Formula 1’s skewed priorities, why Prost had the edge on Senna
Through his long years as president of the FIA, Max Mosley was a master of many black arts, not the least of which was occasionally to threaten all manner of swingeing change, so that when later he took a step back – to the stance he had planned to adopt all along – he came across as a picture of sweet reasonableness and, until they realised they’d been had once again, everyone responded with relief.
This is a well-established ploy for politicians and manipulators of every kind, and there’s no denying that in the short term – which is usually all that matters to these people – it works to some degree. Thus, as the tide comes in on the 2015 Grand Prix season, we find ourselves pathetically grateful that two idiotic ideas of the recent past – double points at the last race, and standing restarts after safety car periods – have been consigned to the bin from which they should never have emerged in the first place.
The game is also played with races, with the agenda of the world championship. Countries new to Formula 1, we are constantly told, are slavering, open cheques at the ready, to have a Grand Prix, and the inevitable consequence is that others – which have motor racing in their blood, but no government backing – may have to fall by the wayside…
We went through that endlessly, of course, with Silverstone and the future of the British Grand Prix, but after Donington Park had been needlessly torn apart a deal was eventually done, The Wing – some have a different word for it – built, and the race allowed to survive at some considerable cost to all save Bernie Ecclestone and CVC.
More recently, the target has been Monza – and if Monza should disappear from the world championship, accompanying it will be my racing soul. “I don’t think we’ll do another contract,” said Ecclestone last autumn, “as the old one has been disastrous from a commercial point of view. So it’s bye-bye after 2016…”
Recently his tone has been more conciliatory, but in any case we shouldn’t worry too much, because such as Azerbaijan – and apparently Qatar – are on the way.
No one gets more fun from scaremongering than Bernie, who passes up no opportunity to propagate the notion that in the face of hard cash tradition counts for nought. Federer fans will pray that he and CVC never get their hands on tennis: “Wimbledon’s history – we’ve had a better offer from Surbiton…”
Thus, who knows, we may ultimately finish up with a world championship where none of the countries actually involved gives a toss about motor racing, but each has a government willing to fund an image-repairing Grand Prix.
The irony in all this, of course, is that neither Ecclestone nor any of his cronies has ever lost sight of the fact that the core audience for Formula 1 remains in countries such as those the sport has chosen – for financial reasons – to discard, like France and, as now seems possible, Germany. That being so, races in far-off lands have been stuck with ludicrous start times, so that the bedrock of F1 support – Europe – isn’t inconvenienced by the need to get up in the middle of the night. Plus it helps the TV figures.
Presumably prompted by Jules Bianchi’s accident in appalling, near dark, conditions at Suzuka last October, there has now in some cases been a reversion to former schedules, and if we have to arise a little earlier most will consider that a reasonable price to pay.
Mosley may be gone now from one seat of power in motor racing matters, but the granddaddy in the art of draconian threat – BC Ecclestone – remains, for now at least, very much installed in the other.
Not so long ago it really looked as though that situation was at last about to change. CVC Capital Partners, the owner of Formula 1 – forgive me, I still struggle with the concept that anyone can own a sport – may enjoy the fiscal benefits that derive from Ecclestone’s deal-making expertise, but there is no doubt that they did not savour the adverse publicity resulting from his lengthy corruption trial in Germany last year.
Although the charges were eventually dropped when Bernie wrote a cheque for $100m, a belief remained that CVC now wished to have someone else at the helm, and the smart money was on Paul Walsh, formerly CEO of the drinks company Diageo, which last summer came within a whisker of becoming McLaren’s major sponsor.
Walsh has a genuine enthusiasm for racing, which is a good start, but more importantly he is consummately regarded in the business world, and was believed by many to be the ideal man to take over the running of Formula 1 – indeed, a statement to that effect was widely expected a week or so before Christmas.
Who knows what happened to change the mind of CVC’s Donald Mackenzie, but instead there came an announcement that, while Walsh – together with Luca di Montezemolo, late of Ferrari – was to become a non-executive director of the Formula One Group, 84-year-old Ecclestone had regained his position on the board (from which he had resigned before the Munich trial) and would continue as Group CEO.
An insider told me that emphatically this had not been the original plan: “For whatever reason,” he murmured, “Mackenzie bottled it…”
Be that as it may, at least for the time being Ecclestone was again confirmed in his old job, and – depending on how Formula 1 treats you these days – you were pleased, or you were not.
Even those resolutely on Bernie’s side, though, will in moments of candour admit to being dismayed by some of his proclamations to the world. In the past, after all, he has variously suggested that Hitler was not without his good points, that women should be dressed in white “like all the other domestic appliances” and more recently that he had little interest in attracting a young audience to the sport, preferring to concentrate on those who could afford a Rolex…
It’s a fact that Ecclestone has always relished controversy, long taken delight in shocking, but one has to wonder if ever he has paused to consider the deleterious effect of his more outré observations on what he has always loved most: the business.
Presumably he has – and, further, perhaps he has concluded that they have no effect at all: the deals, after all, continue to go through, do they not? But while entrepreneurs (and dictators) may find it easy to shrug such things off, major international companies are a different matter. One has long wondered at the monies lost to the teams in F1, in terms of potential sponsors who take a look at our sport in the 21st century and conclude that, thank you very much, it is not for them.
In 2014 Formula 1 went to Russia for the first time, and in December Ecclestone announced that the race had been awarded the title of ‘Grand Prix of the Year’. Not a great surprise, this – indeed it might have been predicted even before construction work began on the circuit.
“I think we can honestly say Sochi is one of the top three tracks in the world,” said Bernie, presumably with a straight face. “We are very proud of that, and what happened at the race – the way it was organised and the way it was received by everybody. Russia won the award because it was the best event of the year. I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but as long as I’m alive we’ll have a Grand Prix in Russia.”
I can’t speak from personal experience because I passed on trailing out to Sochi, but sundry colleagues and friends who were there offered a different view. “I hated it from the second I got there,” said an ex-driver, probably best left unnamed, “and, most of all, I thought the lowest point of the year was the smooching up to Putin. We present ourselves as apolitical – we can race in all these nasty places because we’re a sport, and not involved in politics – and then we go and play that game. It made me feel quite sick…”
So it did me, watching on TV, and numberless others, I’m sure. Ecclestone, though, remains unabashed. From his earliest meetings with Putin, he was moved to describe him as ‘a super guy’, and that’s not something you hear every day.
On the occasion of the Russian Grand Prix, in an interview with the newspaper Vedomosti, he went further yet. “Vladimir Putin is a first-class person, and Russia should be very proud of what he’s done and is doing. Ignore all this nonsense from America and Europe – it would be very nice to have him running Europe. He knows what he’s doing. He’s positive, and in the end he will succeed because I think all these silly things like sanctions are completely wrong…”
Do Ecclestone – or his CVC colleagues – ever pick up a newspaper, one wonders, or perchance watch the news on TV? Are they conceivably unaware of what is going on in Ukraine – or is it simply the case that they couldn’t care less?
Recently I read a book about Putin’s Russia, written by Peter Pomeranstev, and entitled Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Just the sort of environment in which F1’s power brokers flourish, you might think but, trust me, the book leaves one in no danger of confusing the Russian president with a first-class person, let alone a ‘super guy’.
Clearly, though, when required he is pretty good at the authorising of large cheques, and for Ecclestone and CVC nothing else appears to be of great account. Never mind the rubble; feel the roubles.
It was at Monaco back in 1979, at the Elf motorhome – provided by the French fuel manufacturer as a hang-out for the press – that François Guiter introduced me to a small and shy young fellow who was later to make quite a name for himself. “This one is special…” murmured the lamented Guiter, and as usual he was on the mark.
Now, 36 years on, Alain Marie Pascal Prost OBE has just celebrated his 60th birthday. He is still tiny – I’d warrant he hasn’t gained an ounce since retiring from Formula 1 in 1993 – and still quite shy, which I find not only endearing, but also somewhat remarkable in one of his achievement and experience. Only Schumacher and Fangio have more world championships, after all, only Michael more Grand Prix victories.
For my money, Prost is one of the half-dozen or so greatest racing drivers God has yet put on earth, but I suspect that not a few would take issue with me. It’s a fact that whenever racing fanatics get drawn into discussion about the relative merits of drivers in the post-war period, the same names – Fangio, Clark, Moss, Stewart, Senna, Schumacher – tend swiftly to bob to the surface, while such as Wimille and Ascari, Brabham and Rindt, are considered only later. For some, even Prost comes into this category.
I have no idea why this should be so. Just as, at Clark’s funeral in 1968, his father confided to Dan Gurney that he was the only driver Jimmy had ever really worried about, so Schumacher considered only Mika Häkkinen a true rival, and – for all their problems – unquestionably Senna felt the same way about Prost.
“For me Ayrton was the best there has ever been,” said Jo Ramirez, who worked with them at McLaren, and somehow contrived to remain a friend of both, “but there were days where Alain was clearly superior to him, and in fact Ayrton himself would admit it – in private! That was why, for all their differences, they never lost this tremendous respect for each other. They never worried about Mansell or Piquet or anyone else – they were in a different class, and they knew it. I remember that when Prost had a sabbatical, in 1992, Senna never stopped reminding us, ‘We’re just lucky that Alain isn’t driving, because if he had been, we wouldn’t have won today’.”
Steve Nichols, whose sublime McLaren-Honda MP4-4 took Senna or Prost to victory in all but one of the 16 Grands Prix in 1988, has similar memories of those days.
“I hated seeing the situation develop, because I liked both of them, but perhaps it was inevitable, and there was nothing anyone could do about it – not even Ron Dennis, the ultimate politician. These people are very intense, you know. Senna was like that in a very obvious, aggressive, way, but even Prost… yes, there was the sweet guy we all know, but underneath he was pretty goddam competitive! You don’t win four championships and 51 Grands Prix otherwise…”
No, you don’t, and although Senna will forever occupy a sacred place in the hearts of millions across the world, there remain those who champion the cause of his nemesis.
“During their years of racing together,” says Jackie Stewart, “most people thought Senna was the best, but I never did. Certainly he was quicker than Prost – than any of them – but there’s more to being a great racing driver than simply being quicker, and I thought Prost a much more complete driver. Every time Ayrton got in a car, he drove it at 100 per cent – he couldn’t do it any other way – but Alain always had something in reserve.
“Senna was much the more spectacular of the two, and of course that was why the fans loved him, but because he was always at the limit he made many more mistakes than Prost. Remember what Fangio said about the object of the exercise being to win the race at the slowest possible speed? Well, for me that was Alain Prost. I thought he was an absolutely brilliant Grand Prix driver, in the top handful of all time.”
As Stewart says, Senna was indeed more spectacular to watch, and not surprisingly this – going back to the days of Bernd Rosemeyer – has always scored highly with aficionados of Grand Prix racing. It’s not by chance that such as Rindt, Peterson and Villeneuve are remembered with such reverence and affection, for they – Gilles in particular – were so overtly working at the edge, and in times infinitely more perilous than today doing it without a net.
Their cars, it should be said, of course lent themselves to spectacle, for the phenomenon of aerodynamic downforce was in its infancy, and cross-ply tyres were far more amenable to induced oversteer: time was when to be sideways was not necessarily to be slow, as Jochen and Ronnie routinely showed us through a corner like the old Woodcote. We never saw Ayrton in cars like that, but still there was a fury about his throttle-stabbing style – most notably in qualifying – that stirred spectators like none of his contemporaries.
They were all, of course, blindingly quick – but so, too, were others, who came at the art of driving a Grand Prix car from a different angle. Clark, for example, could be spectacular if the mood took him: I remember being mesmerised by his opposite-lock slides in the Lotus 49 – a wayward car in its original guise – at Silverstone in 1967. But that wasn’t Jimmy’s habitual way. More usually, like Stirling before him, he was as smooth as you like, almost to the point of making you believe you could do this yourself.
Stewart was the same, and so – absolutely – was Prost. I remember watching qualifying with Denis Jenkinson at Monaco in 1983, standing at the entry to Casino Square. On a typically frantic afternoon Piquet and Arnoux and Rosberg hurtled past us, vying for the pole. A yellow Renault burbled by, as if on an out lap, and then – one minute and 24.8 seconds later – it burbled by again: ‘Prost en tête!’ the commentator yelled.
Jenks scratched his head. “Don’t understand it,” he said. “How does he do that?” In all my years of watching Grand Prix cars, no one ever made the driving of one look so simple, and to me that was artistry of the purest kind.
“Whenever I was on the track with Prost,” says Martin Brundle, “and he’d come past me, I was always struck by the fact that he was working at half my rate! He just made it look so easy…”
Perhaps because of that, Alain was belittled by some as a ‘coast and collect’ driver, even if very frequently he coasted faster than anyone else.
“Something I always enjoyed,” says Patrick Head, “was seeing the drivers’ characters come through on the track. A lot of them don’t really give any expression of themselves in the way they drive, but Alan [Jones] and James [Hunt], for example, were very much that way – when they got their heads down, stand back! Nigel [Mansell] was like that, too.
“It was different with Alain. I remember in the days when he was driving the McLaren-TAG turbo, very often we’d be way ahead of him at first, and think, ‘Where the hell’s Prost?’ He’d qualify second or third, make a rotten start, and you’d think, ‘Great, he’s ninth, that’s him out of the way’. Then you’d see that he was sixth, then fifth, fourth, third, and you’d think, ‘Ooohh, shit!’ That was very much him, wasn’t it? Absolutely relentless…
“When he was with Williams, if we were testing at, say, Ricard, he was never the slightest bit interested in how quick he was through Signes, for example. He’d say, ‘What’s the point in being quick through there, when you’re on the brakes immediately afterwards?’ Yes, it’s nice to say you go through Signes flat, but it really doesn’t make any difference – if there had been a long straight after it, that would have been a different matter.
“That was very much Alain’s character, whereas when testing with Nigel it was always important to him to show everyone that he was quickest, so at the end of the day he’d insist on taking the fuel out, putting on new tyres – and then going out to do a quick time. It would make everyone feel good, even if it didn’t actually achieve anything!
“With Alain, though, if he knew he was in good shape, that the test had gone well, it just wasn’t necessary – he was only interested in the race. He loved to test, to get the car right, but he didn’t need to show everyone where he could qualify, for the sake of it.
“Mind you, having said that, could he ever turn it on when he needed to! His pole lap at Barcelona in ’93, for example, was one of the great laps, half a second faster than anyone else – that car was dancing all the way round…”
There were many occasions on which Prost excelled in adversity. Think of Spa in 1986, when his McLaren was pitched into the air by an altercation between Senna and Berger at La Source right after the start. After a slow lap, Alain came in for a new nose, had the car checked over, and then resumed, stone last. In the course of the race, he shattered the lap record and finished sixth.
“Afterwards,” John Barnard said, “we found that the engine mountings were bent – that car was like a banana! How Alain drove it the way he did, I’ll never know. It was probably the greatest drive I ever saw by him – by anyone, in fact…”
Or what of the Mexican Grand Prix of 1990, when Prost qualified his Ferrari 13th, after endless problems in practice, then came through to win by half a minute, from team-mate Mansell and fastest qualifier Gerhard Berger? And he did it, what’s more, not on strategy, but by the simple expedient of passing the people in front of him. When he needed to, he could race as well as any man.
If a single drive by Alain sticks in my mind more than any other, though, it was one that did not give him so much as a point, at Suzuka in 1987. At the start of the second lap, running behind Berger’s leading Ferrari, he picked up a puncture – which meant running a whole lap very slowly back to the pits.
Although Prost’s position was clearly hopeless – it took him 22 laps to catch the next car in front of him – he drove as if the championship were on the line, and although Berger led all the way, Alain made up almost a whole lap on him, and twice lapped in 1min 43.8sec. The quickest lap by any other driver – Gerhard – was 1min 45.5sec.
Probably, too, he made fewer mistakes than any other great driver in history. I recall a test day at Donington in the mid-eighties, watching with Eddie Cheever. “Prost spun!” Eddie exclaimed at one point, then, a few seconds later, “Oh, so what? He’ll probably do it again in three or four years…”
Once Senna had joined Prost at McLaren in 1988, and their feud began to take hold, it was a tricky situation for one and all, not least the press corps. It’s a fact that Formula 1 was far less rarefied in those days, that drivers were not ‘protected’ by zealous PRs the way they are now and, as a consequence, their relationships with journalists tended be open and informal. Although I was closer to Prost than to Senna, I got on well with both until the day came when Ayrton told me I had to make a choice: “You cannot be his friend, and mine…”
As I said, I never understood how Jo Ramirez was able to keep the balancing act going. “Jo and I were friends,” said Prost, “and he was also a friend of Ayrton – it was very difficult for him to be in the middle. In the end he had to be more on Ayrton’s side, because he knew that wouldn’t be a problem for me, whereas he knew that if he was even a little bit on my side, he would be killed! I used to say to people, ‘By all means support Ayrton – but please don’t hate me!”
One of the fundamental differences between the two men was that Prost loathed conflict, while Senna thrived on it. It was Pierre Dupasquier of Michelin who, admiring Alain’s cerebral approach to motor racing, originally christened him ‘The Professor’, while the technicians of Honda, who revered Senna for his warrior mentality, came to refer to him as ‘The Samurai’. It was no more than inevitable that Ayrton, with his all or-nothing approach and exotic mystique, would become a cult figure, adored across the world as perhaps no other racing driver has ever been. Personally I was never a Senna disciple, for although I deeply admired his fantastic ability, I thought many of his actions on the racetrack unconscionable. That said, I could readily understand how he became – and will remain – a mythological figure in the sport.
The film Senna, which was released to great acclaim in 2010, served only further to cement Ayrton’s place in motor racing history – and to make a wider world aware of him, too, for the movie was seen by countless people who previously had known nothing of Formula 1.
The project was begun very much as a labour of love by folk who had venerated Senna, and is unashamedly a pure tribute to him. Nothing wrong with that, and when I saw it for the first time I much enjoyed it. At the same time, though, I was unsettled by how Prost was portrayed, notably by a grating American commentator who was around at the time, and whose words feature extensively. While Ayrton was presented as a near flawless human being, Alain came across as a Machiavellian presence in his life, devious and ‘political’.
It’s a fact that Prost could fight his corner if he needed to, but I didn’t think it a balanced picture of the state of affairs between him and Senna a quarter of a century ago. “You and I were there at the time,” a colleague said to me after the screening, “and that’s not how I remember it…”
Alain contributed to the film with extensive interviews, but when it came out he was advised not to see it. Eventually he did and, as his friends had anticipated, it upset him, feeling as he does that it is not a fair reflection of his life and times with Senna, with whom there was later a conspicuous rapprochement. “After I retired, and was not his rival any more, he was completely different with me,” Prost said. “We talked a lot, often about safety – and he even asked me to come back to racing, saying he was finding it difficult to be motivated…”
After retirement from driving, Alain bought the Ligier team, which ran – as Prost Grand Prix – for five seasons before being wound up at the end of 2001. Always up against it financially, and particularly frustrated by an unhelpful relationship with Peugeot – in F1 terms, surely the most limp-wristed manufacturer of recent times – he did not much enjoy the role of team owner. “Compared with being a driver, it was so hard I couldn’t believe it. Working 15 hours a day, not earning any money – and just getting criticised… It was not fun, no.”
Perhaps Keke Rosberg had a point: “I always wondered if Alain was doing the right thing, taking over the running of an F1 team. I thought he was probably too nice a guy to be doing that job…”
For quite a while Prost stayed away from racing, but early in 2004 I ran into him at a PR event somewhere, and asked when we were going to see him at a Grand Prix again. “I don’t know,” he smiled. “Sometimes I think I would like to, but I really have no plans in that way. I went to Barcelona in ’02, as a guest of Ferrari, but that was very close to the end of my team – maybe too close. I was planning to stay for the weekend, but at the end of the first day I got in the car, and went home!
“When you’re at a race and you don’t have anything to do, it’s really… not nice, you know. Also, I didn’t like the attitude of some of the French journalists towards me at the time – that’s why I said it was maybe too close in time. I thought I knew a lot about working in France, about business – especially in this environment – but I came to realise it was only 10 per cent of what I could have imagined! You know, I’ve thought about doing a book on that whole story, but probably I won’t do it because I have a good life again – and also because I think these people are worth nothing! I’m so much happier now, having stopped…”
Did he miss F1?
“No. At first I missed it a lot – it was the first year of not being involved in F1 for more than 20 years, but after that, no, I didn’t miss it – in fact, for a year I didn’t watch at all on TV.”
If it were offered – and if it were the right job – would he work in F1 again?
“Six months after closing the team, I would have accepted – I was missing it so much at that time. But now… I’ve had some discussion with different people, but at the moment the answer is no, 100 per cent. Apart from anything else, I don’t want to travel all over the place any more – I’m happy to be in Europe, and not too far beyond.
“The thing is, I don’t have the ego – I never did F1 because of ego. I don’t want to manage a team. Maybe in time something will change – perhaps I could be a consultant to a manufacturer or something – but it’s good to have a complete change of environment, and at the moment I don’t have the desire to work in F1.”
At the time that came across as pretty firm. Alain was in fine humour and, compared with the haunted figure at the helm of Prost Grand Prix, looked to have shed 10 years. What he wanted now was to have fun again, and the competitive juices were kept alive by participating each winter in the Trophée Andros ice racing series: even in his mid-fifties he was winning championships there.
These days, of course, Prost is back on the F1 scene again, attending some of the races as a consultant to Renault and others, an elder statesman of the paddock, if you like, in the manner of JYS.
In the course of 35 years around F1, he has had his elations and depressions, but I don’t think he has changed much, if at all. He was courteous and friendly back in 1979, and he remains that way today, dry sense of humour happily intact, but still with a willingness to speak his mind – as on the circumstances of Bianchi’s dreadful accident – where others dare not. I don’t ever recall his telling me anything that proved subsequently to be a lie, and there are not many in the paddock of whom I could say that.
“I did my time in F1,” Prost says now. “I did the best I could, and sometimes my image was bad. I didn’t really think I deserved that, but life is like a race, you know: sometimes you lose – and win – when you don’t deserve it…”
Salutations on your birthday, Alain. Racing is lucky to have you.
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