Prost Peugeot AP03
Article written by Damian Nicholas Francis
In modern Formula One, only one team has an excuse for poor performance and we all know who they are, yet they often surprise us. However, each year brings its fair share of bad cars despite all but one team being very well funded. In 2000, the Prost GP fit that description perfectly, heaps of cash and one slow car!
An excellent budget, renowned engineers and brilliant management, two star drivers and arguably the best colour scheme on the 2000 F1 grid brought Prost a grand total of 0 points!
At the start of 2000, Prost GP had high hopes. The 1999 AP02 had suddenly come good towards the end of the season, Jarno Trulli scored a second place at the Nurburgring and Olivier Panis ran third in the last round at Suzuka, fending off Eddie Irvine and David Coulthard in the Ferrari and the McLaren respectively. For 2000 Prost GP had acquired the tremendous talent and experience of Frenchman Jean Alesi and one of the most promising new stars in F1, F3000 champion, German Nicholas Heidfeld. Heidfeld had been brought up in motor sports by Mercedes and Prost was allegedly hoping to form an alliance with McLaren.
New sponsorship was gained in the form of Internet giants 'Yahoo Search Engines' and the works Peugeot engine that powered the Prost was rated as one of the strongest and most reliable in F1. The arrival of Alan Jenkins as chief designer looked to be a good move, he was famous for designing some very fast cars, most recently the 1999 Stewart Ford SF3. Alain Prost seemed to have finally gotten his act together and Prost GP made it no secret that they were gunning for fifth position or higher in the constructors championship. Come Australia though, it was a whole different story.
Towards the end of the pre-season, it was slowly becoming obvious that not all things were going right for the French team. The chassis was very late and components didn't fit properly. Major work had to be done to resolve the problems. One mishap led to another, testing was too little too late and neither driver really had time to get used to the car. On their arrival in Melbourne, Australia for round one of the 2000 F1 championship, Prost GP proclaimed that the first round would be mainly used for testing purposes, the car was just that undeveloped. It showed, but not as much as some would have thought, the AP03 still posted respectable times but it was obvious that this car needed some major changes if it were to bug the leaders and challenge for that much wanted fifth position.
Heidfeld, after brilliantly out qualifying Alesi in his first F1 race ran into problems early, however, the team were able to fix the car and Heidfeld kept circulating, eventually ending up two laps adrift come the end of the race. As for Alesi, the humiliation of being out performed by a rookie was only worsened when he spun at turn three, a quick recovery assured him of a few more laps but his day came to an end on lap 27 due to engine failure. Prost GP left Australia with some bad memories, but at least one car made the distance, McLaren, Jordan, Arrows and Jaguar all had a nightmare start with both cars retiring.
Sunny Brazil was the next stop for the F1 circus and the weekend did not get off to the start Prost GP would have hoped for. In qualifying, Jean Alesi had a bizarre incident when a loose advertising board fell on his car going into turn one, the board got smashed to pieces on Alesi's front wing. A back row start for Heidfeld didn't ease the qualifying pain, but on the bright side, it could have been worse as both Saubers were forced to withdraw from the race. Sunday morning warm up and Alesi proved he didn't need the help of an advertising board to destroy the cars wing!
This time, the rear wing decided to part company with the car on its own merit! Alesi managed to struggle back to the pits, afterwards saying "There was no warning, the first I knew was when the car suddenly surged forward with an increase of acceleration!". Come race time, Prost GPs luck did the impossible and declined even further, a grand total of 20 laps were completed by both cars put together, Alesi pulling off with apparent electronics problems on lap 11 and Heidfeld making it two engine failures for the team in as many races when the Peugeot blew it on lap 9. That was that for Brazil 2000!
In Brazil, Prost GP at least had some distractions to take them away from their pathetic performances, there was no such luck at San Marino for round 3. The story is short and bitter, Heidfeld went one better in qualifying (in the wrong direction) to land 22nd out of 22 on the grid and Alesi plugged away to park the car on 15th spot. An uneventful race saw both drivers retire relatively early, Alesi on lap 25 with throttle problems and Heidfeld on lap 22 when the car suffered a hydraulic mishap. Unfortunately, both retirements were caught on TV, ITV commentator Martin Brundle was drawn to giving what seemed like his deepest sympathies to the team!
June 2000 and the first rumours of Prost GP being sold are starting to materialise, Benetton allegedly offering to buy the team. However, Alain Prost refused, reportedly stating that had Renault offered, he would have accepted. Silverstone and Spain hosted round 4 and 5 respectively, unsurprisingly Prost GP came away with very little. Mediocre qualifying efforts in both races did little for team morale. Alesi scored the teams first top 10 finishing tenth at Silverstone, Heidfeld's car succumbed to another engine failure mid race, in Spain at Circuit de Catalunya, Heidfeld finished 16th and last while Alesi collided with local hero Pedro De la Rosa's Arrows on lap 1. Sadly, the coverage of the incident was excellent!
"Prost GP in Disarray" screamed F1 Racing Magazine headlines in July, Alan Jenkins had just been axed. Reports were that he wept in his office for half an hour after hearing the news! Other bad news to come from Prost GP at the same time was that Peugeot were to pull out at the end of the season and that 'Yahoo' apparently had had enough and were jumping off the sinking ship at the end of the year.
The European GP from the Nurburgring was next up and it was ... a disaster! Heidfeld was disqualified before the race had even started for being 2kg under weight in qualifying, he rolled up to the grid come the race but was effectively told to go away! Not competing in the race was probably the best thing that happened to him all season! As for Alesi, he finished 9th and last after qualifying 17th, beaten to the chequered flag by Gaston Mazzacane's ailing Minardi.
The only real street circuit hosted round 7. The sunny seaside of Monaco was the venue and for once, Prost GP had something to celebrate. Jean Alesi dragging the car to 7th on the grid in an inspired lap. Heidfeld however was dangling around in 18th. Sadly the race was no different to the rest of them. Alesi could have easily scored a podium, but he departed on lap 29 with gearbox gremlins. The wrong car made the distance, Heidfeld finishing 8th, one lap down.
Round 8 was held in Montreal, Canada, on the circuit Gilles Villeneuve. This was indeed an extremely embarrassing trip for the Prost GP team. So bad were they in qualifying that Alain Prost didn't want to comment even in the teams official press release. Alesi started from 17th and Heidfeld from 21st, some 3.241 seconds adrift of pole! The race was no better, Alesi managed to climb to eighth in changing weather conditions, he then recorded the longest pit stop of the race, lasting 50.467 seconds until he finally retired on lap 38 with hydraulic problems. Heidfeld had an uneventful race to retire on lap 34 when the Peugeot engine called it a day and blew up.
Prost GPs home race was next on the hit list, round 9 to be held at the circuit Nevers Magny-Cours. After Olivier Panis qualified third in 1999 and Prost GP finished 7th and 8th, there was pressure on the team to produce a similar performance and perhaps score then teams first points of the year. Jean Alesi gave Peugeot some words of encouragement, "If this V10 has 792bhp, then the others must have 850!", bad move Jean! Peugeot were not going to take this lying down saying, "We have one of the best engines in Formula 1" claimed Corrado Provera, Peugeot motorsport boss. Then Alain Prost had to have his say and iced the cake well and truly claiming that the partnership with Peugeot "has never been a real one." Not wanting to miss out on the fun, the Prost GP mechanics took action and went on strike during the warm up following Alesi's comments.
As if this was all not humiliating enough, at their home GP, Prost had a bit more to come. Nick Heidfeld had kept his head down remained silent through all this, duly out qualifying Alesi. Heidfeld started 16th and Alesi 18th. Not the best qualifying session in the world. In the race, Heidfeld decided that with all this talk, it was time for some action, he had remained silent for too long ... so he took out Jean Alesi in one foul swoop! On the approach to the Adelaide hairpin, Heidfeld, who was running behind Fisichella in 15th and Alesi in 14th, tried a desperate late braking manoeuvre, flying past Fisichella, he could not stop in time and hit the side of Alesi.
Of course this was not really intentional but the move was far too bold and was never going to come off. Alesi did however continue after a three point turn and Heidfeld made for the pits. The TV cameras again doing a mighty fine job of covering the GP when they caught Alain Prost on the pit cam, directly behind him was Heidfeld who had made it to the pits for his first stop, and then proceeded to stall the engine. Alain was not a happy boy and it was blatantly visible! The only plus of the GP was that both cars finished, Heidfeld was 12th and Jean Alesi was 14th after again being savaged, this time by Marc Gene in the Minardi.
The lush hills of Speilburg, Austria, awaited the F1 world. The A1-Ring was host to round 10. No pre-race controversy hindered the Prost GP team this time. Come race day, Alesi had planted his Prost in position 17 while Heidfeld had stunned a few people by shoving the sister car on the 13th grid spot. The race got under way as planned and both the Prost cars managed to get through a first corner pile up that took out the likes of Michael Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. Alesi had been placed on a two stop strategy while Heidfeld was content in doing just one.
All was going well up until Alesi's pit stop, he exited the pits narrowly in front of Heidfeld. The two ran extremely close for a few laps until on lap 42. Murray Walker had said at the start of the race that the worst thing two team mates could do was run into each other, he was referring to the 1999 incident between McLaren team mates Hakkinen and Coulthard at the very same track. Alesi tried a 'do or die' move on the inside of Heidfeld into turn one, he was too far behind, Heidfeld didn't see him and proceeded to turn in as per usual.
The two cars crashed heavily, debris flew every where. "and, ah, the, the, the two Ligiers, er, the two Prosts ... poor Alain Prost!" shouted Murray Walker. That about summed up the situation. Poor Alain Prost, he was again subject to numerous replays, slow motion, above shots, side shots. This was not good publicity, 'Yahoo' side pods, 'Playstation' barge boards and 'Gauloises' air box pieces flew through the air. The Prost GP team stated that there had been no team orders - whatever, Prost GP left Austria in small pieces and Alesi and Heidfeld left as worst enemies.
Round ten came live from the Hockenheim-ring in Germany. It was another disaster for Prost GP. Heidfeld again out qualified Alesi, the Prost GP cars starting 13th and 20th respectively. In the race, Alesi had one of the most horrific crashes in the season on lap 29. Pedro Diniz, without looking, turned into him on the approach to Ayrton Senna curve, the cars had not yet reached the braking area. Tyres went flying every where as Alesi's car spun uncontrollably into the tyre wall, his head extremely far forward in the cockpit. Amazingly, he was unhurt but quite sick. Heidfeld then quietly retired on lap 40.
Hungary, venue for round 12 of the F1 championship was uneventful, but compared to the last three races, would have been a welcome change. Alesi started 14th with Heidfeld in position 19. Prost GP were the first and second to retire, Alesi from steering problems on lap 11 and Heidfeld due to electrical problems on lap 22. At this stage of the season, it was pretty clear that nothing much could be done to the car that would haul it up to the front of the grid. The AP03 was not going to improve much more, Prost GP would have to accept that and move on.
As the Formula 1 circus reached round 13 in Belgium, the big talk was driver line ups for season 2001. Prost GP had already confirmed Jean Alesi but question marks surrounded Nick Heidfeld despite some promising performances. Finally a decision was reached that Hiedfeld's contract would not be renewed and he was off to the Sauber team next season. Qualifying was no big surprise, Heidfeld again out gunned his team mate lining up 14th on the grid, Alesi had to be content with 17th. The race however was a totally different story. On lap 12, Heidfeld would retire with gearbox problems, Alesi though was the surprise of the race.
The Grand Prix had started off under safety car conditions in the rain but the track soon began to dry out, Alesi was one of the first to stop for dry tyres and the move paid off, he sky rocketed to an amazing fourth place. with a nice gap to Ralf Schumacher behind, all seemed comfortable, Alesi pitted early however and came out in eighth position, he had changed to a three stop strategy.. It didn't look good for points but the Prost was still competitive. On lap 32 fuel pump problems struck and Alesi was forced to retire. Prost GP used the race as a morale boost though, even Alesi was happy, "It was important for the morale of the team to run as high as I did."
On to Monza, host of round 14, from Italy. In the past, Prost GPs performances here had been good, but things didn't go well at all, even for Prost's standards, Alesi and Heidfeld started 19th and 20th respectively. The race proved not much better. After a huge incident at the Variante Della Roggia, the safety car came out for eleven 11 laps. On lap 15, Heidfeld spun on his own accord and stalled the engine. Alesi plugged on to finish in an embarrassing last position, the only one to be two laps down, behind both Minardis.
The latest rumours to come from the Prost GP camp when the cars arrived at the new Indianapolis Circuit in America for round 15 was that Abilio Diniz, father to Sauber driver Pedro, was keen to by shares in the team. eventually it came to light that the deal would go ahead. This secured some much needed funds for a team with virtually no sponsors for 2001! Prost GP also confirmed that they would be using one year old Ferrari engines next year (Monza Spec), Sauber had used them to score some good points in 2000 and Prost hoped he could do the same in 2001, however, that left Prost GP to foot a bill of an alleged US$45 million for the engines. Alain Prost later admitted that he would need a pay driver next year alongside Alesi.
Despite some good news, Prost GP failed at Indy, qualifying netted them 16th for Heidfeld and 20th for Alesi and the race was not much better. Alesi retiring on lap 64 with apparent engine failure, Heidfeld finished but in a distant 9th place. Now the Formula 1 parade would march to Asia for the two final rounds of the 2000 F1 World Championships. It was crunch time for Prost GP. The task at hand was simple, score points or suffer the consequences.
First stop Japan! While Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher were preparing to fight for the championship, Prost GP had the embarrassing task of trying to beat Minardi to finish 10th overall in the championship. Qualifying times for the Prost GP team were surprising, but only for the fact that Alesi and Heidfeld were running closer than they had been all year, with Heidfeld out qualifying Alesi by six one hundredths of a second. Unfortunately it was for 16th and 17th respectively! The race was even worse, neither driver finished in the topsy-turvy conditions. Heidfeld got the chop on lap 41 with apparent suspension troubles while Alesi managed an uneventful 19 laps before the Peugeot engine got bored and exploded. While Michael Schumacher went home happy in the knowledge that a third drivers title was his, Prost GP crawled off knowing that in Malaysia they had to score at least a position 7 if they were to beat Minardi.
22nd of October, 2000. 90,000 people came to watch the season of Formula close at the Sepang Circuit, Malaysia. Prost GP were on a mission, albeit a rather sad mission. Saturday qualifying was a disaster, Alesi and Heidfeld again failed to perform, netting a rather poor (even for Prost standards) 18th and 19th. Minardi were 21st and 22nd, but they knew how to finish races, Prost GP were yet to master that with any certainty. As the five red lights went out, Nick Heidfeld decided that he would walk away with more dignity by not completing a lap. At the first corner he clashed with Pedro De la Rosa and Pedro Diniz.
The curtain had fallen on a nightmare debut season for the young German. Alesi battled on though and finished the race one lap behind but in 11th place. Minardi had beaten them. Prost had scored no points at all. It was all over. Prost GP entered the year 2000 with high hopes, no one person can be blamed for the failure. After all, Formula 1 is a team sport. It is better to look foward rather than to look back, unless you are Mclaren or Ferrari.
So, as the sun set on another season, what did the main players of Prost GP have to look forward to? Alain Prost had a new partnership with the Diniz family and also he still had the services of Jean Alesi to be happy about. Alesi had Ferrari engines to look forward to. The French-Sicilian always loved Ferrari and this may just revitalise him. Nick Heidfeld had bailed out, mainly because Prost couldn't afford to retain him. He was off to the Swiss Sauber team which was undoubtedly a better move than staying with Prost. In 2001, Gaston Mazzacane, the Minardi driver, would move to Prost to fill the pay-driver position. F1 Racing magazine stated that Alain Prost himself would probably be faster than Mazzacane!
That partnership as well is history now, Mazzacane has been and gone, his poor performances getting him fired after the 2001 San Marino GP. Luciano Burti replaced him and is flying. With PSN, Dark Dog, ACER, Adecco and Michelin backing, Prost GP found the light at Monaco, Alesi came 6th! Two weeks later, he did it again, finishing 5th. Prost GP is starting a comeback! As for Heidfeld. He is laughing, after a 4th in Australia, a 3rd in Brazil and a 6th in Spain, he has gained his reputation back as being a future World Champion and Sauber are now a major player.
Article written by Damian Nicholas Francis © 2001|
Beecroft, Sydney, NSW, Australia
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