended baby's high chair, though that's what it feels like. I'm in the cockpit mock-up of the 1999 Formula One racing car of the Prost Grand Prix team.

But the drivers' cockpit is not the most stressful seat in racing, said Alain Prost, a four-time Formula One drivers' champion. It is the one he now occupies, in the director's office of his ultramodern factory in an industrial suburb 25 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of Paris. He seemed to have weathered the stress of the his worst season in the sport.

''We suffered enormously through the 1998 season,'' he said, ''but it was very constructive.''

The team scored only one point in the season that ended in November. It finished ninth out of 11 teams. It was far from where he imagined the team would be when he bought it on Valentine's Day in 1997, from Guy Ligier, under whose name the team raced from 1976 to 1996. Matters were not made any better by the fact that 1998 was the first year Prost used a Peugeot engine. He had made a kind of trade of Ligier's Mugen-Honda to the Jordan team for its Peugeot. Jordan completed its best season ever, winning their first race, at Spa, Belgium and finishing fourth overall.

Prost considers Jordan's success ''the biggest mystery of the 1998 season.''

What is not a mystery to the 43-year-old Frenchman is why it is so difficult for him to build a competitive car in France.

''Our biggest problem in France,'' he said, ''is that we don't have a strong motor-sport culture. So we cannot develop the engineers needed to create the cars.'' He plans to work in partnership with French industry and technical educational institutions to develop programs to nurture racing car engineers.

While 80 percent of the Ligier car was built in England by subcontractors, and assembled in a small factory at the Magny-Cours circuit, Prost's goal this year was to build most of his car in France. In increasing his staff from 65 employees in 1997 to 200, he said he tried to hire British specialists, but few wanted to leave England.

''About 30 engineers or technicians turned down jobs because they didn't want to move to France,'' Prost said. He also said that because of France's social charges, it costs him three times what a British team has to pay to give a technician the same salary.

Prost Grand Prix is the only French Formula One team. Switzerland has one team, Sauber. Italy has two teams, Ferrari and Minardi, and a third, Benetton, is Italian registered, but its cars are built in England. Honda recently announced plans to build a car in Japan for possible entry into the sport in 2000, but their test chassis was built in Italy.

After a one-month break, the Formula One teams started their first track test session for the 1999 season this week at the Montmelo track, outside Barcelona. But the real laboratory for developing cars is in teams' factories.

The Prost factory is the sort of building that many teams have put up in recent years as the sport has modernized. It is a 7,500 square-meter glass and concrete structure housing computerized shop tools and a research and development laboratory. Its only purpose is to create a Formula One car.

Prost's ambition to become a team director goes back at least a decade. One of the pivotal moments of his career came in 1991 when he was fired from Ferrari just before the end of the season, apparently for saying that driving the Ferrari was like driving a truck.

It was a statement he said he would regret for ''10 years, 20 years, 100 years.'' He also said that the comment was taken out of context from a magazine interview, and that the real reason for being fired had to do with internal politics at Ferrari.

''Only days before I was fired,'' he said. ''I was involved in very serious negotiations it only needed a signature to continue not only as a Ferrari driver for 1992, but also as the sporting director.''

Asked whether he would allow his own drivers to criticize his car by comparing it to a truck, he said, ''No. Because I don't have to allow it.''

He said that his current job was far more stressful and challenging. ''When you're a driver, you go and win the race, and then you decompress and know that the next race is in two weeks, and that's it. As a team director there is never a down moment.''

As a driver he was repeatedly involved in confrontations with the sport's governing body. ''As a driver your opinions don't count for anything,'' he said. ''As a team owner you can have your say.''

Meanwhile, a line sketched in pencil on the block that presses hard against the left hip indicates where the driver Jarno Trulli suggested that the cockpit be widened. Perhaps the team could also remove the top of the car's nose cone so the driver can see the road. The strange position is both to lower the center of gravity and to allow a better air intake above the driver's head so the engine may breathe. But it is difficult to come to terms with the idea of lying in the fetal position, while negotiating twisty racing tracks at 300 kilometers per hour (185 miles per hour), and not seeing the road. But for Prost, what lies immediately ahead is all important.

''The coming season is the most crucial to the existence of the team,'' he said.

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