Alesi and Prost: The French dream that turned sour
27 January 2011
There is a very popular programme on Sky television that has amassed a global audience over the past six years or so. 'The Deadliest Catch' follows the life and times of fishermen trailing the harsh waters of the Bearing Sea for the valuable King Crab off the Alaskan coast. Venturing out into open waters through some of the roughest conditions imaginable, these men battle for their lives in deceptively small boats, working with minimal sleep and in freezing temperatures. It is widely-perceived as one of the toughest jobs in the world. There is, however, a certain Frenchman who might take issue with that.
As one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time, Alain Prost's foray into team ownership in 1997 was, not to put too fine a point on it, disastrous. Like one of those fishing vessels sailing the vicious Bearing Sea, Prost Grand Prix always appeared to be navigating the harshest conditions the sport could throw at it.
It was a difficult time for the four-time world champion as he continually struggled to generate interest in the proposal of having a national team. Since Jack Brabham first entered a car under his own name in 1959, many drivers have turned their hand to team ownership – usually once their helmet has started gathering dust on the shelf. Whilst some have enjoyed success of varying levels, Brabham still remains the only man to claim a world title both as a driver and team owner.
The difference between the two is stark and can break a driver's resolve, not to mention the bank. Just ask Prost, John Surtees, Jackie Oliver et al. But does it change the retired driver himself?
Jean Alesi is suitably qualified to answer this question having driven alongside Prost in 1991 and having driven for Prost from 2000 to 2001.
Bursting onto the F1 scene at his home grand prix halfway through 1989, Alesi quickly captured the interest of the paddock's leading teams and towards the middle of the following year, was hot property. Signing a contract-of-intent with Williams, it seemed inevitable he would depart Tyrrell for Sir Frank's team. That was until Silverstone that year, when Nigel Mansell declared he would be leaving Ferrari at the end of the season and heading off into retirement to practice his golf swing.
Ferrari soon set about seducing the impressionable Alesi and, lured by the sheer prestige that comes with seeing the Prancing Horse emblem on a driver's overalls and steering wheel, the young Frenchman signed a two-year deal immediately. There then developed a minor tug-of-war between Ferrari and Williams, who were convinced they had signed a kosher deal with the young hotshoe. They hadn't.
“When I first came into the sport, I of course knew Alain and he had already had much success and was very helpful in small ways to me in my first two years with Ken Tyrrell,” Alesi confirms. “Then, when I went to Ferrari, many said I must be crazy and that Ferrari would destroy my career – but Alain was very helpful to me, as it was scary for me at the beginning and I wasn't experienced in driving for a big team.”
After a 1990 season that saw Prost claim five wins on his way to battling for the championship with arch-rival Ayrton Senna, much was expected for '91 – but what a disaster it proved to be.
Controversial Ferrari team manager Cesare Fiorio was removed from office, the 642/2 chassis that started the year was massively out-dated, its replacement 643 wasn't any better and the V12 engine produced as much horsepower as a sloth in motion.
“We should have had a great car that year,” sighs Alesi. “There was so much we could have achieved, but the management at Ferrari was all over the place once Fiorio went and some of the time it felt like it was me and Alain against the rest of the team. There was no direction, and Alain got more-and-more frustrated with what was happening and then they fired him, which was the worst thing that could have happened.”
Prost's sacking on the eve of the season-ending Australian Grand Prix served to underline the self-destruction Ferrari was intent on creating, and the whole episode proved tough for Alesi to handle. He is adamant, though, that his compatriot was fired simply for being himself and for speaking the truth.
“Alain was a great team-mate and we had a great year driving together in 1991,” he reminisces. “He helped me with so much – especially with the demands being a Ferrari driver places on you. Despite all that he went through, it never changed him as a person, just the way he conducted himself around those he was unsure of.”
Prost retired at the end of his title-winning 1993 season with Williams and worked over the next few years in an ambassadorial role for Renault and McLaren. Yet the lure of team ownership became too much, and in 1997 he realised a dream first born in 1989 and bought Ligier from Flavio Briatore.
Over the next few years, the team flattered to deceive on a continual basis, topping the timesheets during winter testing, then – 1997 aside – finding themselves running in the midfield at best during the season proper. Alesi – who was forced out of Ferrari for '96 following the signing of Michael Schumacher – moved to Benetton and then Sauber before being offered the chance of driving for his former team-mate Prost.
“I did have a few options open to me at the time,” the 46-year-old confirms, “but the package presented to me by Alain was impressive. He wanted a French national team with a French driver, French engine manufacturer and French owner. It all sounded great, then I drove the car and realised we were in trouble. It never changed to be honest, and for sure, it was very frustrating for all of us, not just Alain.”
Following Alesi's well-documented defection from the team to Eddie Jordan's outfit in the middle of the 2001 campaign, the countrymen fell out as Prost felt his driver had reneged on a gentlemen's agreement not to publicly criticise one another. Time, however, healed the rift and today, the two are good friends.
Prost Grand Prix folded in 2002 with debts in the tens of millions and, while the episode was a disaster for the proprietor and for French motor racing in particular, Alesi is sure the Alain Prost he drove with in '91 is no different from the man he drove for eleven years later.
“Alain was a fantastic champion driver, but when he became a team owner, everything changed,” 'Jeannot' concludes. “He found the driving far more enjoyable than team ownership – as I think most retired drivers have done – but he gave it his best shot. As a driver you always want to win and I felt that driving for Alain would prove to be successful but I was wrong, and so was he.”
by Max Davies