|While the death of Ayrton Senna in May of 1994
brought forth an enormous amount of written tributes, the definitive end to the driving
career of his chief rival, Alain Prost, just a few months earlier, saw surprisingly little
in the way of written reflections. Considered by this writer to have been the greatest
driver in F1 history, this piece is my humble attempt to capture the essence of a great
man, and a great career.
If racing drivers can be divided into two broad
categories the physical and the cerebral then Alain Prost was the greatest
of the cerebral drivers ever to sit in a racing car. Not all drivers fit neatly into one
category or the other there are lots of gray areas and drivers as a stylistic
"package" fall at many points between the two extremes.
In the "physical" approach, the driver is
not focused on testing or car set-up, but more so on driving 11/10ths every time he
sits in the car. He does not correct deficiencies in the cars handling, but masks
them by driving around them. He will often drive beyond the means of the car, pulling
things out of a chassis that it really ought not be able to give. This style is more
readily accessible to the public because the driver is visually exciting at all times,
pulls off some spectacular wins, and drives "balls to the wall" throughout. The
driving is not necessarily subtle or disciplined, and is more improvised, while the
cerebral is more calculated or strategic. The physical drivers tend to win their races on
race day, while the cerebral often win the race before the race days sun has risen.
The mechanical attrition rate is higher in the physical approach, as are the risks to the
driver himself over the length of a career these men being more likely to suffer
serious injury or death on the track. Noted members of this school have included Bernd
Rosemeyer, Tazio Nuvolari, Jean Behra, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve,
Stefan Bellof, and most notable amongst todays drivers would be Nigel Mansell, Jean
Alesi and Gerhard Berger.
Then there is the cerebral or clinical approach.
These drivers do their hardest work of all in test sessions and on the Friday and Saturday
of a race weekend when they meticulously, painstakingly perfect their race set-up so that
on Sunday, the car is positioned to do the work for them. Their art is more subtle, for
the public can not appreciate the work done in a rainy mid-week test at Silverstone. All
they see is a driver running away with a race and not looking like hes working very
hard because the car is handling so beautifully. The public often fails to appreciate that
a car does not end up so perfect on race day by accident. These drivers subscribe to the
famous Fangio ethic that the object of the exercise is to win the race at the slowest
possible speed. Prost seems to have learned very early in his career what Christopher
Hilton (in his biography on Prost) calls, "...the most significant lesson in all of
motor racing: you extract the maximum without stretching your machine or yourself a single
fraction beyond what you need to." Id advance that at this particular racing
ethic, Prost was unequalled. Noted other practitioners of this style have included Achille
Varzi, Rudolf Caracciola, Juan Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki
Lauda and Nelson Piquet.
Some notable drivers who can not be easily fit into
one of these two camps include Stirling Moss, James Hunt, Alan Jones, and Ayrton Senna
men who straddled the wall, possessing the best of both schools. These men arguably
have had better overall "packages" than any of the others, so perfectly have
they blended the intellectual with the physical. Of course, it also must be noted that
even the clinical drivers usually start their careers using greater application of the
throttle than their brains. Clinical perfection is a result of accumulated experience and
thus drivers grow into this it is the natural progression of an intelligent driver
whos talent is growing rather than stagnant. Prost may be unique however in
demonstrating this disciplined, thinking style from the word go, even in his days at the
Winfield racing school at Paul Ricard.
Having seemed equal to the others at the school, but
not outstanding in any way, his instructors eyebrows were raised one day when the
track was wet, and they discovered Prost braking at the end of the straight at the same
point he had been braking in the dry for days. This was the first hint that he was holding
something significant back. In qualifying runs leading up to the race amongst 5 finalists,
Prost deliberately seemed to be just amongst the others for speed and times. He did just
enough to make it to the final without betraying that he had anything in hand. Only in the
final did he suddenly demoralize his peers by blowing them away, at a point in time when
they would not be psychologically equipped to deal with this revelation. Having spoken of
his strategy to an instructor afterwards, it took the man 10 years of watching Prost in F1
to come to believe him so astonishing was it to him that anyone that young and just
starting out could have that kind of discipline and psychological depth, not to mention
the confidence that sandbagging requires.
In recent years it became popular to denounce Prost
as everything from a wimp (when he refused to take excessive risks in traffic or blinding
rain), to a lucky driver who wins when others drop out. He has been branded
"political" (chiefly by those who have never worked closely with him) and when
he tried to explain in precise detail the mechanical subtleties that compromised his race,
he was labeled a whiner proof again that Joe Public does not care to understand the
detailed behind-the-scenes work that is often responsible for both successes and failures.
The press bears some responsibility too in this regard, for they print what sells, and
thus focus more on the spectacular and the cult of the personality, and less on the
technical details that affect race and championship performance.
Prost is, amazingly, labeled by some as not being a
real "racer". If these people insist on ignoring the subtlety of Prosts
art, they should at least appreciate that the proof is in the pudding. You do not win 4
world championships and a record 51 grand prix races by not being able to race. The object
of a race is not to look spectacular, be the fastest, pass the most people, or take the
most risks. The object of a race is to win. It follows then that the driver who wins the
most races must be the best "racer". It follows also that Sunday is only the end
of the chain, the day in which you see whether all the previous work has paid off or not.
It is something that has always been understood by the Clarks and Prosts. A
quick look at the list of career grand prix race wins for drivers shows that, with a few
notable exceptions, the upper end of this table is dominated by the clinical drivers. When
it comes to consistently high results over the length of a career, it is the thinking
approach that delivers.
My favourite Alain Prost story, the one that I feel
sums up his tactical genius more than any other, surrounds the Italian GP at Monza in
1988. Prost and Senna are locked in an intense championship battle that is between them
alone - a McLaren in-house affair. It is late in the season and they can indulge
themselves in the races because there is no 3rd party threat - they will finish 1-2 in the
championship no matter what. Prost is following Senna closely in the early stages when
Alain realizes that he has an engine problem that will surely prove terminal
realizes with certainty that he will not last the race. Knowing this, and knowing
Sennas ego and his need to prove hes fastest, Prost decides to drive
11/10ths and push Senna hard, setting fastest lap after fastest lap. Senna takes the
bait, and increases his pace to match Prost and maintain or increase his gap. Prost
however, is deliberately driving at such a pace as to put himself the wrong side of his
fuel reading, leaving him not enough to finish the race. He is making Senna do the same.
Now if Senna had really thought about it, he would have realized that Prost simply does
not do things like that, thats hes too great a thinker to miscalculate his
fuel supply. Senna takes the bait however, thinks only of proving he can match
Prosts challenge, be as fast, stay ahead. Half way through the race, Prost duly
drops out with engine failure, and the damage to Senna is done. In the late stages he is
so marginal on fuel that hes had to cut back dramatically, and the Ferraris are now
breathing down his neck. Senna feels a desperate need to get by a rookie in traffic at a
risky place, they collide, and his race is over. It was a long shot on Prosts part,
but his actions did, in the end, have a compromising effect on Sennas race, even
long after Prost had dropped out.
Sitting in our armchairs analyzing this it seems
very logical, but to think something like this through in the midst of a race at 180
m.p.h. speaks of a level of genius equal to that which Senna was so much more readily
appreciated for. It is a different, more subtle kind of genius in Prosts case. Those
who fail to appreciate Prost as a "racer" are missing the degree to which racing
is chess, and not merely an athletic exercise.
Prosts career is a rich tapestry of
achievements over a long period of time. As far as overall seasons are concerned, certain
treasures stand out. 1984 shines as the first season when you could say that Prost
separated himself from his peers and became clearly the best on all fronts. For sure 1986
was the best complete year from beginning to end, when he took a title with a McLaren-TAG
that was vastly inferior to the dominant Williams-Honda (McLaren won 4 races that year,
Williams 9!), by simple virtue of driving a flawless year and making the most of every
opportunity presented to him. In 1988 he and Senna were a real match for each other in
equal equipment, Prost losing the title by 3 points, winning 7 races to Sennas 8.
Senna may have just beaten Prost to the title, but Alain raised his game in coming to
grips with Senna and was simply outstanding. 1990 stands out as a year in which only
Prosts genius could have worked the miracles he did at Ferrari. It was only for lack
of a Honda engine that he narrowly lost that title, and the work he did to bring Ferrari
to McLarens level required a far greater leap than Sennas simply carrying on
with the already dominant McLaren package. It was Prosts testing and feedback that
made the Ferrari chassis what it was and his wins that year were some of his most
intelligent ever. The cerebral vs. physical issue was also dramatically highlighted that
year by the fact that in equal equipment, Prost won 5 races and narrowly lost the title,
while teammate Mansell won once and was never in the running. 1990 will always to me, be
Prosts year, as I feel he made far better use of what he had than anyone else, while
maintaining his ethics. When the title came down to the wire, it was Senna who felt
obligated to punt Prost off the circuit rather than decide things in a clean fight. In
1993 Prost took an excellent package and made the most of it, as youd expect of him,
doing exactly what was required to win races and the title, nothing more. His efforts,
once again, were rather unappreciated because of how easy he made it all look. The great
ones have always made it look easy.
It should be noted that in addition to Prosts
4 titles, he finished runner up 4 times, and all by 7 or less points. As well, in
finishing 5th in the 1981 season, he was only 7 points off the title so in effect,
he came extremely close to being a 9 times world champion.
As for Prosts greatest races, there are so
many to choose from that I have restricted myself to a handful of very special
performances. They are listed chronologically below:
South Africa 1982 (Renault)
Prost leads initially but suffers a puncture and must drive slowly to the pits
for a new tire. He resumes in last place, lapped by the leaders, yet manages through sheer
brilliance to carve his way back to a dominant lead to win the race.
Monaco 1986 (McLaren-TAG)
Simply a perfect race. Pole position, leading all the way (except for his tire
stop), taking race fastest lap. Teammate Rosberg in 2nd decided at one point to really
have a go and close the gap to Alain. For several laps he drove on his limit, as fast as
he thought it humanly possible to drive the circuit that day. He then saw pit boards
showing that Prost was still pulling away. Rosberg, not one who is easily impressed, was
stunned and it was at this moment that he became a Prost fan for life.
Belgium 1986 (McLaren-TAG)
A first corner contact with Berger forces Prost to limp slowly around the longest
circuit in F1 for a new nose. He resumes in last place, with a seriously bent steering
column requiring him to adjust his steering by a 1/4 turn on the straights for the rest of
the race. He sets a race fastest lap 2 seconds faster than anyone else, and finishes 6th
for a vital point (he won the title by just 2 points that year). John Barnard watched the
telemetry and said Prost didnt once touch the boost. He took that drive out of
himself, not the car, and Barnard rates it one of the best performances hes ever
Brazil 1987 (McLaren-TAG)
A race that Prost rates as his most perfect. Qualified only 6th or 7th, 2 full
seconds slower than the dominant Williams-Hondas. Spent practice concentrating on race
set-up. Chose low downforce while everyone else went with high downforce out of tire wear
concern. Deliberately disciplined himself to take it very easy in the first part of the
race when the fuel load was heavy, losing much ground, going slowly in the corners, etc.
Yet Prost was able to go the distance with only one tire stop while others stopped two and
even three times. He won the race by a full 30 seconds over vastly superior opposition, by
a deep appreciation of the race as a whole. Clearly this race was won by intelligent
strategy, and long before the cars ever sat on the grid awaiting the green light.
Portugal 1987 (McLaren-TAG)
Prost has often won by pressuring his rivals into mistakes while making none
himself. This race better exemplifies this than any. Alain spent the last half of the race
putting the most relentless pressure on race leader Berger as he remorselessly sliced away
at the Ferraris advantage. With only a handful of laps left, Berger cracked and
spun, Prost romping home to his record-breaking 28th win.
Japan 1987 (McLaren-TAG)
A familiar story. Puncture on lap 2, slow trip to the pits, resuming in last.
Carves his way to 7th and is the fastest man on the track all day when he had no hope of
points and no reason to drive this way other than to satisfy himself.
France 1988 (McLaren-Honda)
During this intense year-long battle with Senna in equal equipment, they each
beat the other fair and square on several occasions. This race was perhaps Prosts
most satisfying triumph (along with Mexico) where he simply out drove Senna pure and
simple. His conclusive pass on Senna in the later stages brought to mind something Rob
Walker once said about Prost. When Alain passes someone he said, it is like watching
ballet so cleanly and decisively is the move done.
Mexico 1990 (Ferrari)
Prosts lowest grid position in ten years (13th) was the result of a
practice spent working on race set-up. Fastest in the morning warm up (a warning of things
to come), Prost chose a set up that favoured overtaking on the straight, and relentlessly
scythed his way through the field to win. Long before he took the lead you began to
realize how inevitable his victory was. It was a masterful race and demonstrated that on a
circuit where passing is possible, grid position is irrelevant if the race set-up and
tactics are there.
South Africa 1993 (Williams-Renault)
First race back from his year off, and a weekend that made it seem he had never
been gone. Pole position, race fastest lap, and a victory that had to be earned. A poor
start put him in 3rd, and he had to work hard to separate first Schumacher from 2nd, and
then Senna from 1st. It was a stunning comeback and was evidence of Prosts winter
Montreal 1993 (Williams-Renault)
Prost was pushed hard throughout and really earned a strong win. It was his most
masterful drive of his final year, prompting James Hunt (in his last race critique) to say
that we had witnessed the "Prost of old" on this day.
In Prosts later years he has been criticized
for his distaste of driving in pouring rain when visibility is poor. One must remember
that Prost was the driver whom Didier Pironi blinded by spray struck in
practice at Hockenheim in 1982. One of the first on the scene, Prost saw the full extent
of Pironis career-ending leg injuries. Being intelligent and not wishing to die in a
racing car, Prost has been wary of the rain since. He has often said he has no problem
with driving on a slippery or treacherous track. It is the lack of visibility that he is
opposed to. He likes to be in control (as anyone traveling at 180 m.p.h. should desire)
and says you can not be in control when you can not see 50 yards in front of you. He has
won soaking wet races (Monaco 84, etc.) but in the latter part of his career no
longer had the stomach to engage in a level of risk he considered to be over the top. He
has never cared whether the press find it fashionable this week or not to slam him or side
with him. He has had, sometimes alone, the courage to not race when conditions were
atrocious, such as Adelaide 89, etc. Many drivers will express their reservations
that maybe they should not be racing in these conditions, but very few have the conviction
to simply not race, regardless of the consequences or criticism. Prost took a strong stand
at Adelaide in 89, Senna equally so in his determination to stay in his cockpit and
race, ignoring the attempts at mustering driver solidarity. Prost watched the race from
the pits, Senna drove into the back of Martin Brundle at 180 m.p.h. because he was totally
blind and had no idea Brundle was there.
I am glad Prost has gotten out of the sport in one
piece. Anyone who survives such a long career has a degree of luck on his side, but one
also makes a lot of ones own luck. Prost took a lot less chances than many
less, for example, than Senna. It may, possibly, have a bearing on their respective fates.
Prost was quite sincere in how shattered he was by Sennas death, for while they may
not have been friends, they shared an even closer bond that of rivals. So linked to
each other were they by virtue of possessing the only talents great enough to offer the
other a consistent challenge, that Prost was prompted to say, upon Sennas death,
that he felt that half of his career was now gone.
Prost has left the sport while still in possession
of an awesome form on the track, but what I will miss most of all is the sublime subtlety
of his precision and intellect in short, his racecraft. A more disciplined driver,
I am convinced, has never sat in a racing car ever. If results mean anything, then
the lesson is this: winning 51 GPs and 4 world titles is not about sticking your foot to
the floor. It is about supreme intelligence and painstaking work away from the spotlight.
Thanks for the legacy Alain.