CREDIT SUISSE, 19.05.2005

Alain Prost: "Sauber needs a strong partner."

This interview is also available in French and German!

Interview: Andreas Thomann, emagazine editor

Former world champion Alain Prost takes his hat off to the Sauber team. "They've been keeping up with the works teams for years." Nevertheless, he doesn't believe they can make the breakthrough and reach the very top. "To achieve that, they need a motor supplier."

As a team boss, the four-time world champion experienced first-hand how difficult things have become for private teams in Formula One. Founded in 1997 as a successor to Ligier, the Prost Grand Prix team had to manage without its motor supplier Peugeot as of the 2001 season. Just one year later, Alain Prost's career as a team boss temporarily came to an end when the team went bankrupt. However, as a keen observer of the racing scene, the Frenchman still has close ties with Formula One. Alain Prost talked to emagazine prior to the start of the new season. In the first part of the interview the champion looks closely at current issues in the world of racing. In the second part, which will be published in two weeks, he looks back on his epic duel with Ayrton Senna.

In Formula One nowadays, three private teams battle it out with seven big works teams. Do you think this is an unequal contest?
Yes, I do. Today, the best a small team can hope to accomplish is to develop a competitive car over the season. But there's no chance anymore of competing at the front over several seasons. The mighty works teams have a clear advantage there: They can adapt to rules changes much more quickly because they've got special teams set up to deal with just those types of issues. Today it's no longer possible to get right to the top in Formula One with sponsorship money alone.

Today, the big teams have budgets of about 500 million francs. How can the exploding costs be stopped?
First and foremost, all the parties responsible have to be interested in reducing costs. This is where the main problem lies.

Let's assume that everyone agreed. What specifically would have to happen?
In order to really change anything, the number of tests would have to be reduced drastically. In doing so, you have to bear in mind that a lot of jobs would be lost. Some teams currently have between 800 and 1,000 employees. The only way to drive down costs is by laying people off.

What do you think about standardized tires?
I don't think it's a good idea. If you introduce standardized tires, why not standardized motors? From there it's just a small step to standardized cars. Formula One has always been a parallel competition between drivers and technologies. I wouldn't challenge this basic premise.

How do you rate the chances for Sauber Petronas in a Formula One dominated by the works teams?
In my view, there are basically three categories of teams in Formula One: the big works teams, the private teams, and somewhere in the middle there's Sauber. Peter Sauber has truly done a superb job in the last few years. At the beginning of last season he even had McLaren in check, and finished ahead of Toyota and Jaguar in the Constructors Championship.

So, is Sauber the exception that confirms the rule?
Probably. Peter Sauber's greatest advantage is that he could line up two big sponsors, Petronas and Credit Suisse, for long-term deals. They give him the stability required to be successful. However, I doubt whether Sauber can ever make it all the way to the top on its own. That would require a deal with an automobile manufacturer.

In the meantime the team appears attractive enough for former world champion Jacques Villeneuve to agree to terms. What do you think he's capable of?
Jacques is an excellent driver, with a lot of charisma. He was the last driver to challenge Michael Schumacher. But I never really understood his move to BAR. A driver of his caliber should have always driven for a team with which he could have competed for the world championship. He certainly won't be granted that chance with Sauber either. But he could well have a successful season with a few podium finishes.

Villeneuve's comeback brings back memories of the 1993 season when you, too, returned from a year off to sit in the cockpit again and went on to win your fourth and last world championship title. How tough is it to find the racing rhythm after a break?
An interruption is always a risk. You lose your stride quickly, both physically and mentally, and you lose touch somewhat with technological developments. Fortunately, in my case the break lasted only nine months, and I switched to the best team of the day, Williams-Renault.

Alain Prost: From zero to one hundred and back again
In fact, he wanted to be a soccer player. When he was growing up, Alain Prost regularly played on club teams and even earned a trial at St. Etienne. However, at just eight he was introduced to the downside of what it's like to be soccer player. He injured his knee, and a short time later it was his wrist. While he was recuperating, and after some coaxing from his brother, Alain climbed into a go kart - it was love at first sight. From then on, Prost was speeding around race tracks across Europe, going from victory to victory. First, it was the kart championship, later the Formula Renault series, and finally, in Formula 3. In 1980, at the age of 25, Prost was ready for Formula One. He was up to speed in the top tier of the racing world in no time. In just his second year, he drove his Renault to four victories. However, he would have to wait another four years before earning his first world championship, at that time in a McLaren. By the time he retired as a Formula One driver in 1993, Prost had racked up four world championship titles, and finished another four seasons in second place. In the beginning, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Niki Lauda were his biggest rivals, later it was mainly Ayrton Senna who regularly stood in the Frenchman's way. For two seasons (1988 and 1989) Senna and Prost battled it out as teammates for McLaren, who dominated Formula One at that time. The bitter duel between the hot-blooded Brazilian and the cool, collected "Professor" thrilled racing fans and brought about a boom in Formula One. Prost's career as a team owner stands in stark contrast to the success he enjoyed as a driver. Prost Grand Prix made its Formula One debut in 1997 - five years later, after a sea-son that brought no points, the company filed for bankruptcy. Today, Prost is an advisor for Formula One marketing company ISE, and races in the French "Trophée Andros" ice rally series.

Back to interview-page!

Alain Prost-Infopage © by Oskar Schuler, Switzerland