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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.