Thursday November 22nd, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Prost's financial problems demonstrate that small teams are an endangered species in Formula One and leave the sport's future very much in the hands of the major carmakers.
Thursday's news that Prost Grand Prix had gone into receivership, with debts estimated at about $30 million, pushes the cash-burning sport into familiar end-of-year territory. This time last year, the uncertainty surrounded Minardi as they were without sponsors, engines or drivers.
The Italian team, skilled survivors on a shoestring budget for more than a decade, were reprieved at the 11th hour when Australian businessman Paul Stoddart stepped in. Minardi would have gone to the wall, just as Simtek did in 1995, without Stoddart's infusion of cash in January.
But there are not many independent players like Stoddart, who is a motor racing nut with his own airline business to fund his passion. Most of the world's major manufacturers are already committed and even some of them are fighting for every dollar.
FIAT-owned Ferrari, according to Eurobusiness magazine, had a budget of 200 million pounds in 2001 to help them win the world title.
Prost used Ferrari engines in 2001 and with Arrows doing a deal to use Jaguar's Cosworth engines next year, Minardi were the only team on the grid without a manufacturer in attendance. Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, BAR, Renault, Jaguar and Toyota are all either owned by or work in close partnership with manufacturers. Sauber, Jordan and Arrows have engine deals, the first two with Ferrari and Honda.
Minardi have managed to reposition themselves successfully for the Asian market, signing Malaysian driver Alex Yoong and attracting a Malaysian sponsor in gaming company Magnum. They have also secured free engines from the Asiatech concern.
Toyota's long-awaited entry in 2002 should ensure, if Prost cannot find a buyer before the season starts in March, that the Formula One grid is not depleted from the 11 teams in 2001. Various possible purchasers were mentioned as the scale of Prost's problems became apparent. Brazilian former driver Pedro Diniz, whose family bought 40 percent of Prost, has expressed an interest in buying the team for a nominal sum.
Belgian newspapers have also reported that drinks group Interbrew might be interested in becoming a sponsor. An Interbrew spokesman said on Thursday it had no plans to sponsor a Formula One team. Prost met the deadline to confirm their place in the 2002 Championship and that slot alone would be worth millions of dollars to any other concern seeking an entry to Formula One.
Apart from losing a team run by a renowned four times World Champion, Prost's exit would be a blow to the prestige of a sport looked forward to a complete 24-car grid for the first time since 1997. The changed climate since the September 11 attacks on the United States and global economic worries is already worrying the major teams.
Several Formula One bosses warned at the season-ending race in Japan last month that the economic downturn was going to rip through the cossetted and high-spending paddock.
"Share prices have gone through the floor, companies look immediately to their advertising budgets and that, ultimately, trickles into motor sport," said McLaren boss Ron Dennis. "We tend to be last in and out of any recession, and that's going to happen this time round.
"Whether all the teams will survive you will have to wait and see. The big teams are just as exposed to this as the smaller teams."
Published at 12:33:40 GMT