What's in a contract?

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Whilst these words were being written, the Formula 1 market for 1992 looked on – paper – to be relatively stable, leastways at the sharp end of the grid.

Williams had long since confirmed that it would be retaining Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, McLaren likewise Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger. After weeks of frenzied speculation in the wake of Alain Prost’s dismissal, Ferrari has finally opted for Ivan Capelli and Jean Alesi. Benetton’s plans were also finalised, Martin Brundle and Michael Schumacher being able to spend the winter secure in the knowledge that they had gainful employment in 1992.

Popular paddock theory has it that these are the best eight seats available in F1 today, although Jordan might beg to differ.

In theory, there remain but meagre pickings for Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, winners of six World Championships between them, though most of the young drivers stuck in the log-jam between Formula 3000 and Grand Prix racing would leap at the chance just to sit in such as a Jordan-Yamaha or Ligier-Renault, let alone race one.

It would be wonderful – albeit – improbable to see Prost, who could live quite comfortably for the rest of his life on his earnings to date, accepting a smaller pay packet and using his acknowledged testing skills to help realise the potential of a rising team such as Jordan, or to revive the fortunes of Ligier (whose recent record makes Ferrari appear well organised, but from whom Prost publicly disassociated himself as far as 1992 was concerned, admittedly before the Ferrari storm blew up). If nothing else, it would brighten the sport considerably if something other than a Williams or a McLaren was first past the chequered flag once in a while.

Instead Renault, happy with Mansell and Patrese when Ferrari appeared to have Prost under contractual lock and key, has been pitching behind the scenes to prise open a vacancy at Williams. The Regie’s eagerness to have a Frenchman of Prost’s ability operating the throttle of one of its V10s is understandable, but does either of the existing Williams contractees deserve the push?

Patently not.

If, as rumour has suggested he might be, Patrese is given a sweetener to join Guy Ligier instead, will Renault’s chances of winning the World Championship be enhanced by pairing Mansell with Prost?

That is questionable. Prost would certainly strengthen the team’s constructors’ title chances, though in-fighting might hamper both mens’ chances in the quest for the drivers’ title. After their year together at Ferrari, the Englishman made it quite plain that, much as he respected Prost the racer, he had his enthusiasm for Prost the team-mate firmly under control.

Prost still has much to offer F1.

Last season, he regularly outperformed team-mate Jean Alesi, previously tipped to be the biggest discovery since Columbus stumbled across the USA. It would be a shame to lose his services just because Ferrari didn’t know its aerofoil from its elbow for much of 1991.

Equally, it would be unjust to kick Patrese (or, if it came to it, Mansell) into touch on account of his nationality.

This potentially damaging situation arises because, increasingly in Formula One, a contract is not as useful as its contents might suggest. Just ask Roberto Moreno. It was Sam Goldwyn who once said: “A verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s written on.” Ironically, there was a time in motor racing when Goldwyn’s witticism rang untrue. Stirling Moss and Rob Walker enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, the basis of which was a handshake. Their words were sufficient bond. No pens. No paper. No lawyers. And no unseemly rows of the kind we saw at Monza last September, during the now infamous ‘Schumacher Affair’.

In the time vacuum that exists between word processor and printing press, maybe Renault will have decided to respect its original intentions. Perhaps Prost will relish the challenge of knocking one of the sport’s Colonis (or Team Hush Puppies, or whatever its name is this week) into shape. Maybe Patrese and Mansell will be able to sleep the sleep of a thousand doses of Night Nurse when they turn in for the evening, and walk around with their backs unprotected when they reawaken the following morning.

Of all the possibilities, the latter – sad to say – appears the least likely . . .