Alain Prost: the ProfessorWritten by Ζήσης Βουργάνας
Translated by Nikos Arvanitis
Alain Marie Pascal Prost (24th of February 1955), Knight of the Legion of Honour in France and Member of the Order of the British Empire in the United Kingdom, won four world championships in Formula 1.
He participated at the Formula 1 World Championship from 1980 until 1993 and is one of the greatest ever in the motorsport history.
He is third in the list of world champions with 4 titles and with 51 wins, he is also third behind Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
At the end of the 90’s he made the next step as a constructor, without the same success however.
Contrary to the stereotype of the enthusiastic, risky and spectacular drive, Prost stood out for his relaxed and his purely cerebral driving style (that’s why he had the nickname “Professor”).
Having figures like Jackie Stewart as his role models, he emphasized in the correct setup of the car before the race and the evasion of danger during the race.
His temperament led to his absolute consistency.
It’s characteristic that except for his maiden season, he never fell outside the 5th place of the final standings, even if he drove unreliable cars such as RE30.
At the same time though, he had conflicts with his colleagues, like his team-mate in McLaren, Ayrton Senna.
The clash between these two totally different characters was the main reason behind Prost’s decision to retire following the 1993 title, avoiding the reunion with the Brazilian.
The petite French had a flair for sports since he was a child, trying various sports such as wrestling and football, while he was dreaming of becoming a gymnast in the future.
When he was 14 and on vacation with his family, he drove a kart for the first time.
Since then, motorsports dominated his life.
He won in various kart competitions, and in 1975 he was crowned French champion.
The reward for the winner was the participation at Formula Renault championship next season (through Renault’s development program).
He won the championship there too, taking the chequered flag in all races but one, despite the fact he was racing against more experienced drivers.
Next season (1977) he won the championship once again and got promoted to Formula 3.
The win not only of the national, but also the European Formula 3 Championship in 1979, caught the eyes of the Formula 1 teams.
McLaren offered him the chance to drive with the team’s third car at the last race of the season, but Prost refused, thinking it was pointless to participate outside competition.
His ambition and his skills convinced the British team to offer him a contract for next season.
His debut was impressive, making it to the top six at the first two races.
Some minor accidents backed off his momentum, leading him to end the season at 15th place, having the same points with Emerson Fittipaldi.
After the end of the season he decided to leave McLaren, although he had two years left at his contract.
He told later that he was feeling annoyed because the team itself blamed him for some of his retirements.
Prost’s Renault RE40, the car he almost won the world title in 1983.
1981 found Prost driving for Renault.
The French team was trying to find its pace, having serious problems with the experimental turbo engine that usually broke down during races.
Prost managed to finish only six races, but he was on podium in all of them.
He won the first race in his home country, managing also to win two more races afterwards.
He finished the season at 5th place of the drivers’ standings with 3 wins and 43 points, more than both Renault drivers had last season.
In 1982 he started ideally with two wins at the first two races, the continuation though was not ideal.
Many retirements held him at 4th place of the championship with 34 points.
In 1983 Renault seemed to have solved engine problems.
With 4 wins and good finishes in general, Prost built by the 11th Grand Prix of the season a big gap, being 14 points ahead of Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and 17 of Rene Arnoux (Ferrari).
The aftermath was catastrophic, as in the last four races of the season he retired three times (the only ones of the season, with two of them due to turbo failure) winning just six points.
Nelson Piquet was the man who took advantage, getting 22 points at this period of time, winning the second drivers’ championship of his career, whilst Ferrari overtook Renault at the constructors’ standings.
Following the spectacular loss of the two titles, Renault fired him immediately and the Media “remembered” that a year ago he had a row with Arnoux (the spoiled child of the French), leading him away from the team.
Return to McLaren (1984-1989)
In 1984 the Frenchman returned to McLaren, starting the golden era not only for his career, but for the team as well.
Out of the six seasons he raced for the team, McLaren won the Constructors’ Championship 4 times, and he won three times the Drivers’ Championship.
In 1984 he finished 2nd in the Drivers’ standings, with 7 wins, 9 podiums and just half a point behind his team-mate Niki Lauda.
Driving the McLaren MP4/4 (1988)
In 1985, despite winning two races less, he finally made his dream come true, winning his first World Championship, having also a big margin from 2nd placed Michele Alboreto (Ferrari).
That year an old rule came back into effect, where the five worst results were excluded by the final drivers’ standings.
The rule was in effect for everyone, but rarely did any driver have so solid performances, where the races he would exclude could include points finishes.
Despite all that, his margin from Alboreto was still too big.
It was the first time a Frenchman won the title and as a result, French president Francois Mitterand decorated him.
In 1986 he claimed his 2nd title after a titanic battle against the Williams line-up, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet.
The total points were 74-72-69 for the three drivers and after the removal of the 5th worst results, 72-70-69.
The next year was highlighted by the technological superiority of the Williams though, so Prost fell to 4th place, clinching 3 wins.
In 1988 McLaren bounced back and Prost had one of his best season, but he did not win the championship.
He got 105 points, seven wins, seven 2nd places and had two retirements but because of that rule he had to exclude three 2nd place finishes and fall to 87 points.
On the contrary, Ayrton Senna (who had just arrived to the team) lost only four points of his 94 in total and won the title.
Since that year started the rivalry between these two, as Prost was feeling that his team-mate was trying to “overpower” him.
The Frenchman got even in 1989, building a good margin from the spectacular Senna (who had twice as much wins) at the half of the season, a margin that kept him in front until the end.
It was his third championship, while at the same time their relations were going from bad to worse, with Prost stating that his team-mate drives way too dangerously and is protected by the team.
At the Italian Grand Prix, Prost threw the trophy from the podium to the Ferrari mechanics, showing his displeasure for McLaren team, dedicating at the same time the win to the Italians, having just signed a contract for next season with them!
The old admiration had become a mutual hate, as Prost had tried to get Senna out of the track at the Japanese (penultimate) Grand Prix, in order to take away his dim hope of winning the title.
In the aftermath, his relationship with FIA President Jean Marie Balestre played an important role to the disqualification of the Brazilian from that race, giving the title straight away.
In 1990 he signed with Ferrari, as there was no space at the same box for him and Senna.
The McLaren Senna drove was obviously stronger, but Prost managed to stay within “striking distance” from top of the standings.
At the penultimate race of the season (again in Japan) the incident of last season repeated, this time with contrary roles.
Prost had dim hopes of winning the title and Senna crashed onto him at the first seconds of the race, leading him out of contention.
Before the race a change of the place of the pole sitter (Senna) had taken place, from the clean side of the track to the dirt one.
The FIA President and Prost’s compatriot and friend Jean Marie Balestre did the change, so the Frenchman could have an advantage starting from 2nd place.
The Frenchman talked about disgusting behavior and a man without values, but nothing changed.
He finished in 2nd place of the standings with 5 wins and 9 podiums in total and along with Nigel Mansell battled until the end for the Constructors’ Championship.
At the end of the year, Mansell left the team, accusing Prost of bad behavior.
Prost stayed at Ferrari in 1991, knowing that he would drive an old-fashioned car.
For the first time after his maiden season, he did not manage to get a win, despite the fact Ferrari revealed a second car during the season, in an effort to return to top, finishing 5th in Drivers’ standings.
He was fired before the last race, following statements that the Ferrari car turns like a truck.
Before that, he managed to move Cesare Fiorio away from the team as culpable for the lack of competitiveness of Ferrari.
The real reason that he did that, was the fact that Fiorio had approached Ayrton Senna in order to convince him move to Ferrari in 1992, something that Prost understood and did not like at all.
In 1992 he did some testing with Ligier, from which he asked for shares too in order to drive for them.
Finally the deal was not made and Prost took a sabbatical paid by Ferrari, having taken all of his salary, since he did not race in Formula 1 that year.
He was the first driver who managed to sit down for a year and get paid for that!
Testing Ligier JS37 at the Paul Ricard circuit (1992)
Following a year of absence, Prost signed a contract with Williams for 1993 season.
Before even signing, outgoing champion Nigel Mansell quit the team and retired from Formula 1, having in mind the traumatic experience of their coexistence in Ferrari.
That year the rivalry between Senna and Prost reached its peak.
On the one hand Prost had imposed a clause in his contract that prohibited Williams from signing Senna; Senna on the other hand (who was in negotiation with the team) got furious and labeled him coward.
At the Brazilian Grand Prix, Prost was accompanied by police escorts, because of fear that Senna’s fans would harm him.
In terms of performance the season went ideally for the French driver.
Winning 7 out of the first 10 races, he got a comfortable lead from his rivals that maintained until the end.
This was the fourth and last title, as he had already announced his retirement before the Portuguese Grand Prix, knowing that the team has already signed Ayrton Senna for the 1994.
This would be the second time the Frenchman would get paid without racing.
He had a two year contract, but also had a clause that Senna would not go to the team.
Since the Brazilian signed with the team, the Frenchman quit and Frank Williams compensated him.
At the final race of the season and Prost’s entire career (the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide), the reconciliation came in between these two great drivers.
While they were on podium, where they were used to look to different directions to avoid looking each other, Senna unexpectedly hugged Prost (a movement that surprised him, the Frenchman told later).
Actually, their relation improved so much that in San Marino Senna sent a radio message to his friend Prost.
Few months after Australia’s reconciliation, at Senna’s funeral, Prost would be among the friends who carried his coffin.
As he told years later in an interview, with Senna’s death a part of him died too.
Active years in Formula 1: 1980 – 1991 and 1993
Teams: McLaren, Renault, Ferrari, Williams
Races: 202 (199 starts)
World Titles: 4 (1985, 1986, 1989, 1993)
Points: 768,5 (798,5)
Pole Positions: 33
Fastest Laps: 41