Formula 1 Profile – Alain Prost
In this Formula 1 profile, we’ll take a look at Alain Prost, a four-time championship winner thought among the best in history. But his success was riddled with controversy and drama, as well as marked (some would say tainted) by his rivalry with Senna, whom many regard as the greatest driver of all time.
Alain Prost was born in 1955 in central France. As a boy, he had energy for just about any activity, but it wasn’t until he discovered kart racing at the age of 14 that he found his true calling. By the age of 19, he won several karting championships and left school to become a full-time racer, supporting himself by tuning engines and distributing karts.
He won the 1975 French senior karting championship and got to drive in Formula Renault for one season as a reward. He won two titles and moved to Formula 3, winning both the French and European F3 championships in 1978 and 1979, respectively. In 1980, he signed a two-year contract with McLaren in Formula 1.
By the end of the first year, he had misgivings about the way the team was run, especially regarding safety. Mechanical failures caused him to break a wrist in one accident and suffer a concussion in another, so he broke his contract early and signed with Renault.
He won his first race with the French team and then eight more in the following three years, but found himself increasingly at odds with the team’s management, who blamed him for failing to win a championship. In 1984, he went back to McLaren.
That year, he came within only half a point to win the championship. The year after, he became the first French World Champion. In 1986, he became the first back-to-back champion in 26 years, and by the end of 1987 he had won more Grand Prix than any other driver in history.
In 1988, Prost scored more points than any other driver, but only the 11 best results were counted toward the championship, allowing Ayrton Senna to win by a slim margin.
Then began his famous rivalry with the Brazilian driver. The interactions between the two drivers are one of the main subjects in the documentary film Senna, but the narrative is constructed in such a way as to paint Prost as the antagonist. In reality, it may have been the opposite.
Their relationship had started out friendly enough, with mutual admiration on both sides, but it deteriorated quickly in 1989. As talented as Senna may have been, he was also ruthless and didn’t hesitate endangering himself and others if it meant scoring more points. Prost began to hate his dangerous driving and felt he received a disproportionate amount of attention from the team. He won the championship after a controversial clash in Suzuka and then left to join Ferrari.
The 1990 season ended in a similar fashion, this time with Senna deliberately driving into Prost and causing both of them to retire at the season’s final Grand Prix. Because he had more points going into it, Senna won the championship by default.
The year after, a slow Ferrari car prevented Prost from winning a race for the first time in 10 years. The French driver voiced his discontent publicly and was fired from the team before the end of the season.
He took a sabbatical in 1992 and returned in 1993 with Williams-Renault, with which he won 7 more races and won his fourth title. When it was announced that Senna might become his teammate in 1994, Prost declared he was leaving the sport for good.
Throughout his career and ever since, Prost has been nicknamed “The Professor” for his careful and methodical driving style. Prost managed to perfect an economical style: he would start races conservatively, preserve his brakes and tires, and then make a late race challenge if needed. As his hero Lauda said, “The secret is to win going as slowly as possible.” This cerebral approach to racing made Prost less popular than drivers like Senna, who drove flat out all the time, but it also allowed him to trade wins with him even when he wasn’t the fastest driver that weekend.
But make no mistake, he was properly fast. Out of 13 seasons in which he raced, Alain Prost won four championships and finished as runner-up in four more. He won a quarter of his races and stepped on the podium in twice as many. Today, few drivers can claim to be as successful as The Professor.