- Mattijs Diepraam, Rainer Nyberg
- 8W May 2001 issue
- Ayrton Senna - The Toleman days, by Mattijs Diepraam
XVI Argentine GP (13 January 1980)
Would F1's record man have touched Juan Fangio's invincible stats if the early years of his Grand Prix career had been more fruitful? Is it too fanciful to claim that had fate been more generous Alain Prost could have knotted together a string of five consecutive championships? Or that he might have been an eight-time World Champion? It's a popular theme among Prost followers that the 1984 and 1988 titles would have been his under the current regulations. Then there's the 1983 championship taking an unexpected - and some say illegal - swing back to the Brabham-BMW camp and their rocket missile brew. And the 1982 season should have been Prost's by a landslide had the recurrence of the early Renault turbo project's dreaded reliability not intervened, mechicanal weaknesses keeping Alain away from at least three certain wins.
Those thoughts are tempting enough to cross anyone's mind, let alone the multitudes of AP apostles. But then there's the common-sense approach that these revisionist mind games could apply to any one driver that missed out on something he deserved. What if Derek Warwick had signed for Williams-Honda instead of Mansell? What if Jean Alesi had not followed his heart to leave Tyrrell for Ferrari - and instead had opted for Williams? The hordes of Prost haters would eagerly agree with this line of thinking, as the historic Prost-Senna rivalvy is responsible for creating an unparalleled chasm in the appreciation of both giants of the 80s and early 90s. Ten years on, it seems it still needs a big man (or woman) to overcome the antagonism and admire each of them for their accomplishments and character while at the same time recognizing their flaws.
Incidentally, the 'What if' game could also be positioned to turn against Alain Prost and a whole range of his successors, including Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen. It goes like this: what if McLaren designer Gordon Coppuck had created another M23 and turned the M28 into a barnstormer of a ground-effects car, thus making the 'old' McLaren team into a winner again? Would it then have been such an easy pray for the 'merger' with Project Four? We will never know.
The missed championships aside, it remains a fair point that Prost did not have the dream start to his GP career that Fangio and Michael Schumacher had. Alain's debut season was character-building, to say the least. He joined the McLaren team for perhaps their worst season ever, having to contend with the excruciatingly bad M29, followed by the equally horrible M30, a car that team leader John Watson didn't even have to race.
Since the advent of ground effects the once-proud McLaren team had been overtaken left, right and centre and if they thought the 1978 and 1979 seasons were bad, they had something coming. For 1978 they had the excuse everyone had - they had been caught on the hop by Colin Chapman, their trusty M26 certainly not up against anything as sophisticated as the Lotus 79. 1979 was a different matter. With the bulky M28 of early 1979 showing that designer Gordon Coppuck had definitely not mastered this ground-effects thing - John Watson recently proclaiming the car to be the worst one that he drove - it was soon replaced by the M29, which flexed less (of which the M28 did a lot!) and had less drag (of which the M28 had an obvious fair amount). But it was also miles away from the cars Ligier, Ferrari and notably Williams had produced. So it must have come as a bit of a shock to Alain that McLaren planned to continue with the M29 into the 1980 season, especially now that Gordon Murray had mated reliable Cosworth power to his pretty BT48 and did some more clever things to it, thus creating the BT49, while Williams were set for their first season of seasons.
But then, scoring points on your first two outings isn't exactly the opposite of a dream start. It's precisely what most young drivers would describe as one. To be fair, it's probably the fact that Prost was so completely unfazed by his daunting task to make something out of what promised to be a debut season from hell that he was quickly snapped up by Renault for 1981. There have been great talents lost due to lack of character or an overly mediterranean mentality, and as they say, it's the first impression that sticks. Prost's one stuck alright.
And it could have gone the other way so easily. Before reaching F1 Alain had it all coming to him. Having won the 1975 Pilot Elf award at the illustrious Winfield racing school, he took his prize-winning F Renault car to 12 wins out of 13 starts in his first year of competition. A logical progression to F Super Renault meant another 8 wins and the title. After that, F3 seemed to come naturally to him when given the Martini-Renault MK27, outclassing anyone in French and European F3 in 1978 and 1979. Being so used to winning, the McLaren experience could have turned him into a Corrado Fabi, a similar natural that was completely destroyed by one season of Osella. Instead he coped admirably with the pitfalls of the M29 in B and C spec and the one-off M30 in which he scored a point on the car's debut.
Testimony to that car's quality are these facts: it ran just four races - all by Prost - and was canned in favour of a return to the M29C - no miracle car by itself - for the start of the 1981 season, bridging the gap to the arrival of the landmark MP4/1. Alain also overcame two huge practice shunts that ruled him out of action for three races in 1980, while he had a one-second qualifying edge over his experienced team mate right from the start - that is, before he was entrusted with the M30…
Born in 1955, the son of a couple of middle-class furniture-makers from Saint-Chamond, Alain grew up as a great fan of soccer, and it was his elder brother Daniel who was the motor-racing fan. Alain actually played soccer from an early age until he was 17. The soft-spoken and shy kid was an average student, so he preferred to show his skill on the soccer pitch. During his time Alain became more and more interested in motor racing.
As the Prost family was doing quite well, they were able to afford an appartment in Cannes during the early part of the 1960. And during a visit there it was inevitable that the close vicinity to Monaco would take the family there. Alain and his father went to the 1970 event, and Alain was thrilled by what he had witnessed.
Later in the year, while on holiday at the Côte d'Azur once again, Daniel took Alain to an amusement park where they had a small kart track with rental karts. Unfortunely for Alain you had to be 16 to get to drive one of them. But with a written consent from his parents Alain was able to climb into one of the karts. While Alain continued at college he worked on evenings in his father's shop to earn money to buy his own kart. He was only able to afford a well-used tired machine, which spent more time in the pits than on the track, he was unable to show his true talent. But when the opportunity came at a regional race meeting to borrow a better kart, he grabbed the chance with both hands and won the race. And you might say that the rest is history…
He won the French Kart Championship both in 1974 and 1975 before he tried cars in 1976. As so many other French young guns Alain attended the now famous Winfield racing school. He finished with Pilote Elf honours. This led to a seat in the French Formula Renault Championship where, as said before, he trashed the opposition by winning all rounds but one. By today's F1 standards this would have been more than sufficient to take him right in to Formula 1 - as Kimi Räikkönen did this year.
Alain took the Formula Renault Euro title the following year before moving up to Formula 3 in 1978. '78 was a lost year for Alain but he recovered to take the Euro F3 title in 1979 and also winning the traditional Monaco F1 curtain-raiser showcase for Formula 3 cars. This was more than enough for Alain to leapfrog Formula 2 and Alain signed for his first stint at McLaren for the 1980 season.
This was the last year of McLaren under the Teddy Mayer regime. Project Four would take over the team in September 1980 to form McLaren International. The last line of cars in the Coppuck-penned M-series was not as successful as his evergreen M23 design. As with so many other teams during this period McLaren was caught off-guard and taken by surprise by the Lotus wingcars. Of course McLaren tried to copy the Lotus designs. Doing so they were always playing catch-up while perhaps not fully understanding the design. So Alain and his team mate, the experienced Ulsterman John Watson, did not have the tools to shine. Meanwhile the turbo boom was still in its infancy but the Renault cars became more and more reliable and could be expected to be potent championship weapons in 1981.
Renault decided to replace 38-year old veteran Jean-Pierre Jabouille with Alain for the '81 season, after some serious contract acrimony between Renault and the new McLaren regime. Alain would enjoy three successful years at the Régie, taking nine wins, making Alain into an established star. At this stage the Ron Dennis/John Barnard-managed McLaren International had matured into a formidable force. Together with Porsche designed and built turbo V6 powerplants and a development of Barnard's original carbonfibre MP4/1, they now wanted Alain as a complement to the multiple champion Niki Lauda. 1984 would turn out to be the definitive break-through season for McLaren under the Ron Dennis reign. McLaren won 12 of the 16 rounds with Alain winning seven of them. Niki won five but also the world title.
For '85 the McLaren domination continued but now Alain had the definitive upper hand on Lauda. Lauda had a dismal year and would retire at the end of the year. Alain's mail rival was Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto. But Ferrari's initial strong challenge lost steam after mid-season and Michele was out of the points for the five last races and that decided the outcome. Alain had finally achieved his and France's first world driving title. He took five wins and won the championship with a margin of 20 points.
For '86 Lauda was replaced with '82 champ, 37-year old Keke Rosberg. However, Keke was unable to shine in the perennially understeering MP4/2C. Keke always hated under-steering cars, but this set-up was more to the liking of Alain Prost. Prost could continue his winning ways from the previous year. The Mansell/Piquet combo of Williams formed Alain's main rivals in 1986. Four wins and four runners-up spots and Mansell's exploding tyre in the final showdown down-under decided the championship in Alain's favour.
With Rosberg going into (temporary) retirement for '87, Stefan Johansson filled the second seat thanks to his good Marlboro connections. Sadly the development of the TAG/Porsche V6 came to a stand-still during '87 and this hurt the McLaren team. They had lost their edge to Williams with Mansell and Piquet sharing nine wins between them. Despite losing out in the power race, Alain still managed to take three wins to finish fourth in the total standings. Lotus-Honda driver Ayrton Senna took third overall.
Alain considers the '87 Brazilian GP as his best and most rewarding race ever. The Williams-Hondas had been dominant during qualifying and Alain started fifth on the grid. He had worked on his race set-up and with everyone else going for a high-downforce set-up Alain went the other way. The set-up meant less tyre wear, thanks to slower speeds in the corners while going fast down the straights. Only one stop was necessary and Alain won the race by 40 seconds.
He later said: "When you win a race like this the feeling is very, very good. There have been times when I have been flat-out to finish sixth, but you can't see that from the outside. In 1980 I finished three or four times in seventh place. I pushed like mad, yet everyone was gathered around the winner and they were thinking that I was just trundling around. But that's motor racing. So in fact the only thing you can judge in this sport is the longterm. You can judge a career or a season, but not one race."
With TAG/Porsche throwing in the towel for '88, McLaren secured Honda power and Ayrton Senna came along with the Honda motors. If you ever could find a better Jeopardy question for "total domination" the question would be "What happened in the year 1988?" Thanks to clever adaptation of the Honda V6 for the new 2.5 bar max boost by the Honda engineers, McLaren would enjoy a superior engine for '88. Together with Steve Nichols' neat MP4/4 the season was totally dominated by McLaren with Senna and Prost fighting it out for title. Senna took eight victories and Prost seven. The other single win was of course the lucky one Gerhard Berger was handed on a silver-plate by Jean-Louis Schlesser at Monza. This prevented a clean sweep by McLaren in 1988. Senna's extra win gave him the edge over Prost thanks to the regulations. Prost had three second places (forming a total of 18 pts) discounted and this meant that Senna took his first title ahead of Prost.
It was a time of change in 1989 with new regulations coming into force. The turbo era was over and the regulations now called for normally aspirated 3.5-litre engines. Honda and Renault went with the so far untried V10 configuration. Others selected the more proven V8 or V12 route. Once again Senna and Prost were team mates and but this time Prost won the title despite being outscored in outright wins by Senna with 6-4. Again controversy surrounded the title race. This time at Suzuka where Prost - in the lead - and Senna collided in the chicane leading up to the finish line. An overoptimistic move by Senna on Prost, where Prost defended the corner, resulted in Senna making contact with Prost, who knew that with both drivers out of the race, the title would be his - and so he quickly climbed out of his stricken machine. The move seemed to have backfired on Prost when he saw Senna get going again. Senna was first over the finish line but later thrown out of the results as he was deemed to have received outside assistance when his car got jump-started after the collision with Prost - in the process also cutting short the chicane. Alain bagged his third championship with this result and could travel down to Adelaide knowing that he had already secured the title.
For the start of the new decade Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger would switch teams. Prost wanted away from Senna and saw the improving Ferrari as a new challenge. The '90 season would again be a Senna-Prost battle. Prost bagged five wins in the beautiful Ferrari 641. Senna won six in the MP4/5B. And for the second time running controversy would surround the Japanese round. This time it was Senna who took out Prost in the first corner, with Senna knowing that with both drivers out of the race the title would be his. Prost took the start and was inching ahead going into the first corner when Senna snapped his car into the side of the Ferrari, taking both cars out on the spot.
Ferrari continued in 1991 with developments of the car first seen in 1988 and it was clear that the lifespan of this design had expired. Senna dominated the early season and finished his season with six wins. Now the Williams-Renault team was also emerging as a front-runner with potential to win on every occasion. Mansell dominated the last half of the season and finished with five wins. Alain Prost did not manage to score any wins in the difficult Ferrari. Prost was even unceremoniously sacked before the final race at Adelaide, having made rude comments on his car. This put him in a difficult situation for the next season. With no front-running seats available for 1992, Alain was forced to take a sabbatical year from Formula 1 driving duties. However, Ligier had secured Renault power for 1992. Alain saw this as possibility and he was involved in pre-season testing of the Ligier JS37. After the tests he however turned down the offer to driver for Ligier, and spent the year as a co-commentator for French TV station TF1.
Nigel Mansell won the '92 championship but after a disagreement with Frank Williams, he left the team, and looked for greener pastures on the Indycar scene. This gave Alain Prost an opportunity to get back into a cockpit of a Grand Prix car again. Test driver Damon Hill was selected as Alain's team mate. The season was again a Prost-Senna battle but this time the Williams-Renault was clearly more potent than the McLaren driven by Senna, now powered by a customer Ford V8. Prost scored seven wins and won his fourth title with relative ease. Already before the final race of the season, Alain had decided to hang up his helmet. For his achievements Alain was awarded the Order of British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
On his driving style Alain explained: "I have forced myself to be smooth. I am always concerned about tyres and such like anyway, so actually it's 80% natural and 20% I have forced myself to drive like this. Because that is the way you get the best results, not for a race, but for a season. No driver, except Niki Lauda in 1984, has got more points than me in the same car. Sometimes I think I could have got some better results if I had a different mentality; if I could have pushed hard and attacked. But then I would have had a good chance of making a mistake. I always thought it was better to be safe and finish third or fourth than to risk a lot and win or come second. I have always had this mentality because I hated to break anything on the car."
Within a year after his retirement Alain would again sit in a GP car, acting as a test driver for his old team McLaren. For the next few years Alain would share his duties for TF1 and PR work for Renault, while also continuing his testing duties for McLaren in 1995-'96.
His current involvement in Grand Prix racing is well-known to all F1 fans. Still looking for a new challenge, he acquired the Ligier team in 1997 and renamed it Prost Grand Prix. His time managing his own team has not been remotely as successful as his driving career. With more manufacturer involvement into Grand Prix racing only time will tell when Alain has used up all his persistance in his quest for his team's F1 success. There may well also come a time when it makes good business sense to sell off his interests in Formula 1.
Away from his 100% commitment to Prost GP, Alain tries to stay in shape on his bicycle, on the golf course or on skis in the French or Swiss alps.
Legendary F1 journo Denis Jenkinson once gave a fitting description of Alain: "He comes over as a very warm and uncomplicated man who doesn't rely on passion or inspiration. Nor does he indulge in showmanship or bullshit. He is capable of a level of mental discipline beyond the comprehension of most people."
Reader's Why by Josh Lintz
Class is in session! Le Professeur, Alain Prost, the first French World Champion, will be teaching the class. His first lesson, entitled "How to start off your Grand Prix career" begins by going to the famous Winfield racing school in 1975, winning the Pilote Elf award. With that, he was given a full ride in the Formula Renault championship, where he won 12 out of 13 races, and won the championship. In 1978, he competed in Formula Super Renault, scoring 8 wins and the title. In 1979, he won both the French and European F3 champion. He was offered a third car for the 1979 United States GP. Most drivers wouldn't think twice at the offer. Alain duly refused it, claiming that a third car entry would make him look bad. Besides, McLaren was at its most uncompetitive times since the Serenissima engine.
Instead, he asked for a test session at Paul Ricard, where he promptly blew away John Watson in the process. A contract was signed in no time. Alain finished his first two F1 races in the points, a 6th in Argentina, and 5th in Brazil. Jackie Stewart was the last driver to achieve that feat. He was given the task of sorting out the latest McLaren car, the M30, but after an accident in practice in Watkins Glen, the team accused him of driving too fast on cold tires. Prost found this to be a ridiculous accusation, and signed with Renault for 1981.
Results came quickly, but Renault was not the most pleasant nor reliable team in F1 at the time. He won his first ever GP at Dijon, no less. Another win followed at Monza, and in 1982, he won the first two races of the year. Then a bit of bad luck set in when he led events; crashing at Monaco, turbo failure at Austria... you had to wonder if Alain had been one of the most unlucky drivers of the time. In 1983, the reliability was better, but the team seemed to sit still in terms of car development. His five wins seemed enough, but the complacency at Renault infuriated him. It was no way to beat Piquet and Brabham. A few choice remarks about Renault were thrown about, and Alain was shown the door.
In 1983, John Watson had won the Long Beach Grand Prix for McLaren, but wanted a pay raise for '84. Prost came to McLaren, now revitalized by Ron Dennis and the new Porsche-TAG turbo engines. He also came to the bargain of the decade, something teammate Lauda heard a lot about over the next two years. It was an incredible year. McLaren had won 12 of 16 races, Prost winning seven of them. Lauda had won five, but his one-half point margin in the championship was enough for the Austrian's third F1 title. For 1985, he had learned from an old pro, and marched his way to five wins and his first championship. Despite the fact that France played a great role in the history of motorsport, it wasn't until then that a French world champion had been crowned.
The title "the professor" was apt. Prost's consistency and smooth driving never made you in doubt of the result. He was a master of preserving his tires, often making less pit stops than the rest, all while conserving his limited fuel load. He almost never made a mistake, he rarely spinning or sliding a car. This prompted Eddie Cheever to remark to the press, "...Alain Prost has spun! Oh well, I guess he'll do it again in a few years..."
He followed it up again in 1986, winning 4 races, and holding off the challenge from Williams-Honda. It was indeed a lucky win, but Prost's consistency and smooth driving never made you in doubt of the result. For 1987, the Honda-powered cars of Williams and Lotus were superior, and the Porsche-TAG motors didn't respond well to the "pop-off" valves that limited turbo pressure to 4.0 bar. A rash of unusual alternator belt failures took away two easy wins, too. But Prost never complained. Nor would he when the all-conquering Honda turbo engines were coming to McLaren. However, the arrival of Ayrton Senna changed that perception a little.
For 1988, he was up against his greatest challenge yet. Now he was the teacher, but Senna was skipping class and driving well on his own. Prost would have been world champion, but despite his seven wins and seven second places, Senna did so, winning a record 8 races for McLaren. (Had the "best 11 of 16 races" rule not been in effect, he would have been champ. So would Graham Hill in 1964, but that's another story.) Prost didn't take it lying down, for he fought back at Portugal, not giving an inch on the second lap. They nearly crashed each other into the pit wall, but Prost remained resolute. It was one of the few times we would see Senna back down from a dice! For 1989, though, he was more reliable than Senna, but not always as fast. After 5 wins, he won the championship after making darn sure that Ayrton couldn't pass him in the closing laps of Suzuka. Could it have been that Prost played his best card, psychological warfare? He forced Senna to act on impulse and drive down the escape road, earning a dis In 1990, Ferrari was not the reliable car it has been as of late, something that Alain had been used to at McLaren. He gave it his best shot, but five wins were not enough against Senna's McLaren. Mansell didn't like the new arrangements, so he went to Williams-Renault. Prost hung on another year at Ferrari, but the car was a dog. It showed Alesi's talents on occasion, but Prost had no hesitation by telling the press how he felt about the car. The mystique of Ferrari was not enough to make championships, but it was enough to make tensions at Modena quite strong. Prost was sacked before the last race at Adelaide. Alain must have thought it funny that it rained heavily in that shortened event, for everyone knew he wouldn't have taken part in it anyhow!
In 1992, Prost still had a contract with Ferrari, but after he was sacked, he received a substantial sum of money not to drive in any GPs with any team. Alain test-drove for Ligier, but signed for Williams very early in the year. It was F1's worst kept secret, and according to Nigel Mansell, he was asked about having Prost as a teammate as early as the Mexican GP! Mansell was not thrilled about having a triple world champion in his team again. Patrese wanted to play a better role than "number two", so he bolted for Benetton, where he was overshadowed by Schumacher. Mansell hoped to be lead driver for the team, but Frank Williams said no. Nigel had waited too long, and was left with no team to choose from in F1, so left to Indycars.
In 1993, the car was dominant, and nobody had bet against Prost for the world championship. And despite a spin at Interlagos, and an unimpressive drive in the wet European GP, Prost's fans were treated to a display just like his other championships: seven wins and more of that impeccable driving. Races surrendered to him (except Italy, where his engine failed 5 laps from the end), and Senna put up the good fight. For one last year, we saw what great racers they both were.
Prost retired from race driving, and in 1996, he test-drove for McLaren giving some advice to the team. The Mercedes engines were not as dominant as they are today, but his advice was welcomed just the same. Alain was itching to get back into F1, and when Guy Ligier was ready to sell his team, Alain Prost had his dream of an "all-French" Formula One team. In 1997, the car flattered, for the cars were really Ligiers ready for the new season. They did well, but were not race winners. The next year brought a single point, and in 1999, the cars were not much better. A lucky second place in the European GP was it. The last two years haven't amounted to much of anything, but at least the cars are slightly faster than Renault's new acquisition!
Alain Prost's first F1 drive at Argentina in 1980 sparked off an amazing career: 4 world championships, 51 wins out of 199 starts, 33 pole positions, 41 fastest laps, and a mind-boggling 798.5 points scored. He missed two other titles by a total of 2.5 points. He raced against some of the best names in sport, and he was an honest man, always able to give some time to his sponsors, the press, and his fans. What more is there to say?