Motor racing: Prost stresses positives

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE most experienced Formula One driver of all time admits to "feeling more nervous than ever" approaching a new season, you have a measure of the weight heaped on his slender shoulders.

Alain Prost, who won 51 grands prix and four world championships, confronted a very different life as a team owner last season, his charges mustering a mere one point to finish ninth of 11 entrants in the constructors' standings. Like his British counterpart, Jackie Stewart, he knows things must improve this year. The French nation, sponsors and engine partners Peugeot - much coveted by other camps - could scarcely countenance another failure.

Prost unveiled his new car, the AP02, at his new factory, south-west of the capital yesterday, maintaining he can meet the demands of the challenge. He has the facilities, a 200-strong workforce, the design brain of John Barnard and two respected drivers, Olivier Panis and Jarno Trulli, on which to base his optimism.

"I feel even more nervous going into this year because 1998 was a disappointment," Prost said. "Everyone is waiting for us to perform so there is pressure, but now I believe it is positive pressure because everyone here knows where we are going.

"I have no regrets about taking on my own team. In fact, I have even more motivation now. Last year was difficult because the car was not good, we had a new factory and we were making lots of changes.

"I cannot say when we will win the championship, Ferrari have not won the drivers' title for 20 years. But I do believe we will improve and keep improving. I think McLaren and Ferrari will still be ahead, and maybe Williams will improve. But then there are three, four or five teams fighting together, we would like to be with them. It is not easy and would be embarrassing if British American Racing beat us. But it is very competitive.

"John Barnard will be a big help. He is working from England, working on his own ideas and advising us. We go back a long way, to the early 1980s at McLaren. It was working with John that I appreciated the importance of a driver and engineer working together. I won two of my championships with him."

Prost, guided by Barnard, has concentrated efforts on improving aerodynamics, and in particular the front end of the car. Barnard, who built his reputation at McLaren, and reinforced it at Ferrari and Benetton, said: "Alain and I understand each other and this role is just what I was looking for. I don't want to be in the frontline. I want to work on my own concepts."

Panis is equally anxious to assert himself this year after struggling last season with plates in his lower legs following a serious accident in Canada in the summer of 1997. He said: "Last year, I had this dark cloud over me. I spoke to Alain about it but I hid some of this from him because he had enough problems. The surgeon warned me that if I had another accident and twisted the plates my career would be over so this was always at the back of my mind. But I had to take the risk. If you are out of Formula One for six months people can forget you."

Peugeot has produced an improved engine and promised an updated version four races into the season, with a further development in the summer. All of which intensifies the pressure for Prost.

Meanwhile, in Barcelona yesterday Williams launched the car they hope will take the team back to the front of the grid. Williams failed to score a victory for the first time in 10 years last season as they also lost their constructors' crown.