The Wait Of The World
January 18, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Several deadlines have come and gone (the latest one was Jan. 15) but nothing about the team's future has been announced. In the meantime, everybody waits.
Alain Prost waits to see what will happen. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who has offers to drive for Prost and Arrows this year, is waiting. Jos Verstappen, who will reportedly lose his Arrows ride should Frentzen become available, is waiting. And the employees of Prost Grand Prix, more than 250 of them, are waiting to see if they still have a job.
Alain Prost, a four-time world champ and winner of 51 F-1 races (a record that stood until Michael Schumacher broke it last year), decided he'd try his hand at team ownership. He bought the French Ligier team and renamed it Prost in 1997. The team, founded by Guy Ligier in 1976, had its best years from 1979 to 1981. It won seven times in that three-season span. Olivier Panis gave the team its ninth and final win at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix.
The chassis and Mugen-Honda engine package that Prost inherited in 1997 was quite competitive. That season the team finished sixth in the constructors championship with 21 points. It's been all downhill from there. In 1998, the team scored one point. It was better in 1999 - nine points and seventh in the standings - but then Prost failed to score a single point in 2000.
When Prost announced a deal to run customer Ferrari engines in 2001, to replace the Peugeot engines used from 1998 though 2000, it seemed that the team would be able to bounce back. Yet while Sauber, which ran identical 1-year-old Ferrari V10s, finished fourth in the constructors championship with 21 points, Prost ended up ninth with just four points.
The team seemed to steadily deteriorate during the season, and the relationship between Alain Prost and his once good friend Jean Alesi soured. After climbing out of the car after the German Grand Prix, Alesi told the crew he was out of there and quit. Prost then hired Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had recently been fired by Jordan.
Since losing sponsorship from Gauloises, the French tobacco company, and then PlayStation and Yahoo, Prost has been struggling to find a major backer. Big French companies, he said, seemed to have no interest in sponsoring the only F-1 team based in France.
The good news was that by finishing in the Top 10 in 2001, Prost would receive travel benefits from the pot that is doled out to the top 10 teams each season. The bad news was that Prost's team was basically bankrupt.
Prost spent the end of 2001 desperately trying to find a backer or buyer. He came close with some investors from Saudi Arabia, but Sept. 11 ended that deal. The wealthy Diniz family, which owned 40 percent of the team, expressed no desire to stay involved.
It is believed that the Ferrari engine lease deal costs about $20 million a season, although no figures are released. And when the Prost Grand Prix team filed for the French equivalency of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November, the team was $30 million in debt.
"The initiation of the 'Procédure Judiciaire' (a French judiciary process led by Trade Courts aiming at straightening up companies in financial difficulties), should give potential investors and sponsors the legal and financial security that will guarantee the company's future," according to a team statement. The courts would oversee the running of the team for the next six months.
The team claimed "the unfavorable general economic context of 2001, added to the relatively poor results of the team during the 2000 season, had a severe impact on the company's budget balance."
F-1 teams are loathe to reveal their financial secrets, but by putting itself at the mercy of the French administrators, Prost had to publish that, "Prost Grand Prix is a company owned directly or indirectly by Alain Prost (51.3 percent), the Diniz Family (40 percent), LV Capital (5.8 percent) and Yahoo (2.9 percent). Prost Development, the financial holding controlled by Alain Prost (85 percent), is also a holder of a shareholders current account of $52 million (U.S.) in Prost Grand Prix's balance sheet."
Over the past few months Alain Prost continued to try to find a savior for his team. The latest reports are that a group of French investors have put together a $40 million package to bail the team out. There have been other publicly undisclosed offers, too.
"It is now more a question of which will be the right proposal and who will be accepted by the team and the courts," a team spokesperson told a London newspaper.
The issue is now in the hands of court-appointed receiver Franck Michel. He will decide whether any of the offers can keep the team running or if it should be shut down. The deadline for that decision was Jan. 15, but the decision is not expected to be announced for at least several days.
So now everybody must wait a little longer.