Motor Racing: Honours for The Professor

David Tremayne studies the positive effect Alain Prost has had as an owner
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The Independent Online
Tom Walkinshaw is adamant about it: "Olivier Panis would have won in Spain if he had not been blocked," he said recently. The Arrows boss was referring to the six laps in the recent Spanish Grand Prix that the Frenchman spent bottled up behind Eddie Irvine's Ferrari, which cost him the chance of challenging Jacques Villeneuve's winning Williams-Renault in the closing stages. In the end, Panis's Prost-Mugen-Honda was 6.7 seconds adrift when the chequered flag fell. Walkinshaw, it transpired, was not alone in his opinion, and the way things are flowing for Alain Prost since he took over ownership of the Ligier team at the beginning of the season, a victory would not surprise.

It's been a year of unusual quality, with not just Prost but his fellow former champion Jackie Stewart returning in the role of team patron. Stewart set up on his own, but Prost followed a more circuitous route that included one false start, back in his enforced sabbatical in 1992 after Ferrari had sacked him, when his first attempt to buy Ligier failed.

Thus far Panis, who won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix in sensational style for Ligier, has finished fifth in Melbourne, third in Brazil, fourth in Monaco and now second in Spain, and lies third in the World Championship behind Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher. By any standard it's been a good start, and it owes much to the choice of Bridgestone tyres. In Spain he started only 12th, but his tyres were in great shape for the race, and before the incident with Irvine, whom he was trying to lap, Panis was taking chunks out of Villeneuve's lead as the Canadian nursed his Goodyear tyres.

In his racing days Prost's studious approach earned him the sobriquet "The Professor", and now his tutoring has brought out Panis's best by making him feel an integral part of the operation. "As a former champion Alain understands the driver better than anyone else can," Panis said. "He gives me good feelings and we have a very nice relationship."

Prost himself has taken well to his new role, even if he has had to cut down a little on a passion for cycling that has seen him capable of beating Laurent Fignon, the former Tour de France winner with whom he has also set up a cycle manufacturing business. "The pressure as an owner is very different to the pressure you feel as a driver," admitted the man who won 51 grands prix on his way to four championships. "It's completely different from being a driver. When you drive you have more freedom, you can express yourself more. But as a team owner your role is more passive. You take responsibility for everything, and you have so much more to consider."

Already rumours have linked Prost with approaches to Damon Hill and Jean Alesi for 1998, when his cars will run with Peugeot engines. And then there is Villeneuve. Next weekend the Canadian will once again face the pressures and expectations that any sportsman at the top of his profession must endure when racing at home, in his case on the circuit named in honour of his late father, Gilles.

It is logical for Villeneuve's people to consider Prost as a promising alternative to Williams, and a good indication of the regard in which his team is already held. If nothing else, Jacques and Alain could always compare notes as members of the Ex-Williams Champions' Club.