A look at the five years Alain Prost was the owner of his own team.
20 years ago, after purchasing Ligier five years previous, Alain Prost announced that the team synonymous with his name, would close after failing to find a backer for the 2002 season having gone into receivership the following November.
The team folded with debts of US$30million, following the withdrawal of major backers such as Gauloises, resulting in the loss of 200 jobs. It was an event Prost declared “as a total failure for France.”
Prost were the first team to go out of business in seven years, the withdrawal of Lola after just one race at the beginning of the 1997 season being the last, but what made Prost such a loss was the size of the team and this history it had. So, what made Prost so special?
As early as 1992, Prost had made his intentions known to purchase Ligier, testing their 1992 car with the intention of being an owner-driver. This was done in secret as during the test, he donned Erik Commas’ overalls and helmet to ensure no one knew he was there, although word quickly spread that this was the case.
The deal looked promising, Prost had just been sacked by Ferrari after a disastrous 1991 season, which left Ligier engine and lubricants suppliers, Renault and Elf, pushing to keep him in F1 as the companies had strong ties with the then three-time World Champion.
Despite the promising signs that a deal could be struck, it fell through just after the season opening South African Grand Prix, leaving Prost on the sidelines for 1992.
Instead of Prost, Ligier was purchased by Cyril Bourton de Rouvre, which saw the team have an upturn in fortunes under his leadership. However, the team changed ownership once again at the beginning of 1994 as Benetton’s Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw took the reins, following de Rouvre’s conviction for fraud.
Briatore saw the opportunity to gain Renault engines for his Benetton team, the strongest engine manufacture of the time and Walkinshaw quick took over as chief at Ligier. However, a disagreement between the duo ensured Walkinshaw purchased Arrows ahead of the 1997 season, thus opening the door for Prost once more. After months of speculation, a deal was agreed and five years after his initial interest, Prost was a team owner.
Prost immediately changed the name of Ligier and signed an exclusive deal with Peugeot for engines from 1998 onwards.
Prost’s first season as boss of his own team in 1997 started brightly with Olivier Panis running as high as second in the championship early on, with a string of strong performances with two podium finishes in Brazil and Spain.
However, sadly for Both Panis and Prost, this moment was ended as Panis crashed heavily in Canada breaking both his legs, thus, ruling him out for the majority of the season. There were rumours as to who would replace Panis, with test driver Emmanuel Collard the early favouite before Martin Brundle was suggested, having just contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Nissan. In the end, Panis was replaced by Minardi's Jarno Trulli however Prost struggled as Trulli and Shinji Nakano were not being able to hit the consistent highs Panis was able to achieve.
Prost did have further glimpses of promise in 1997, Trulli leading the majority of the Austrian Grand Prix before his engine expired as well as fourth place finish in Germany were two of the highs, however these were few and far between. Once lead-driver Panis returned in Luxembourg he was right back on the pace, and propelled the team back to the sharp end.
It was a cruel reminder of what could have been for Prost and Panis, as 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve stated later on he considered the duo a threat for the title, with the Frenchman showing strong pace each weekend before his crash. At the time of his crash, Panis was third in the standings, only behind Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher.
Prost eventually finished 1997 sixth in the constructors standings, with Panis still finishing the year ninth, despite missing seven races due to his injuries.
It proved to be the high point for both Panis and Prost as 1998 was a disastrous year. After a gearbox failure in pre-season testing, they nearly did not make the grid as their car continued to fail crash tests prior to the season opening race in Australia. It was a year that yielded a single point finish with Trulli finishing sixth in Spa.
There was a slight upturn in fortune for 1999 as John Barnard joined the team as a technical consultant while Panis and Trulli remained with the team for a second season together. At times during the year, the car looked genuinely competitive, with Trulli finished second at the Nürburgring, which proved to be the team’s final podium.
For 2000, it was an all-new line-up for Prost as experienced Jean Alesi, Prost’s former Ferrari teammate, joined the team alongside reigning F3000 champion Nick Heidfeld, after Trulli left the team to join Jordan. Although the line-up was promising, they endured a pointless season, a year which was overshadowed by the fallout with Peugeot and the teammates crashing into each other at Austria.
2001 saw Alesi return alongside former Minardi driver Gaston Mazzacane, however he was dropped after only four races, being replaced with former Jaguar driver Luciano Burti, who himself was dropped earlier in the season.
The team were now powered by Acer-Badged Ferrari engines following the fallout with Peugeot and the team were beginning to struggle financially, following the loss of major backers Yahoo, Bic, PlayStation and AFGA.
Although the team did score points with Alesi, a year which included some memorable moments such as Alesi’s points finish at Canada in which he threw his helmet into the crowd, the team were still in trouble and entered the winter with rumours circulated that they were in debt.
Recently retired driver Pedro Diniz did offer to purchase the team halfway through the 2001 season, as he was already a part owner having funded the Ferrari engine deal and bringing Parmalat backing to the team, however he and Prost could not agree on a compromise and the deal never materialised.
Despite Prost entering for the new season after finishing ninth in the 2001 constructors championship, in early 2002 it was confirmed that Prost was bankrupt, the team not able to find a backer of the same magnitude to fill the void Gauloises left when they withdrew their title sponsorship at the end of 2000.
By this time, Alesi had left the team and had been replaced by Heinz-Harold Frentzen and Burti was replaced by Tomas Enge after the Brazilian suffered a huge crash in Belgium.
The team’s assets were purchased by Phoenix Finance, who intended to enter the 2002 season with Gaston Mazzacane as one of their drivers, however this failed to materialise and Prost were never to be seen again, having contested in 83 Grand Prix, scoring 35 points in the process.
Alain Prost has been noted in saying that Prost Grand Prix was his biggest mistake, however it could have been so much different had Olivier Panis remained fit and continued the team’s upward trajectory. Prost are a team I always loved as a kid and feel their symbolic blue liveries are hugely missed on the grid.
It would be great to see them, or indeed Ligier, return one day.
Pictures: www.alainprost.net, www.motorsportimages.com