Alain Prost: Formula 1’s overlooked colossus

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Alain Prost: Formula 1’s overlooked colossus
David Malsher
By: David Malsher
Oct 4, 2018, 6:09 PM

There won’t be films made about him, and he certainly won’t be remembered for making a success of team ownership, but Alain Prost is one of the very greatest drivers in Formula 1 history. David Malsher pays tribute.

Alain Prost, Williams FW15C

Alain Prost, Williams FW15C

Photo by: Sutton Images

Twenty-five years ago, Alain Prost won his fourth Formula 1 World Championship to the deafening silence of the masses. It seemed no one even cared, far less celebrated.

Why such a muted response? Well, looking back now, it seemed the problem was a combination of all these factors: (1) There had been an air of inevitability about him winning the title in the best car, the Adrian Newey-penned Williams-Renault FW15C; (2) Non-specialist members of the British media blamed Prost (inaccurately) for chasing their darling and 1992 champion Nigel Mansell across the Atlantic to Indy car racing; (3) Prost was perceived (accurately) to have been unwilling to see arch-nemesis Ayrton Senna join him at Williams in ’93; (4) He had outpaced rookie teammate Damon Hill; (5) As had been his trait in 200-plus grands prix, Prost made the art of racecar driving look so damn easy and unspectacular.

In short, Prost couldn’t win. Except he could, of course. He scored seven victories and 13 poles that year, bringing his career tallies to 51 and 33 respectively.

As he shook the champagne at Estoril, Portugal, after clinching the championship with a second place behind Michael Schumacher’s Benetton-Ford, it was hard not to feel sorry for a legend who was seeing a significant career milestone – at that time, only Juan Manuel Fangio had scored more F1 titles – fogged over by such apathy. And not for the first time. A couple of months earlier at Silverstone, Prost became the first driver in Formula 1 history to score 50 victories, and again the reception was tepid. Crowd favorite Hill had been leading when his engine blew up, while Prost had lost too much time in the early laps after making a poor start from pole and getting stuck behind Senna. As Hill stepped from his smoking car 18 laps from the end, large numbers of the British crowd started leaving, and after cruising to what was undoubtedly a gift of a win, Prost looked almost embarrassed to wave to the emptying grandstands on his slowing-down lap.

Hill’s puncture while leading the following race, in Germany, also presented Prost with a victory, but that’s far from the whole story. After yet again wasting pole position with a poor start, Prost wasn’t going to tolerate any bully-boy tactics from Senna. As he drew alongside the McLaren on the run to the first chicane, Prost was offline but braked late enough to match Senna at turn-in and the Brazilian’s attempt to stay on the outside of his rival saw the MP4/8 run wide and spin.

Down to the second chicane at the Ostkurve, Prost saw in his mirrors that the Ligier of Martin Brundle had missed its braking point and was heading down the inside of his Williams but spinning wildly out of control. Rather than be impaled by the wayward blue car, Prost chose to steer down an escape road. It seemed a sensible move from a rational driver to avoid causing an accident; it was also, surely, a perfect demonstration of when escape roads should be used. But the FIA stewards of the day ordered Prost into the pits to serve a 10sec stop-and-go penalty.

Fueled by chagrin and outrage, we then saw a master at 100 percent as he caught and passed any and every car ahead and soared into second place. So while it was hard not to feel some sympathy for Hill, a good man and a fast driver, when he suffered his tire failure and left Prost in the lead, it was in fact justice being done. And anyway, Prost stalling on the parade lap (Hungary) and suffering an engine failure (Monza) would gift Damon his first and third career wins.

Despite Prost’s end-of-season stats, the 1993 official Formula 1 video review was entitled Senna fights back. It was as peculiar as the ’91 edition failing to honor Senna’s third triumph but instead being headed Nearly Mansell. It came across as strangely dismissive of the champion.

But Senna, at least, was already fêted as a hero, demi-god, mystic, sage and warrior. For Prost, it was just another example of how little appreciation and acknowledgment he received throughout his career – at least, outside of the teams with whom he worked – despite repeatedly proving his phenomenal talent. Much like Jackie Stewart, Jimmy Clark or Niki Lauda in his Ferrari days, Prost could make success look routine, and without the surrounding drama that seemed to mark the progress of championship-caliber contemporaries such as Senna and Mansell. He just got on with the job.

Alain Prost, McLaren M30 Ford

Alain Prost, McLaren M30 Ford

Photo by: LAT Images

It’s strange now to consider that Prost’s promising but oh-so-frustrating three seasons at Renault could have been avoided. Had McLaren’s Ron Dennis/John Barnard era begun just a year sooner, Prost would probably have spent the first nine years of his Formula 1 career at the Woking-based team, but instead his rookie F1 season in 1980 was spent at a McLaren squad in turmoil. Gordon Coppuck, the designer who came up with the brilliant M16 Indy car and M23 F1 car, had lost his mojo in the ground-effect era, his cars proving cumbersome and reported to create far too much drag. At the same time, team principal Teddy Mayer was fighting to retain control of the ailing team as Dennis and designer Barnard waited impatiently in the wings, ready to sweep the stage with a new broom – Project Four – that would see the establishment of McLaren International and the introduction of the first carbonfiber monocoque car, the MP4/1.

By the time these two autocrats assumed power at Woking, Prost had grown so disenchanted with the team that he was prepared to renege on his three-year contract. Despite showing immense promise as a rookie and casting experienced and talented incumbent teammate John Watson into the shadows, Prost had suffered several car breakages including suspension failures that had resulted in concussion and a broken scaphoid, sapping his confidence. If McLaren insisted on holding him to his contract, he was prepared to sit out ’81 and ’82.

Alain Prost, Renault RE30B

Alain Prost, Renault RE30B

Photo by: Sutton Images

Thankfully it didn’t come to that. Alain joined the Renault works team, which had lost technically astute and often swift Jean-Pierre Jabouille to a leg-breaking shunt at Montreal the previous fall, and partnered him with the fiery if ragged Rene Arnoux. Prost’s calm, more pragmatic approach immediately reaped dividends, and in 1981 he scored three wins to Arnoux’s zero, while also outqualifying his compatriot 10-5.

Arnoux returned to form in ’82, matching Prost in qualifying, and the pair each scored a couple of wins, but they fell out over a team orders episode at Paul Ricard circuit. Arnoux, with just a single points finish [F1 only paid down to sixth place in those days] from the first 10 races, agreed beforehand to play tailgunner for Prost who’d opened the season with two wins (one a gift after a couple of Cosworth runners were disqualified). However, polesitter Arnoux, on his and Renault’s home ground, decided to stay in front, while Prost, who’d lost downforce after damaging his car’s sliding skirts on a curb, could not pass him on merit.

If it sounds like a storm in a tea-cup, especially when viewed 36 years on, the significance of this race’s result was made so much greater by Renault’s frankly pathetic reliability record which meant every single point was precious. Should you ever want a demonstration of how to lose a championship, watch a review of the 1982 Formula 1 season and count the number of times the Renault drivers were let down by their cars, usually through turbo failure and usually while leading. The team had felt obliged to use in-house turbo builders Renix, and far too often their devices would expire. Prost and Arnoux led 289 and 208 laps respectively, but completed only 779 and 538 laps. Keke Rosberg, running the trusty Cosworth DFV in his Williams, may have lacked 150hp and led only led 80 laps, but completed 941 and clinched the title.

Renault reliability improved in 1983 – Prost would complete more laps than anyone and earn four wins. But again he found that the politics within a cumbersome “works” team acted as a ball-and-chain on his title hopes. On this occasion, the issue was a failure to respond to the increasingly strong challenge of Nelson Piquet, Brabham and the BMW turbo. Should Renault have protested the exotic fuel that Brabham was using? Should its engine department have sought more horsepower? Or both? Prost saw no tangible improvements despite his warnings and he was duly beaten to the title by Piquet. He was then let go just two days after the season ended.

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, second place Niki Lauda, third place Nigel Mansell

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, second place Niki Lauda, third place Nigel Mansell

Photo by: Sutton Images

McLaren’s Dennis was therefore able to pick up Prost for a bargain rate, ditch Watson, and form one of the great driving partnerships in F1 history – Prost and Lauda. The two-time champion had returned from a two-year sabbatical to help steer the utterly revamped McLaren, had clocked a couple of wins in Barnard’s Cosworth-powered MP4/1 and its variants, and the team was now ready to roll with the TAG-Porsche turbocharged masterpiece, the MP4/2. Prost and Lauda won 12 of the 1984 season’s 16 races, and while Alain was clearly much the faster of the pair and earned seven victories to Lauda’s five, the Austrian took his third World Championship – by half a point.

Following a switch from Michelin to Goodyear and a dip in Lauda’s motivation, 1985 was less dominant for McLaren but Prost was impeccable and masterful and finally got the World Championship his talents had long deserved. The following year – despite the Hondas in the Williams cars of Mansell and Piquet reaching a far better power/fuel consumption compromise than Porsche – Prost won the title again.

Even Prost could do little against the Williams-Honda FW11Bs in ’87, but he clocked up three more wins, the latter of which saw him finally edge ahead of Jackie Stewart’s record of 27 career wins.

By now, Dennis had signed with Honda for engine supply and Prost had actively encouraged the employment of Senna as his new teammate, his reasoning being that he foresaw a long future with McLaren and he therefore wanted the team to employ the best drivers available. And Senna had shown a special once-in-a-generation talent in his three years at Lotus.

If you listen to Prost’s recent interview on Formula 1’s official channel, you’ll hear him insist he still has no regrets over that decision… although it also highlights the fact that sadly their rivalry came to define Prost’s career.

The facts are these. As teammates in 1988 and 1989, Senna and Prost earned one championship apiece. Prost fans will point out that their man should have won the ’88 title since he had accrued more gross points, but the FIA rules of the time had it that only a drivers 11 best scores from 16 races actually counted. So despite Senna making race-losing errors at Monaco and Monza (the latter one somewhat forgivable, given that he was dealing with a wayward backmarker), he won the title by scoring eight wins to Prost’s seven.

In 1989 Prost again made no notable errors, but also enjoyed superior mechanical reliability. Senna was taken out by engine failure in Canada, USA, France and Italy, but in addition he clashed, crashed or spun out in Brazil, Britain, Portugal and Australia.

As for the infamous Japanese clash between the two McLarens, Prost did turn in early and blocked too late at Suzuka’s chicane; but at the speed he was going on the dirty inside line, could Senna have even made it through the chicane? Whatever, despite Senna fans’ insistence that his disqualification from that race (for a push start from the escape road, circumventing part of the track) was effectively FIA giving Prost the championship, that is not the case. Even had Senna’s on-the-road victory at Suzuka been allowed to stand, pile-driving Martin Brundle’s Brabham in the blinding spray at Adelaide two weeks later rendered the Japanese GP result irrelevant to the outcome of the title race.

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, McLaren, second place Ayrton Senna, McLaren, third place Michele Alboreto, Ferrari

Podium: race winner Alain Prost, McLaren, second place Ayrton Senna, McLaren, third place Michele Alboreto, Ferrari

Photo by: Sutton Images

Their two seasons together had, perhaps inevitably, highlighted the weaknesses of these two giants of the sport. Prost was a good wet-weather driver, but Senna was exceptional. Prost was a good qualifier, but Senna was exceptional. But Senna too often lived on the edge in races too – sometimes unnecessarily – hence he made more mistakes. When you have only one rival for the championship, but he’s as relentlessly consistent as Prost, to leave so little margin for error seems misguided.

For instance, Senna was having gear selection issues at Silverstone in ’89, but rather than ease off and perhaps concede that this would be his rival’s day – as he had at Adelaide the previous year, and as would Prost the following race in Germany – Senna remained flat out. One baulked downshift while teetering on the limit at Becketts was enough to spin him out and hand the win to Prost. Of course, Senna’s attitude made him compelling to watch, and it’s impossible not to respect anyone with that sheer drive to succeed, but it did cost him race wins (and would continue to do so).

Prost’s attitude throughout a race weekend – indeed, McLaren’s attitude since the TAG Porsche days – had been to focus primarily on the race setups, with qualifying something of an afterthought. In ’88 and ’89, that perspective made more sense than ever: such was the team’s advantage, McLaren could often virtually guarantee a front-row lockout. So why would the ever-rational Prost push so hard to find the ultimate one-lap pace – and probably still end up a few tenths slower than arguably the greatest qualifier of all time – when the points get paid out on the Sunday? When Prost roused himself for qualifying, such as in front of his home fans at Paul Ricard, both times he beat Senna to pole.

Despite heading for his third title, Prost had looked demotivated for much of the ’89 season. Senna’s reneging on an agreement to not dispute the first corner at Imola had left him feeling duped and angry. He’d also, rightly or wrongly, had the feeling since ’88 that Dennis had taken him for granted while pampering Senna in his new environment. Prost was therefore very open to Ferrari’s offer of a switch, and he signed to partner Mansell in 1990.

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641, Monaco 1990

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641, Monaco 1990

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Suddenly the mid-80s Prost was back. He was able to match new teammate Mansell 8-8 in qualifying that year, out-thought and therefore outpaced him in several races, and now armed with a Ferrari 641 that had a superior chassis to the McLaren MP4/5B – albeit with inferior horsepower to Honda’s latest iteration of its V10 – he scored five wins. For the third year in succession, Prost found himself fighting Senna for the title.

Of course it ended in controversy at Suzuka once more, Senna ruthlessly shoving Prost off the road on Lap 1, Turn 1, and the acrimony – briefly laid to rest the previous month – ballooned once more, but this time with Ayrton as king. One can only imagine how the present-day FIA might have responded to such a clash. Senna, however, went unpunished. Dennis, perhaps forgetting that the previous year’s Suzuka clash had not altered the outcome of the championship, described Senna’s maneuver this time around as “rough justice.”

One could understand Prost’s disenchantment heading into the offseason, even though, for the first time in his ongoing battle with Senna, this time he received the majority of the media’s sympathy vote. It would have been easy to sympathize with him, too, had he lost motivation in 1991. Designer Adrian Newey, Mansell and Riccardo Patrese had pushed Williams to the forefront in 1991 to take on Senna and McLaren. Ferrari, by contrast, came up with the 642 which simply wasn’t up to the task; indeed, it was so off-the-pace that it was replaced mid-season by the 643, an improvement but still no winner.

Yet Prost, despite this being his 12th season in Formula 1, showed remarkable resilience and pace, and swiftly put the brakes on the hype that had surrounded his new teammate Jean Alesi in his season-and-a-half at Tyrrell. The French-Sicilian was a tenacious fighter, no question about it, but he was hammered 13-2 in qualifying by Prost… who was then fired by Ferrari after the Japanese Grand Prix for publicly criticizing his car.

Without a ride for ’92, Prost tried out the Ligier JS37-Renault and it’s interesting to speculate just what this combo might have achieved. According to designer Frank Dernie, Prost was an astounding two seconds faster than team incumbent and race winner Thierry Boutsen around Paul Ricard in qualifying trim, and around 1.5sec faster in race trim. No, that still wouldn’t have been enough to beat the fabulously dominant active-suspension Williams-Renault FW14B, but Prost could still have mixed it with the McLarens and Benettons and therefore scored a clutch of podium finishes.

Instead, Prost took a sabbatical, signed for Williams for 1993 and won the championship – which is where we came in.

When Sir Frank Williams revealed that Renault wanted Senna for ’94, Prost decided to retire. He recently told writer Maurice Hamilton that his objection to a renewal of their partnership was because he had done the majority of the testing when they’d been paired together at McLaren, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was doing promotional work, while Senna would be resting. If repeating that process was one prospect that Prost couldn’t face again, so too was the prospect of the media carving him up once more. Throughout ’93 he’d grown tired of the perception that his triumphs were hollow yet Senna’s were the result purely of the Brazilian’s driving genius.

World Champion Alain Prost, Williams, and race winner Ayrton Senna, McLaren, during the post race press conference, Adelaide 1993

World Champion Alain Prost, Williams, and race winner Ayrton Senna, McLaren, during the post race press conference, Adelaide 1993

Photo by: LAT Images

It was, then, a downbeat end to the driving career of one of Formula 1’s greats, and Prost’s reputation was further damaged by his takeover and rebranding of the Ligier team, which faded away due to lack of promised finance.

For this writer, however, Prost is not defined by his final championship, his failed attempt to run a Formula 1 team, nor even his rivalry with Senna. It was his genius ability to see the big picture of a race weekend, to make winning look so easy, to do it without fuss or drama, to make fewer crucial mistakes than any driver since Jackie Stewart, and to win races and even a championship (1986) of which his car wasn’t truly worthy.

Over the last 25 years, Formula 1 has of course seen other genius drivers emerge – Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. And before Prost, the Formula 1 World Championship featured similarly blessed demi-gods such as Alberto Ascari, Fangio, Stirling Moss, Clark, Jochen Rindt and Stewart. Meanwhile, Prost crossed swords with such luminaries as Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Carlos Reutemann, Rosberg, Arnoux, Mansell, Piquet, and of course, the mighty Senna.

Yet were I to attempt – as many have done – to arrange the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time in some kind of order, there’s no question at all that Prost would appear in the Top 10. And if one sets extreme mechanical sympathy and absence of errors above extreme qualifying pace, he should emerge above Senna, too…

 

Photo by: Renault F1 team

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Alain Prost
Author David Malsher
Article type Commentary