Champion Sunday: Alain Prost

Alain Prost is rarely the first name to be heard in discussion of who sits atop the mountain of F1 greatness. There is, however, no valid reason for this to be the case.

The Frenchman was born on February 24, 1955, near Saint Chamond in the Loire region of Central France. His father manufactured kitchen furnishings, whilst his mother aided her husband’s furniture business as a craftsperson. Despite his small stature, Alain was a very accomplished sportsperson as a child; he enthusiastically participated in wrestling, rollerskating and football. The keen little boy broke his nose on several occasions during matches – resulting in his trademark slanted nose contour.

Athletically inclined, he considered pursuing a career as a gym instructor or professional footballer. However, a 14 year old Prost’s discovery of go-kart racing whilst on holiday in the South of France quickly resulted in a diversion of such possibilities. What started off as a hobby quickly escalated to obsessive levels as he won countless karting championships. After winning another title in 1974, things became more serious as Prost left school to begin a full-time career in racing. He was able to generate income as a kart distributor and tuner in his spare time. After winning the 1975 French Senior Karting Championship, Prost was awarded with a season in Formula Renault. He went on to win the series twice, then progressed on to Formula Three. 1978 saw Prost emerge as a genuine talent on the horizon as he won the Formula 3 crown on both French and European levels. He emulated such a feat the following year. Such an incredible display left him on the radar of several Formula 1 teams. After winning the 1979 Monaco Grand Prix support race in an impressive fashion, Prost was offered a one-race McLaren deal for the US Grand Prix in Watkins Glen. It was at this point that Prost made the first of his measured calculations; he chose to decline Teddy Mayer’s offer, believing his lack of knowledge of the track and car would leave him incapable of accurately representing his own vast natural ability, given he was only given a week’s notice. Mayer understood. Three weeks later, Prost was invited to a private test with McLaren at the Paul Ricard circuit, and received a full contract offer from Mayer himself shortly after. After carefully considering his options, he signed with McLaren for the 1980 season.

1980 however, turned out to be the worst possible time to be a McLaren driver. The team lacked order, lacked stability, lacked measure and therefore lacked performance. In his first Formula One season, Prost finished in the points an impressive four times and spent the vast majority of the season outclassing the experienced and highly rated John Watson, the young Frenchman also had several accidents however, breaking his wrist when his rear axel failed during practice for the South African Grand Prix and suffered various other injuries such as a concussion due to similar accidents. As a result, Prost lost several strong points positions, but miraculously managed to extend his advantage over team mate Watson with a sixth place finish at both Brands Hatch and Zandvoort. At the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Prost battled race-long with the dominant Williams cars for second position, and even momentarily managed to split the two cars, but a complete suspension failure resulted in a serious crash for Prost, leading to retirement. Watson capitalised on Prost’s misfortunes and finished a steady fourth to vault Prost in the standings. Despite ending the season with 5 points to Watson’s 6, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind as to who had shone brighter. Prost was nonetheless infuriated that his team had hindered him to such an extent, that he suggested many of his crashes were caused by worrying mechanical failures as a result of the McLaren car’s piand Alain also had misgivings about the way the McLaren team was run. Amidst some acrimony he chose to break his two-year contract and signed with Renault.

His move to Renault brought Prost his maiden victory – which came at home. Alain made history as he won as a French driver in a French car, in the 1981 French Grand Prix at Dijon. For Alain, this momentous occasion marked the beginning of his winning ways and memorably changed his mindset as he became more focused and self-confident. “Before, you thought you could do it,” he said. “Now you know you can.” As Prost’s confidence grew, so did his racecraft, and thus so did the victories. For the remainder of 1981, Prost finished on the podium for every race he saw the chequered flag for. The Frenchman claimed nine victories during his three season stint with the Renault team. As Prost found more and more success however, he found himself increasingly at odds with Renault senior management members – who failed to acknowledge their poor reliability, and instead chose to make Prost their scapegoat for failing to win a world title. Additionally, Prost found himself locked in his first feudal rivalry – in an inter-team battle with countryman Rene Arnoux. Prost could not understand why French fans refused to support him, instead following Arnoux because of his more colourful and daring demeanour on track. Prost, in contrast, adopted a far more measured and controlled approach to racing which, whilst it was more effective, did not do much to increase his public appeal. 1983 saw the departure of Arnoux and the arrival of Eddie Cheever as Prost’s team mate. Prost outclassed Cheever for the entirety of the season, managing to take four victories and three additional podiums. Heading into the final round of the season, but a turbo failure combined with Piquet’s stellar drive to third, saw the title snatched from Prost’s grasp. After three seasons of seemingly infinite unreliability with Renault, Prost left the team, alienated, and decided to move his family to Switzerland and return to his previous British-based McLaren team in 1984.

McLaren, under the eyes of Ron Dennis and John Barnard was a revitalised team, and Prost was optimistic. For the 1984 season Prost partnered double-world champion and childhood idol Niki Lauda. Prost had signed a ‘number 2’ contract, meaning Lauda was given the fist rights for testing and given developmental favouritism over Prost. Despite this, Prost was regularly seen racing ahead of his team mate, and was clearly the faster driver as he took three pole positions to Lauda’s zero. Prost’s more-experienced team mate was however able to employ a more cautious approach to racing, and resultantly took two race wins in Brands Hatch and Monza, in which Prost retired with a gearbox failure and blown engine. Eventually the battle came down to the season finale at the Autodromo do Estoril. By this point, the quickly learning Prost comfortably had the measure of his elder team mate, and had qualified on the front row of the grid. In order to take the title, Prost needed to win the race, with Lauda finishing third or lower. Alain dominated the race from start to finish, with a young Nigel Mansell occupying second for the majority of the race. With 18 laps remaining, however, Mansell spun out with a brake problem, gifting Lauda – who had entered a state of near-resignation – second position, enabling him to claim the title by an unfathomably narrow 0.5 point margin. Prost took a record breaking 7 wins that season, yet he had lost yet another title through no fault of his own.

Perhaps the most famous of Prost’s performances that season, though, came in Monaco. Prost led the race from then-unknown Ayrton Senna, whilst Lauda spun into retirement in the pouring rain. The poor weather brought the race to a premature end, with Senna closing in on Prost. As a result of the race’s stoppage, only half points were awarded. Although this result appeared to be a victory for Prost at the time, it would transpire that if the race had continued, Prost would have won the world title by 1 point, even if he had conceded the lead to Senna.

From 1985, Prost would go on to outscore every single team mate he was given for the rest of his career.

Prost accepted defeat philosophically and with dignity in 1984, and respected Lauda enormously. Because of this, their partnership remained functional both drivers were kept by McLaren for the following season in 1985. Prost entered the year determined to right all wrongs, and the team acknowledged his emerging superiority over Lauda. Prost was the first to admit he learned a great deal from Lauda, and adopted the Austrian’s own cautious attitude that had won him the title the year before. Prost’s victory at the Italian Grand Prix saw him open up a significant gap over nearest championship rival Michele Alboreto. He then had a chance to clinch the title at the Grand Prix of Europe, at Brands Hatch. The race gave (Prost’s future team mate) rising star Nigel Mansell his first victory, and Prost his first world title – a testament to his hard fought but measured approach throughout the season. Prost has ironically since declared 1985 to be one of his least favourite seasons, owing it to his occasional reliability woes and Lauda’s diminishing form. Prost nonetheless ended the season as number 1 yet again, but this time had the gold to prove it.

1986 marked the departure of Niki Lauda, who entered full-time retirement. Prost was, however given yet another top-rank team mate; 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg arrived at the team, on back of a highly successful 1985 season in which he had narrowly but convincingly bettered team mate Nigel Mansell. Rosberg was therefore being given good odds by fans and media to take the fight to Prost. It soon became clear just how much better Prost was however, and the Finnish driver adopted a more supportive role within the team. The McLaren had started the season as the fastest car, and Prost wreaked the benefits as he took two wins off the back of a third place in Spain, but Williams quickly began catching them, and by the midseason mark, were the team to beat. Nigel Mansell won four of the next five races, and it was at this point that Prost could truly show what he had learnt from Lauda as his protege. Prost went on a spree of consistently picking up second and third place finishes, and capitalised on Mansell’s misfortunes to take an emphatic victory in Austira. By the time of the season finale in Adelaide, Mansell had amassed 70 points, but careful and calculating, strategical driving from Prost had allowed him to maintain a 2 point lead. Prost needed to win if he wanted the title.

Instantaneously, as if it was a form of redemption for all the bad hands Prost had been played in earlier years, he was suddenly given a miracle; Nigel Mansell’s rear tyres disintegrated as if by magic, eliminating him from the equation and wiping hundreds of thousands of British smiles away in an instance. Team mate Keke Rosberg proceeded to compromise his own race to hold up Piquet in order to make sure he could not threaten Prost’s lead. In Prost’s words ‘we won the title, as a team.’

Prost claimed victory and took the title with him.

With two consecutive world titles under his belt, Prost saw staying with McLaren as the obvious decision, but 1987 proved to be a disappointment. Prost took three wins for the team, the last of which in Portugal saw him overtake Jackie Stewart’s record of 27 victories, but he failed to score in seven other races, owing is lack of success to yet more mechanical faults and their underpowered TAG engines – which were not the force they had been previously, lagging behind in power. Prost never gave up though, and challenged Piquet and Mansell almost until the end of the season. The Frenchman considers his victory at the season opener in Brazil to be his most hard fought and deserving win as he battled in an inferior car, which is reflective of many of drive for Renault in his early career. Prost finished the season fourth in the standings, behind the Willaims duo of Mansell and Piquet, and Lotus’ Ayrton Senna – all of whom had enjoyed superior machinery.

For 1988, McLaren were looking to compensate for their recent shortcomings by pairing Prost with the reigning world champion Nelson Piquet, who Ron Dennis perceived as being the second best driver on the grid (behind Prost.)
Alain was instead intent on finding a younger driver who McLaren could mould into a future star, and chose to put forward the name of Ayrton Senna. As McLaren number 1, Prost’s input was highly valued and Ron, although skeptical at first, chose to hire Senna, and help launch one of the most infamous rivalries in the history of the sport. Their McLaren MP4/4 was invincible. Between the two McLaren drivers, 15 of the 16 races were claimed as victories, with 8 going to Senna and 7 going to Prost. Senna’s blisteringly quick one lap pace usually conquered qualifying, although whenever the stars were correctly aligned for Prost, he was able to better Senna even in his own one-lap playground, notably at the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril, where Prost recorded a lap and felt so confident in his own ability, that he climbed out of his car, got changed into his t-shirt and jeans, and spent the rest of qualifying lounging around on the pit wall, and watched as a frustrated Senna slipped further and further away from his time, eventually ending the session and enormous half a second down on Prost, who unsurprisingly took pole. Prost to raise his game, which he did so by employing a more calculating, methodical and cerebral approach to his pursuit of the Formula 1 world championship – the Frenchman never failed to finish a Grand Prix in lower than second place, whereas his temperamental teammate experienced several collisions and errors, including his well documented fall from grace whilst leading the Monaco Grand Prix, which Prost later won. By the season’s end, Prost had claimed 14 podiums to amass an enormous 105 points haul, with Senna taking 11 podiums and 94 points. Bizarrely, the FIA chose to implement a new points system in which only the best 11 of the 16 races would count towards each respective driver’s tally of points. This system penalised Prost and relinquished him of 3 second place finishes, whereas Senna was effectively promoted to world champion despite his inferior overall points haul. The system left the FIA exposed to much criticism and ridicule, and Prost with one less title. As the season progressed, Prost began to feel isolated within the team and felt both Ron Dennis and the team’s Honda engine provider were awarding Senna preferential treatment as Honda looked to favour their young prodigy as Japan’s F1 fan-base gravitated towards Senna rather than Prost – who thereon often believed he was receiving second rate equipment relative to his Brazilian counterpart.

1988’s overwhelming success, juxtaposed with the turbulent McLaren team relations left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouths going into the 1989 season. The mouth-watering prospect of McLaren enjoying another year of such dominance, however, left them helpless to resist retaining both drivers for the season. Prost feared that Honda’s growing preference towards Senna would destroy his own season, and arranged a meeting with Ron Dennis, pleading for him to rectify the situation and restore some level of equality. Things simply became worse, to such an extent whereby, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Senna was seen with 25 engineers occupying his garage and enjoying the luxury of a third car, whereas Prost’s garage, just 10 metres away, was sparsely populated by himself and three other members of staff. Prost’s growing disdain towards Honda and Senna’s continued success resulted in a public explosion of emotion between the two drivers at the San Marino Grand Prix, where Prost started on pole and Senna defied team orders and overtook Prost for the lead, despite agreeing to hold station once both cars had exited the first corner, in order to avoid jeopardising their own chances. According to Senna, the agreement did not apply to the restart. Prost was furious and therefore hissed and spat complaints to Ron Dennis, who chose to side with Prost on this particular occasion and issue Senna a verbal warning. From this point onwards, the relationship between the two drivers plummeted to a level of total and utter bitter rivalry. Prost realised Senna’s psychological approach to the sport was fundamentally different to his own, and crucially he had the support of the team and Honda. Despite this, Prost would continue to consistently score points against Senna when he could, and capitalise on any small advantage if he saw it possible. The team had by mid season effectively cease to assist Prost in any way, and he announced his intention to leave the team at the end of 1989 and signed with Ferrari. As 1989 wore on, Prost continually claimed his Honda V10s were not producing the same mount of power as those in Senna’s car. It actually got to the point where Honda F1 boss Osamu Goto felt compelled to speak to the specialist British media on the matter. He claimed that Senna’s foot-tapping style with the accelerator helped keep the RA109-E’s revs up in the engine’s mid-range where most of the power was, while Prost’s smoother style dropped the engines into low revs where they had a pick-up problem. Apparently the talk was convincing until most of those present noticed Goto continually called them Ayrton and Prost respectively. An example of Prost’s claims came during the Mexican Grand Prix. Despite his car running less wing than Senna’s which theoretically would give him greater top speed, Prost’s McLaren was not able to pass Senna’s on the long front straight even though he came of the final Pedaltada Curve clearly faster than the Brazilian and also had the benefit of a tow. In start contrast, late in the race when Senna was lapping Prost (who was on fresh tyres), Senna was easily able to power past Prost on the straight. On the rare occasion that the team would listen to Prost, and he was given the opportunity to set up a car that he felt to be on an equal level to Senna’s equipment, Prost would eclipse Senna; notably at the French Grand Prix – a race in which Prost was historically mighty at, where the team took an unusually active interest in his setup requests. As a result, he took pole from qualifying king Senna and went on to take the win the following day. Such standout performances, teamed with his superior consistency and smoother racecraft left Prost with a 16 point lead over Senna as they arrived at the penultimate round in Japan. Senna took pole, but Prost, who sat beside him in second, got the better start and opened up an early lead as he looked more comfortable
early on. Later into the race, however, Senna clawed back the deficit; whittling down Prost’s lead to just under a second by lap 30, but the latter pulled a few seconds ahead by the 35th lap. By the end of lap 46, with 7 to go, the gap was just over a second. Senna, further back than he had been earlier in the race, made a move on Prost in the chicane before the start-finish straight. True to his word, Prost closed the gap and the two skidded into the escape road and both engines stalled. Prost jumped from his car. Senna, however, got a push from the marshals and returned to the track, and went on to recover the race and cross the line first, but was quickly disqualified, under controversial circumstances, for illegally using an escape road to restart the race. Senna could therefore no longer score enough points to keep the title fight alive, and Prost was declared world champion in what he described as ‘a very nice way to end a very long year.’

As Prost moved to Ferrari in 1990, he felt a sense of optimism, which was soon justified. The Frenchman replaced Gerhard Berger, who was signed as the new occupant or Prost’s old McLaren seat. Ferrari partnered Prost with old championship rival Nigel Mansell. As reigning world champion, Prost took over as the team’s lead driver and was said to have played on Mansell’s inferiority complex. The Brit’s growing agitation regarding his number 2 status created waves within the team and brought the drivers’ relationship to a sour end. Despite the Ferrari marginally lacking in power and giving McLaren the smallest of competitive edges, Prost managed to win five races for Ferrari, in Brazil, Mexico, France, Britain and Spain. Notable among these was the Mexican Grand Prix, where he won after starting in 13th position. In both the Mexican and Spanish races, he led Mansell to Ferrari 1–2 finishes. The championship once again came to the penultimate round of the season in Japan with Prost trailing his McLaren adversary, Ayrton Senna, by nine points. In a near identical incident to their 1989 fiasco, a controversial collision between the two settled the race. At the first corner Senna, as admitted a year later, intentionally drove his McLaren into Prost’s, taking them both out of the race and sealing the title in his favour. Prost calmly climbed out of his car and walked in the opposite direction to Senna, although inside he was seething with anger. Prost accused Senna of ‘disgusting’ conduct and later admitted to coming close to punching Senna thereafter. Prost finished the season seven points behind Senna, and his Ferrari team were runners-up to McLaren.

The following year was a trying season for Prost. He chose to honour his 2-year contract and remain at Ferrari, who failed to provide the three time champion with a competitive car as the Ferrari V12 lagged behind their lighter, nimbler V10 counterparts. Additionally, the underpowered Ferrari featured a heavily revised chassis that was however simply inferior to McLaren and Williams’ chassis, making the car twitchy and difficult to drive. After labouring five podiums, Prost grew tired of his car’s evident uncompetitiveness, frustratedly referring to the Ferrari 643 as ‘a truck.’ Such heated remarks offended senior Ferrari management staff, and Prost was unceremoniously fired prematurely, and was therefore essentially forced to take a sabbatical as he reassessed his options.

Prost tested for Ligier during the buildup to the 1992 season, but ultimately decided against accepting a contract with them, citing performance issues.

In the wake of Mansell’s dominance with Williams in 1992, Prost was drawn to the team and held meetings with Frank Williams, who was desperate to sign him. Prost agreed to represent the team the following year, on the provision that Senna could not be signed as his teammate. Williams accepted the clause, and announced Prost’s signing with Williams for the upcoming 1993 season, and after hearing that Prost would be his teammate again in 1993, Mansell left Williams to race in the CART series to avoid a Ferrari repeat. Test driver Damon Hill was then called up to replace Mansell, and raced alongside Prost for the entirety of the season.

Prost made a sensational return to racing, winning his return event at the season opener at Kyalami, South Africa. He was shocked to receive an overwhelmingly positive response from fans, who welcomed him back – with the spectator stands being flooded with ‘The Professor is back’ banners. Whilst Prost had trouble adapting to the increasingly computerised nature of the Williams car, he nonetheless managed to take advantage of it’s unmatched pace, taking 13 pole positions from 16 races, and 7 victories on his way to comfortably securing his fourth title. In his final race, in Adelaide, Prost finished the race on the podium, with his old Brazilian adversary alongside him. After Prost had announced his retirement, recognising the likes of Schumacher and Hill had arrived and proved themselves worthy successors, Senna and Prost agreed there was no longer any need for hostility, and embraced atop one of the most emotionally beautiful podiums in Formula 1 history.

During the months preceding Senna’s death, the two racing legends developed a deep friendship with one another, with Senna entrusting Prost with his deepest of secrets, and unloading his greatest worries.

Alain Prost may rarely emerge as the first name on the lips of F1 fans when discussing who is truly the greatest, but throughout his 13 year career, Prost did absolutely everything to create one of the most convincing arguments of all, as to why he should be recognised as the greatest of all. Prost adopted an unconventionally controlled, calculated and mechanical style to his driving, and improved as a driver through watching mistakes of others, he raced with such care and attention, that his pit crew would rarely have to rebuild a Prost-driven-car, and ultimately beat every single driver placed in front of him; be it Watson, or Arnoux, or Piquet, or Lauda, or Mansell, or Senna – he beat them all, one on one, because he was that good.

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