If you were to look up the phrase “annus horribilis” in any contemporary Latin dictionary, you could be forgiven for expecting a picture of a world-weary Alain Prost, circa 2000, with fingernails neutorically gnawed down to the quick.
Annus horribilis became an almost clichéd phrase used to describe the travails of Prost Grand Prix that year, which more than transcended on-track performance. A year-long domestic with Peugeot hastened their divorce after three years together; Prost blamed Peugeot for providing sub-standard engines, while Peugeot argued that the Alan Jenkins-penned AP03 was weak.
Where did the truth lie? Peugeot was adamant that its engine was one of the strongest, with erstwhile Peugeot Sport chief Corrado Provera suggesting that the A20 engine produced “close to 800 horsepower”. Meanwhile, the AP03 had taken obvious design cues from the previous year’s McLaren; could it really be that bad?
Thankfully, we can draw our own conclusions. In internet-land, a selection of Prost’s setup sheets from the 2000 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola have emerged, and should be able to address some of the issues that Alain’s merry men endured that year. With some closer inspection, they’ll allow us to build a case either for or against the merits of the AP03.
The spreadsheets detail the setups and components used, from the suspension and vehicle dynamics adjustments made to the change in aero maps, gearbox ratios and differential settings. Most of the naming conventions are internal codes and so it’s difficult to judge what some of the changes represent, but assumptions can be made on their effects from the drivers’ feedback.
Alesi’s first lap of Imola in the first practice session was on a damp track, and the Frenchman had to wait half-an-hour before returning to the circuit. Alesi seemed content on the installation lap; he reported that the front end and the engine were fine, but the car had a tendency to touch the ground at various points across the lap. He also complained that the traction on the exit of turn 12 – the Variante Alta – was poor, meaning that progress was glacial as the car struggled to put the power down.
With an increase in the tyre pressures, Alesi had far fewer problems on his next run and the minor increase in ride height ensured that the car was resisting the urge to bottom out. The driver comments box on the sheet reads “T7 / T12 – Piratella all aero to front”. Although it’s not exactly clear what this means, a fair estimate would be that while the car is a lot more responsive to inputs at the front end, the balance with the rear is disproportionate.
Famously, Alesi was much happier with an almost-twitchy response at the front, allowing him to attack corners and then deal with any errant action at the rear later. While the decision to shift the balance towards the front will have been to get the car to Alesi’s liking, Prost couldn’t exactly afford to lose any rear-end downforce and compromise the Peugeot’s power delivery.
To address those concerns, the Prost engineers put on a little bit more wing at the rear, along with some new differential settings to try to improve the overall traction. However, the car was just not particularly responsive to any changes and ended up producing far greater understeer, with Alesi finding the car too slow to respond to his inputs in the first practice session.
For the second session, Prost made a raft of changes to the springs, dampers and anti-roll bar settings. Alesi hated it. Doing one lap, he reported a lack of grip resulting in a “horrible” feeling with the opening chicanes. It seemed that, no matter how many changes the engineers made to the car, they couldn’t find a fix to their rear-end woes.
Heidfeld, with two years’ experience testing for McLaren, was on hand to provide more detailed feedback, although the German’s running in the first session was curtailed with an oil pressure problem, causing an engine blow-out after just one-and-a-half laps.
As a result, the engineers made minimal changes to Heidfeld’s car after replacing the engine. Finally getting some running, Heidfeld’s displeasure with the overall setup became readily apparent, and found that the AP03 was oversteering far too frequently. He also supported Alesi’s concerns over traction, and although the team made changes to the anti-roll bars and ride height before his next run, Heidfeld still found the car recalcitrant when attempting to leave a corner.
A new anti-roll bar setting on the next set of laps placated the German a little, but he still struggled with balance; the oversteer in the car was still prevalent, and the car was unsettled as it weaved through the undulations of Imola. Heidfeld felt more comfortable on the longer runs, his Prost perhaps dialling itself in with more running, but there was the unshakeable problem of the car overheating its rear tyres.
From the debrief sheet, the difference in tyre temperatures between the front and rear was common to both cars, confirming the AP03’s inherent lack of rear-end grip. The car could do nothing but slide around when the drivers first pressed the accelerator, losing precious time at the start of the straights.
The lack of traction has become a recurring theme in these setup sheets, and it seems to suggest that most of Prost’s disappointment with the Peugeot engine stemmed from the team’s inability to get the best from their French powerplant.
At the time, the official power output figure fed to the mainstream media by Peugeot was 792bhp, a competitive level of performance at the time. Alesi was unconvinced, quipping that “if we have 792bhp, everyone else must have 850!”. It was unknown if this was a realistic figure or just posturing by Peugeot, but even with a more powerful engine in the back it would be unlikely that the AP03 could even hope to make the most of it.
However, Peugeot couldn’t be absolved of all blame; although the power output was seemingly fine, the 2000-spec engine was notoriously unreliable. It became almost guaranteed that at least one of the metallic blue Prosts would pull over to the side of the track, with the French team only recording one double-finish all year long. Granted, crashes and some mechanical faults from Prost’s side produced a handful of retirements, but the team ended up getting through a whopping 54 Peugeot A20 engines over the year!
The Prost-Peugeot relationship was untenable. Around the mid-season mark, Corrado Provera announced that Peugeot were officially cutting ties with Formula 1, sick of spending their money on an engine program that was rapidly going nowhere.
Although this was the end of Peugeot’s involvement in F1, it wasn’t quite the end for their engine program. Under a different guise and with new investors, an unknown company was about to make their first steps into motorsport using the Peugeot engines as a base for their efforts…
(Stay tuned for the follow-up!)