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Chandhok’s racing idol: Alain Prost

One of the most common questions that journalists ask me is: “Who was your racing idol when you were growing up?” The long answer to that question is Mario Andretti for his sheer diversity in the sport; Frank Williams for his incredible success and drive to win world championships despite being a quadriplegic; Ron Dennis because when I started watching F1 in the late 1980s McLaren was the ‘superteam’ and he was the boss; Bernie Ecclestone because without him the sport would be a pale shadow of what it is today, and finally Alain Prost.

karun chandhok history  Chandhoks racing idol: Alain Prost

The short answer would always be Alain Prost. The follow up questions from most people are “Really? Not Senna?” The funny thing is, despite my dad and grandfather being racing drivers, I probably have my mother to blame for this influence because she was a Prost fan. That perhaps got me started but the more I read about Alain in the pre-TV broadcast days, the more I grew to admire him. It amazes me how few people are actually Alain Prost fans, but what I’ve found in my travels is that the people who truly watched Grand Prix after Grand Prix in the early to mid 1980s – Prost’s glory years – would agree with me.

Now before all the Senna fans stop reading here, let me get a few things straight. There is no question in my mind that ultimately Ayrton was the faster driver over a single lap. For sheer commitment and ability to extract every last ounce of speed from a car over a qualifying lap, there has been no driver faster than Ayrton Senna and there may never be. Secondly, the Senna movie has opened up a whole new era of ‘Senna mania’ and fans have come crawling out of the woodwork. But, lest we forget, this was a movie and there has to be a hero and villain, so of course Alain came off second best (well, probably second worst after Jean-Marie Balestre!) The film didn’t show any of Alain’s greatness or Ayrton’s failings and despite the film-makers being good friends of mine, I believe that this was wrong.

karun chandhok history  Chandhoks racing idol: Alain Prost

Thirdly, I believe there have been very few people to ever walk this planet who had the charisma of Ayrton Senna da Silva. The man had such presence and when he spoke, the world stopped to listen. Even today, I can’t help but spend the odd half an hour on YouTube listening to Ayrton in that odd mix of a soft spoken voice combined with a firm belief and conviction in what he was saying. He was a man that the fans could easily relate to and carried all those Latin emotions, which meant that he won them over more than the reserved and less flamboyant Prost.

I think when you talk about Alain, it’s easy to solely talk about the Senna years but I think we have to keep some perspective here – by the late ‘80s Alain had been a championship contender for many years. He nearly won the championship in 1983 and was denied only due to poor reliability at the final round. He nearly won in 1984 but lost out by half a point to Niki Lauda, because the Monaco GP was red flagged before 75 per cent distance and therefore he only got half the points for the win. A fact often glossed over is that even in 1988, Alain actually scored more points than Ayrton and it was only due to the unusual system of dropped scores that year that Ayrton was awarded the title. So all of a sudden, Alain’s four World Championships could pretty easily have been seven. The man won 51 Grands Prix for four different teams, in an era with less races per season and much worse reliability than we have now against incredible competition through various different regulation eras.

karun chandhok history  Chandhoks racing idol: Alain Prost

So why am I a Prost fan? Well, in a nutshell, I thought his philosophy of spending hours to set the car up and make it as driveable and comfortable as possible to go fast in the race was brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to get excited by qualifying and I must admit I love nothing better than a low fuel, new tyre qualifying run, but the reality is you only get points on a Sunday. Alain’s ability to put aside qualifying glory and consciously work on the long-term game seems so logical to me. Races like Mexico in 1990, where the Ferrari wasn’t very quick over one lap were just fantastic. Alain spent all of practice and qualifying working on race setup and despite starting 13th on the grid, came through to pass Ayrton and win.

I also thought Prost had a lot of conviction to stick by his beliefs. When he felt that Ayrton was getting preferential treatment, he quit McLaren. When he thought the Ferrari wasn’t good enough, he called it a “truck” and got the sack for saying so. Rather than drive around in a midfield car, he took a year out and made sure he got himself into the best seat available for his return to F1 in 1993 for championship number four. But where I thought he showed this conviction the most was in Adelaide in 1989 where the weather conditions were absolutely ridiculous. After a single lap, Alain drove back into the pits and quit in protest as he felt it was too dangerous. He proved to be right as accident after accident meant the race got called off, but not before there was plenty of damage. While lots of fans called Alain a wimp, Gerhard Berger rightly said that actually, “Alain was the guy with the biggest balls”.

karun chandhok history  Chandhoks racing idol: Alain Prost

People often say that you shouldn’t meet your idols but I am glad to say I wholeheartedly disagree with that theory. I’ve been fortunate to have dinner with Alain on a few occasions and spent some time with him at places like the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Monaco GP. He was absolutely fantastic and allowed me to go back into fan mode asking him all the questions I wanted to over the years. The man is still so damn fit and competitive it’s amazing – competing and winning in ice racing in the Andros Trophy as well as cycling thousands of kilometres a year. A true sporting legend.

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karun chandhok history  Chandhoks racing idol: Alain Prost

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37 comments on Chandhok’s racing idol: Alain Prost

  1. Pitmonster, 2 August 2013 12:31

    Prost’s bravery in retiring from Adelaide 1989 reminds me of Lauda’s bravery in retiring from Fuji 1976.

    When you can’t see the other cars, it becomes a lottery.
    In the picture above I can see 7 cars, but 26 started that race – we cannot see 70% of them because of spray!

    But for luck (Monaco 1984), rules about dropped scores (1988), and the actions of another driver (Japan 1990), Prost could have won 7 titles – reducing Senna to just 1 in the process.

    Even with 4 titles is still amazes me that he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.

  2. Nigel (not that one), 2 August 2013 12:39

    Great to hear a bit of Prost love coming to the surface, one point you forgot to mention is his achievements were carried out with a list of team mates that reads like a who’s who of 80′s F1. He only had 2 team mates that wern’t a race winner or world champion (Johansson and Cheever) and they were both multiple podium finishers.

  3. Bill, 2 August 2013 13:17

    Adelaide **sobs* a proper, proper race track!

    But I agree, Alain Prost is a true legend, just like Senna. I could never choose between them.

  4. GP, 2 August 2013 14:29

    What a balanced, well written and eloquently argued piece.

  5. Jay, 2 August 2013 14:42

    Reading this article brought back so many memories, really enjoyed reading it. What a great era of F1. Of course I was (and always will be) a Prost fan. The Professor!

  6. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 2 August 2013 14:50

    I think there ‘two Prosts’. The blazingly fast Prost – like the one who won the South African Grand Prix in 1982 from a lap down – and then the way more calculating Prost following the death of his friend Gilles Villeneuve and the career-ending crash of his other friend Didier Pironi – in the same year. That, and losing the title by a tiny margin to the slower but smarter Lauda.

    I think the blazingly fast Prost was just as quick as anyone ever.

    The other thing – as noted by ‘Nigel (not that one)’ – is that he went up against the mightiest of intra-team competion and did quite well against them. Notably, Senna (88-89), Mansell (90), Lauda (84-85), Rosberg (86), Hill (93), Arnoux (81-82) and Alesi (91).

    I don’t think there’s been anyone else who had that type of in-team competition ever.

    To have done that well against such intense and mighty opposition puts him, surely, Top 5 All Time…Minimum!


    Yea, he only got half points for Monaco because they stopped the race. But they only stopped the race because they didn’t want a French driver to lose it!

    We all know Senna would have been past him in one more lap…and Bellof was catching them hand-over fist!

    So, you can’t have it both ways because instead of him getting 4.5 points for a shortened win he may have only gotten 4 points for 3rd.

    It was what it was.

  7. prelvuF1, 2 August 2013 14:59

    True Legend!!!

  8. michael klausmeyer, 2 August 2013 15:18

    prost was my first hero, when i became a formula one fan sometime in the nineteen-eighties…..he was just cool…..his supersmooth driving style was exactly what i enjoyed most on a race track and when i had my fun (unfortunately as much or even more frustration… best was fourth in the best available car) as a gt gentleman driver……you know the guys with the buck……
    prost simply didn’t sell himself good enough!…..i guess he wasn’t even interested in that……senna very much so….and human resources is not one of ron’s strenghts……so prost lost that battle……not the war, because he is still……looks like seppi
    might join him there this year……NUMBER THREE…..of the
    championship history…..
    even interested

  9. Rich Ambroson, 2 August 2013 17:10

    Great article, Karun Chandhok!!! I especially appreciated your mention of the Mexican GP of 1990. That was one of the most amazing races I’ve watched on the day it happened, as opposed to the great races I’ve seen bits of in historical footage. From 13th on the grid to win, and saving his tires while the competition shredded theirs.

    Good stuff!

  10. Daryl McGrath, 2 August 2013 21:47

    Brilliantly written article, capturing all the points which needed to be made.

  11. Boris Orf, 3 August 2013 04:26

    he was a brilliant driver and for me ever so slightly superior to the much mythologized senna, but unlike senna, he was a gentleman.

  12. a pompous old fart, 3 August 2013 08:33

    Damn right! And that’s without even going into the murky area of Senna’s ethics. I was never a Prost fan as such (I preferred Piquet) but I always recognised his sheer brilliance (not least because Nigel Roebuck so often told us – those of us not fortunate enough to be able to attend Grands Prix – about it.

    Good to see a current driver with a knowledge of his history. Congratulations Karun.

  13. Johnny, 3 August 2013 13:37

    Glad there are still people ho dont follow the Senna hype, good as he was, he was flawed but most people have seen to forgotten that. And the Senna movie made it even worse and the way they portraid prost was cringe worhty.

  14. Pat O'Brien, 3 August 2013 18:06

    I was a Prost fan before Senna. By the end of their pairing at McLaren I held them about as equal as two could be: Senna, who would drive over his dog if it were between him and the finish line, was maybe capable of the more spectacular drive (Goodwood) but was more apt to commit errors, and Prost, preternaturally smooth, could go fast without making it look hard. For anyone who doesn’t remember the era we have in-car youtube videos that illustrate the drivers’ styles. In my memory, this was the greatest rivalry in F1.

    Great article, Karun.

  15. Nick Planas, 3 August 2013 19:23

    Ah at last – someone else who can see past the Senna hype! I enjoyed watching them both – but the only driver I have ever seen make a (very) fast lap look as if he was cruising was Prost – I saw it twice with my own eyes, once at Brands Hatch in the Renault, and once at Donington in the Williams. The Donington occasion was memorable as my friend and I looked at each other as Alain “cruised” past and agreed this was a pathetic lap from him – then heard that on that lap he had gone a fair chunk quicker than Damon in the same car, and 1 1/2 seconds quicker than Schumacher & Senna, who had both looked very fast indeed. Such an economical driving style.

    I can also understand Karun, why you used to idolise Mario too – sheer class in every type of racing.

  16. Bill, 3 August 2013 22:47

    In other news: Luca di Montezemolo has had another outburst, and now attacks everything and everyone except Domenicali. He has gone completely mad. I hope to see an article on MS about the rather peculiar and rare public, pre-Todt era public outbursts at the scuderia.

  17. Steve W, 4 August 2013 08:24

    @GP, Here in the States, I watched the NBC Sports coverage of GP2 and Chandhok was commentating along with Will Buxton. I was extremely impressed with Chandhok’s input to the coverage. In my opinion, he certainly has a future as either a commentator or writer…

  18. mikelay, 4 August 2013 13:34

    Agree 100%.

    Prost will always be the tops for me. I watched F1 from 1980 and he always seemed sporting and gentlemanly in conduct as well as being the one to beat. So glad to see him at Brands Hatch in 85 and 86.

    I always enjoy Nigel Roebuck’s mentions too.

  19. Pat Kenny, 4 August 2013 19:46

    Prost certainly had very tough team mates (every time he won a world championship there was a world champion in the other car), albeit Rosberg and Lauda were probably past their peak during their time together.

    I have often thought that Prost chose his time of retirement well. Facing up to Senna again with the addition of fuel stops (with shorter qualifying type stints) would not likely have suited him at all. Against that, under the current rules he may well have been unbeatable.

    As a Senna fan, I am always amazed how Prost is not seen as one of the best in history. An interesting experiment would be to get already existing world champion rankings from people and ignore those who place Senna first. How much would this improve the ranking of Prost? Sad to say I am not sure it would improve as much as people might expect but I would be happy to be proved wrong.

  20. Trent, 4 August 2013 23:41

    Prost was indeed a gracious, ethical driver for much of his career. I remember when, through an error he openly admitted to, he collided with Piquet at Zandvoort in ’83, then claimed that he hoped that Piquet would win the next race as compensation – there are not many drivers who would wish such fortune on their rivals.

    I’m afraid, though, that I am in the camp that firmly believes that his legacy was tainted, permanently, by Suzuka 1989. How could it not be. Forget the Senna movie (it had an agenda, as Karun notes). Sure, Ayrton drove him to it. But Alain did it. And there can not be any doubt that it was as deliberate as Senna’s move the following year, or of Schumacher’s on Villeneuve at Jerez.

    Whatever great sportsmanship and fair play came before that day, for some of us the over riding memory of Prost’s career will, sadly, be that moment. What a shame – he really was much better than that.

  21. Mike Byron, 5 August 2013 04:21

    Bernie Ecclestone!!!!! Really!!!!! The sport was was far greater before Bernie that it is now. I am not blaming all of this on Bernie but the only improvements he has made is to the eaning power of the ‘insiders’, mainly him.

  22. Rich Ambroson, 5 August 2013 04:27

    I have to disagree with Trent re: Suzuka ’89. Senna’s line into the chicane was basically from the pitlane entrance, and if Prost wasn’t there and taking his line into the chicane, Senna would have gone straight on. As the one making the overtaking maneuver, it was down to Senna to make it cleanly, something he didn’t often do.

  23. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 5 August 2013 10:35

    Remember Alain had a wheel not properly adjusted during the pit stop at the 1984 French GP, which costed him another pit stop and Lauda’s victory.
    Mostly reemember his duel with Damon Hill at the 1993 British GP qualifying session, when they settled several consecutive fastest laps until Prost got the last one and the pole position.

  24. Terry Jacob, 5 August 2013 13:12

    Whenever Senna and Prost were racing closely together you could always rely on the fact that traffic resolve the matter . Senna would carve his way through traffic like a hot knife through butter . Prost ? Well , Prost would just wimp around. Not a man for close up and physical racing ………

  25. Richard Craig, 5 August 2013 15:55

    Excellent work Karun. I get the impression that admitting you’re a Prost fan is a bit like saying you prefer Slade to the Beatles!
    I always preferred Prost as he didn’t have that manic, unyielding, everybody-get-the-hell-out-of-my-way attitude that Senna did, and still managed to stay calm and a gentleman. Murray Walker always says how courteous he was to him.
    Sure, Senna was faster, but if anything that makes Prost’s achievements even more impressive against him.
    I, in fact, was so annoyed by the Senna movie’s hagiographic treatment of Ayrton (and demonisation of Prost) that I wrote a book about it – available *cough* at all good bookshops.

  26. Ray In Toronto Canada (Ray T (the Other One)), 5 August 2013 16:27

    Now that I think of it, I HAVE to place Prost ahead of Fangio on the All Time List.

    Here’s why:

    Fangio had submissive teammates who would ‘give up’ or ‘share’ their cars for wins or other points places.

    In addition, Moss – the one driver who historians point to as Fangio’s primary opposition/fellow great – drove in garbage cars until he got into the Mercedes.

    Moss – and let’s call a Spade a Spade – drove in the equivalent of Caterhams, Marussias and HRTs until 1955.

    Prost, on the other hand, had guys like Arnoux (who disobeyed Team Orders at the 1982 French GP), Lauda (who was interested in winning his own title), Mansell (who cost him dearly in 1990 World Championship while they were at Ferrari) and Senna to deal with.

    And didn’t Prost suggest to Dennis/McLaren that they bring Senna into the team?

    It’s this type of massive intra-team differece between Prost and Fangio that make me want to put the Frenchman ahead of the Argentine on the All Time List.

  27. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 5 August 2013 19:37

    Prost’s maturity was striking even in his first F1 season in 1980, but really shone in 1981 when he had some battles against Alan Jones. The Dutch GP comes to my mind because the strategy he used to control that hard-charger was something to never forget: taking the lead since the start, Prost kept a steady pace while Jones was unstoppable through the field in his way to second place, sliding and fighting the car as he reduced Alain’s advantage slowly with each lap. At about the middle of the distance he got Alain and passed him easily, so you would think there might be a problem in that Renault. But the following lap Prost regained the leading surpassing the Williams in the straight, showing a huge speed advantage, the distance between them growing fast now.
    It was clear Prost deception made Jones punish his tyres at the beginning, and there was none left in the Williams to return the hit. Amazing, no wonder the title in a car racing magazine at the time: “Prost, the Genius Boy” or the like.
    I think he was going to repeat the feat at he German GP, but he entangled with team mate Arnoux when lapping him and that was all…

  28. Rich Ambroson, 5 August 2013 23:50

    Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, thanks for discussing those battles with AJ. I was going to mention them as well, as anyone going head to head with Jones as Prost did at Hockenheim is clearly no pushover.

  29. Tony Geran, 6 August 2013 08:15

    Karun, spot on. I’ll never forget being amazed at the lap times he could turn out while looking slow, truly a class act in the Clark mould to me. I was lucky enough to be present at the Dutch GP in ’81 and while disappointed that my fellow countryman Jonesy couldn’t get the win, felt I was watching someone special with Prost.

  30. zantimisfit66, 6 August 2013 18:31

    Certainly one of the top two drivers of his time with Mansell not far behind but I don’t buy this “gentleman” stuff..and not just because of Frank Williams “all top drivers are bastards” comment. Anyone taking one Senna toe to toe in the same team, who was able to tuck Mansell up at Ferrari and who was able to manipulate the driver market to get himself into the Williams with a junior number two was no Mother Theresa. He worked the British motor racing jounos like a real pro when most of the other top drivers didn’t care or didn’t know how to. But no doubting his skill as a driver in an era of top competition

  31. David H, 7 August 2013 20:01

    Kudos to you Karun for saying how it is for you, given the emotions this engenders in many fans, even though none of us have your experience. If you see this thread of comments would appreciate your take on something I read, maybe by Nigel here in MS. And that’s that Senna would sometimes call Proust after he’d retired from f1 and ask about safety topics, implying that he’d outgrown the ‘rivalry’ differences they’d had. Are you aware of this and any idea why the moviemaker would chose to leave such out of movie?

    And ditto the comments above about you on TV. You’re far better than Will Buxton and many others for that matter.

  32. Ray In Toronto, Canada (Ray T (The other one)), 8 August 2013 11:57

    David H,

    That is covered in the Senna movie.

    The film, interestingly, ends with text that says Prost is on the board of directors of Senna’s foundation for underprivelaged kids in Brazil.

    I think the two set aside their differences well before the start of 1994.

  33. Victor Velkov, 8 August 2013 14:47

    Karun clearly knows the subject matter well.

    Lets hope we hear from the great man himself one day.

  34. Richie, 8 August 2013 21:03

    Regarding 1984 Monaco and the urban legend of “Senna would / should have won it”, there are some things that are somehow hardly ever get mentioned and I just want to set the record straight by writing briefly about them.

    1.) Senna made an error during the race and crashed heavily into the kerbs at the chicane after the tunnel. His Toleman bounced up in the air, it was quite amazing that his front suspension did not break right away on the spot indeed. Nevertheless, the Toleman team announced after the race that had it been carried on, Senna would have been forced to retire in some 2 laps because his front suspension was so badly damaged that he wouldn’t have been able to continue. Ironically, that red flag waved by Ickx didn’t deny him a victory but saved him from a DNF.

    2) Prost was slow because he struggled with the same brake problems that forced Lauda to retire earlier the race. The “Senna was so much quicker in the rain even in a Toleman” is therefore yet another urban legend spread by ill-informed fans.

    (to be continued)

  35. Richie, 8 August 2013 21:25

    3) Stefan Bellof, the tragically killed, brilliant young German was even faster than Senna, driving an even inferior car to the Brazilian’s Toleman. In fact, he was some 2 seconds quicker per lap than the Brazilian!

    4) It was never in question what would have happened had Senna been able to catch Prost. The Frenchman said right after the race that since his biggest title rival, Lauda had retired earlier, he was focusing on getting points safely hence he would have let Senna go anyways. He didn’t want his race to be in jeopardy by fighting with an overzealous rookie who regarding the WDC was a nobody that year.

    5) The “Prost made Balestre to stop the race in his favour” is yet another urban legend. The race was stopped because Ickx, who was Bellof’s team mate at Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship felt jeopardized by Bellof’s performance. As the Belgian was getting a massive salary from Porsche whilst Bellof was driving in the WSC series basically for free, Ickx felt that he had to save himself from the embarrassment of Bellof winning the prestigious Monaco race therefore he decided to red flag the race. Rumor had it that he tried to sell his actions in certain circles as acting like a good sport for his team and tried to secure the win for the Porsche powered McLaren, hence hiding his real personal motives. Nevertheless, Balestre was furious with him for not consulting with the other stewards before arbitrarily red flagging the race. His steward license got suspended and he kept getting criticism and bad press for months after the race.


  36. Richie, 8 August 2013 21:32

    So to sum it up, Senna drove a very good race, but he wasn’t the fastest on the track at all that day. Also he made a big mistake and never would have been able to win because of his terminally damaged suspension, whilst Prost had nothing to do with the red flag.

    The Frenchman is appallingly underrated by posterity, nevertheless I myself always have been and always will be a huge admirer of the Professor’s legacy, confidently regarding him as the greatest racing driver ever to have lived.


  37. Trent, 12 August 2013 03:40

    Several fair points but you appear to seek to downplay Senna’s ’84 Monaco performance a little too much.

    Senna’s drive was legendary the year it happened, not just after the Senna movie was made or after his passing. And for good reason – it was nothing short of brilliant.

    As, without question, was Bellof’s. Senna’s suspension breaking in ’2 laps’ is pure speculation, even if it was made by his mechanics as you claim. Bellof would not have won, regardless – he was later disqualified from this event.

    And Senna was, in fact, the fastest on the track that today. He had the fastest lap, which I believe is how these things are judged.

    I do agree that Prost is probably under rated thesedays, he was a supremely talented driver and, as his nickname suggests, a master tactician. But perhaps that is the problem – driving for the championship, and not for the moment, is probably not what wins fans. Prost was never a ‘fight to the death’ kind of guy, but the sport was richer for his presence in it all the same.

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