“I’m an artist, the track is my canvas, and the car is my brush”

I Guess That’s Why They Call It Les Bleus

By ForzaMinardi


One of the ironies of Renault’s current position in F1 is that despite the French company’s back-to-back drivers’ and constructors’ titles, wider Gallic participation and interest in F1 is seemingly trivial. Contrast this with Renault’s last period as a race-winning constructor, when a string of French drivers became stars thanks to the Regie, generous French sponsors and nationalistic teams. This inheritance lasted for over a decade, but fast forward to 2006 and France’s only non-Renault F1 participants were Franck Montagny and the wider irrelevance of Michelin’s tyres. A poor state of affairs for a nation with a proud motoring history.

During the later half of the 1990’s it seemed that the prospect of a new French super-equipe heralded a bright future for France in Formula One. After months of speculation it was announced in February 1997 – Alain Prost had acquired control of the Ligier team and with support from corporate France was all set to extend his record-breaking career into team ownership. Les Blues would be back on top!

Despite excellent drivers, big name sponsors, decent motors and tyres, the entire Prost F1 experiment was a disastor.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Le Professeur et les Chiens Bleus

Before Schumacher steamrollered all the records, Alain Prost was the most successful of all drivers, the epitome of F1 professionalism. A record of 51 GP wins speaks for itself, but more pertinent was Prost’s reputation for technical sensitivity, his ability to motivate his colleagues, his commitment to excellence and his strategic insight which earned him the soubriquet “Le Professeur” and made him the defining driver of his era. In addition, he had spent several years working behind the scenes at McLaren, learning tips from this most slick of F1 organisations. Most pundits agreed: Prost’s technical insight, ability to get the best from his colleagues and understanding of paddock politics qualified him above all other ex-Champions to be a team-owner.

On the other side of the coin was Ligier. A once great team, this most French of equipes had lost its way in the 1980’s. Although rarely short of finance, the efforts of Les Bleues were consistently undone by bizarre technical decisions, internecine politics and the intransigent nature of founder Guy Ligier. Indeed, if Ligier was liked by pundits for its café au lait and casual bonhomie, its patron and cars were feared by drivers; the list of drivers whose careers were compromised by a year wrestling with Guy Ligier and one of his blue dogs is long. Indeed, through a mini-revival during the mid 1990’s, Ligier’s progress was consistently reversed by Guy’s refusal to relinquish control of the team to non-French interests. Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw both walked away when it became clear that Guy would never totally surrender the team to them; only when Prost came along, promising to keep the team’s French identity and waving a not insubstantial bag of francs did he submit.

Bleu Chip Support

In these post-modern times, the French remain resolutely partisan in all aspects of life; attempts to defend their language, culture and cuisine from the inroads of Anglicisation have led the French to outlaw English words and set fire to McDonalds restaurants. Similarly, no French politician ever lost support by declaring undying loyalty to the greater glory of his nation. It goes without saying therefore that the assault of l’equipe Prost on F1 would become a passionately Francophile project. Most significantly, Prost inherited the Ligier tobacco bucks from SIETA via their Gitannes / Gauloises sponsorship. This long-standing arrangement was not without controversy; France as a member of the EU was ostensibly committed to reducing smoking rates, yet a tobacco company with very distinct government links was effectively bankrolling the “national” F1 team.

Meanwhile, Peugeot, lately of McLaren and Jordan F1 infamy finally found their niche – working with a French team, they would no doubt be able to emulate their Le Mans success in F1. As well as contributing engines, Peugeot would provide additional funds from 1998 onwards when their existing arrangement with Jordan expired. A host of other French companies subscribed to the effort; Canal+, Alcatel, Playstation France, Catia and luxury giant LVMH all came on board.

Alain Prost, F1 legend; Equipe Ligier, French F1 institution; the cream of French industry writing the cheques; and behind the wheel, Olivier Panis, hero of Monaco ’96. What could go wrong for Prost Grand Prix?

Electric Bleus

And indeed, it seemed that Prost’s magic worked as well out of the cockpit as it did inside. What a debut! Panis placed 5th in Melbourne and stormed home 3rd in Brazil. Notwithstanding Prost inheriting a decent last-of-the-line Ligier JS45 chassis and sticky Bridgestone tyres, this was a pretty awesome display for what was effectively a ground-up reorganisation of the team. In Argentina, Panis qualified 3rd and looked a likely winner before the hydraulics failed. From nowhere, Prost had become potential winners and with a brilliant 2nd place in Spain, Panis was in third place in the title chase.

Sacre Bleu

Just a few weeks later though, things went wrong. A stonking recovery drive in Canada by Panis ended in him crashing and hors de combat until the Nurburgring. In his place stepped Jarno Trulli, and while the Italian performed admirably, especially in France and Austria, it was too much to expect a rookie to replicate the feats of the doughty Panis. Meanwhile the second blue car was largely invisible. Having inherited Ligier’s Mugen deal, into the bargain came their protégé, driver Shinji Nakano. From day one Prost had little time for him, making some fairly blatant attempts to replace him and effectively ignoring his input. Only when it was made clear that without Nakano, there would be no Mugens did Alain relent – and Shinji’s performances improved considerably as he sorted out his car. Evidently, Alain had little patience with those he perceived as not being up to his own high standard.

Panis’s ugly accident ended an incredible run of performances.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Bleu Eyes is Back

Still, with old favourite Panis back alongside Trulli, and an all new Peugeot V10 in an innovative AP01 chassis, things looked good on paper for 1998. In pre-season testing already though, things went wrong. The car suffered chronic gearbox problems and its modification upset the handling balance. Panis could finish no higher than 9th and had a run of six consecutive retirements. Meanwhile Trulli scored a single point – a shocking state of affairs for a team which justifiably had anticipated wins.

On a wider level, at least Prost had kept one Ligier tradition alive – that of taking a resolutely individual approach to technical specifications. The Loic Bigois-designed AP01 featured distinctive sidepod strakes aimed at enhancing airflow to the rear. From one perspective, these were a dazzling glimpse of the future; were they the forerunners of the sculpted sidepods and flow-conditioners popularised recently? From another perspective, Bigois had been popping brave pills; fortnightly evidence suggested his creation was less than competitive. Meanwhile, Alain stood in the background, chewing his nails and looking intense.

Still Got the Bleus

For 1999, the team moved into an impressive HQ at Guyancourt near Versailles (once home to French Emperors and Kings). Equipped with a sorted-out car and an engine rated among the best in F1, Prost were determined to set the record state.

The pretty little AP02 was mildly successful in the hands of Trulli and Panis.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Indeed, 1999 is recorded as the team’s most successful as a bona fide “Prost” team. Panis and Trulli both qualified fairly well from time to time and bagged a few results early on but overall the awkwardly proportioned car proved a handful. Trulli’s headline 2nd place at the Nurburgring was largely thanks to his sleight of hand in the rain that his car’s fleet of foot.

In view of the team’s questionable competitiveness, pitlane wags suggested that Prost’s best driver was the one sitting on the pit wall. And sadly, Alain himself did little to dispel this, making Panis the fall guy for his team’s failure and even dismissing Trulli’s podium in a press release as “a fluke”. True perhaps, but not a comment indicative of great leadership. Panis was shown the door, and Trulli departed with relief to join Jordan’s Merrie Men.

2000 – Bleu Jean

Enter Jean Alesi as Prost’s Francophile standard bearer. Prost and Alesi went way back, to 1991 and their season and master and pupil at Ferrari. The plan, presumably was to relight Alesi’s fire, thereby satisfying Alain and his sponsor’s desire for success. Alongside veteran Alesi stepped in Merc protégé and F3000 champion Nick Heidfeld. This prompted some speculation – relations between Peugeot and Prost were strained, and in view of his links with McLaren, some speculated as to the purpose of Alain promoting a rival manufacturer’s golden boy. Still, all being well, such theories would prove unfounded if the Prost Peugeot partnership finally gelled.

Even Jean Alesi, Works Motors, and Yahoo sponsorship could not save that Prost F1 rabble from an embarrassing season at the back of the grid.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

In fact, Prost’s 2000 season probably stands on record as being the worst season ever experienced by an ostensibly well-organised team in recent F1 history. In testing it appeared that Peugeot had made few gains during the winter, and indeed Melbourne was a disaster with Alesi retiring and Heidfeld soldiering home, deadly slow. Things could only get better surely? Wrong. First of all, the car was an utter dog, easily comparable with the most horrific blue machines created under Guy Ligier’s tenure. Next, Peugeot had lost interest and their engine was awful – gutless and unreliable. This prompted a very public falling out between Prost and Peugeot, with washing being washed in public by both parties. In the midst of this, Alesi and Heidfeld had a pretty keen rivalry and conspired to collide in France and Austria. Magny Cours was the nadir of Prost’s season – the sense of disillusionment and lack of direction was palpable as Alain stared dolefully at Heidfeld’s car stalled in the pits after stopping for repairs. In the midst of this, the mechanics went on strike and the sponsors wisely walked. Suffice to say, neither Alesi or Heidfeld scored a point, although Jean performed heroically in the wet at Spa.

2001 – Bleu Monday

With no sponsors, no engine and little popular support, Prost faced a bleak future. But somehow, Alain pulled something out of the bag – a deal to run a Ferrari V10 (complete with gearbox and rear aero), a ragtag collection of sponsors and a deal with ex-driver gazillionare Pedro Diniz. Back to basics, and clearly Prost was keen to get things done, hiring McLaren designer Henri Durand to hone the car. Indeed, pre-season saw the Prost posting some very impressive times in Alesi’s hands. It was a swift car.

Gaston Mazzacane leading Barrichello/Schumacher? Yes, but only in the chaotic monsoonal conditions of Sepang in 2001. The hopeless Argentinian was soon swallowed up by the red Ferraris.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Sadly, it came to naught. Although the car possessed genuine potential, it lacked development. While Alesi scored points at Monaco and Canada, around him the Prost ediface was collapsing. First to go was rent-a-driver Mazzacane, wisely signed on a performance-related clause. In his place stepped Luciano Burti whose main contribution to Prost was a series of hair-raising crashes. Then Alesi fell out with Alain over the team’s lack of technical development, being disciplined for throwing his helmet (complete with radio gear) to the crowd at Montreal and for the small matter of unpaid wages. With Frentzen vacating his Jordan, Alesi walked. The German came in the opposite direction and immediately helped the team sort out it’s chassis. Sadly, despite qualifying a great 4th at Spa, he failed to add to Alesi’s heroic points. Despite the riches of the Diniz family and rumours of sponsorship from Stella Artois, Prost wound out the season with rent-a-drivers and a skeleton crew. Over the winter rumours circulated about various bids to save the team, but as the FIA entry date approached, the team slipped into receivership.

Prost Script

The Versailles gates shutting for the last time was not the end of the Prost Grand Prix odyssey. When the F1 circus rolled into Kuala Lumpur for the 2002 Malaysian GP, rumours emerged that Prost’s F1 assets had been bought. Via faxed press releases and staged press conferences this was indeed confirmed. Not only this, but the nascent Phoenix F1 consortium claimed to be entitled to Prost’s championship entry and prize money. They proposed taking their rightful place on the grid, equipped with AP04s fitted out with Hart V10s of uncertain vintage; Enge and Mazzacane were cited as drivers, but both independently denied any knowledge of the project. The Phoenix group was fronted by Charles Nickerson, an old associate of Tom Walkinshaw, now owner of Arrows F1. It soon transpired that the Phoenix project was a pretty transparent attempt by Walkinshaw to ensnare Prost’s TV and prize money. Bitterly opposed by Paul Stoddard of Minardi (who also stood to benefit commercially from Prost’s collapse), the FIA subsequently ruled that Phoenix’s claim to F1 entry was without substance. It turned out that all Nickerson had bought were some slow chassis and some old Ferrari gearboxes. With Phoenix’s departure from the scene (as a prelude to the demise of Arrows and in turn, TWR) the last vestige of Prost F1 disappeared. It is ironic that Super Aguri’s rise in 2006 using modified 2002 Arrows chassis was facilitated by the collapse of the British team – a direct consequence of their failure to get their mits on Prost’s prize money.

Had Prost made it to Albert Park in 2002, this is the car they would have used.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Where Are They Now?

Alain Prost – Thanks to his walking away from $30m debts with his personal wealth intact while the staff lost their jobs, Prost was portrayed as the bad guy in the story. This is not strictly true – no one can suggest he didn’t put his life and soul into trying to keep the team alive, and by all accounts he behaved honourably in its final weeks, even helping his staff find new roles in other F1 teams. Prost’s reputation was generally sullied by the whole team ownership experience; he seemed indecisive, impatient and overly demanding of his partners and was portrayed as a poor organiser and delegator. Certainly the experience of 1999 and 2000 lent credence to that, as did his failure to grasp the Diniz lifeline when offered. On the positive side, unlike most F1 bosses in his position, he stuck resolutely to his guns in chasing performance from his cars and driver; having drivers of the calibre of Alesi and Frentzen in his final season is impressive, especially when the likes of Mazzacane and Yoong were offering megabucks to drive; and the final AP04 chassis seemed to have genuine potential.

Alain Prost has rehabilitated his reputation by easing himself back into the motor racing limelight with selected ice-racing and GT outings and by overseeing the driving career of his son Nicolas. Alain is occasionally connected with F1 roles, specifically as a potential replacement for Flavio at Renault and more recently as front-man for a proposed Nissan-Prodrive deal.

Olivier Panis – Panis revived his F1 prospects in just one season as McLaren’s superstar test driver in 2000. This acted as a springboard to a career as a sort of Mr-Reliable-cum-Car-Sorter for financially inflated and underachieving oriental manufacturer programmes, first with BAR Honda and then Toyota. Retiring from the F1 race grind at the end of 2003, he acted as Toyota’s test driver before being lined up by Peugeot for their 2007 assault on Le Mans alongside fellow Francophiles Villeneuve, Sarrazin, Bourdais and Minassian.

Shinji Nakano – Nakano’s record at Prost is regarded as not representative of his actual ability. Indeed, once Prost recognised that without Shinji there would be no Mugens, he spent more time helping the driver learn about the car and performances improved significantly. A subsequent season at Minardi and then a spell as Jordan test driver led nowhere, but Shinji has since raced in CART, IRL and Super GTs.

Jarno Trulli – Trulli escaped Prost at just the right time, but enjoyed no great success at Jordan. Moving from there onto Renault, he struggled at first before winning strongly at Monaco in 2004. Despite having the measure of teammate Alonso, Trulli fell out with the team and wound up at Toyota. A strong 2005 season led to a disappointing 2006 campaign. High hopes for a return to form in 2007.

Nick Heidfeld – The F3000 hotshot’s reputation was damaged by his single disastrous year with Prost, but he bounced back well at Sauber in 2001, matching well with some strong teammates. Not one to grasp the limelight, despite some respectable performances his career seemed to be going nowhere before he won a Williams seat in 2005. A strong and consistent season led to him fronting BMW’s attack in 2006.

Jean Alesi – An F1 legend, Alesi fell out with Prost and shifted to Jordan midway through 2001, scoring his final F1 points for his old F3000 boss. Since retiring from F1, Alesi has become a DTM leading man before (guess what?) falling out with Mercedes after having to make do with a 2005 model CLK in 2006. Current plans unconfirmed, but reputed to be “exciting”.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen – The 2001 and 2002 chapters of Frentzen’s F1 career seem like flashbacks to the old days of the minnow teams. No sooner had Frentzen started making progress with a struggling team than it went bust from under him, first Prost and then Arrows mid-way through 2002. However, he bounced back with Sauber in 2003 and fittingly scored their final podium at Indy. Since then he has had a rather difficult time in DTM, first with a poor Opel and then falling out with his team despite a more competitive Audi in 2006. 2007 may yet see him move onto Mercedes Benz.

Luciano Burti – A driver whose level is difficult to assess – one does not win the British F3 championship or become a Ferrari test driver for no reason, but equally Burti failed to demonstrate any particular potential in F1. Remembered primarily for his spectacular shunts with Schumacher at Hockenheim and with Irvine’s Jaguar at Spa, Burti became Ferrari’s test driver in 2002, only to return to racing in Brazil in 2003.

Tomas Enge – One of those demonstrably talented drivers who unfortunately was never ‘trendy’ in the way his contemporaries Wilson and Luizzi were, Enge was destined to start and end his F1 career with Prost. Offered little in the way of even F1 test drives, he has since carved himself a niche by becoming a successful exponent of GT racing.

Gaston Mazzacane – Mazza arrived in F1 seemingly from nowhere and fittingly he rapidly went back to obscurity after his involvement with Prost. Tried to build a career in Champ Cars to no effect and now races in domestic touring cars.

Loic Bigois – Chief designer Bigois certainly had novel ideas for his Prost cars. While they invariably featured distinctive aero detailing, they also failed to demonstrate competitiveness. Indeed, the most effective of the ‘true’ Prost cars, the AP04 was his most conventional, and was completed under the direction of ex-McLaren man Henri Durand. That said, he was also responsible for the last Ligiers which were reasonably competitive. He has since worked at Minardi and was most recently aero chief at Williams (with readily apparent results according to cynics).

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