Too good to be true?

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Michael Schumacher is closing fast, but Alain Prost remains the most successful Formula One driver ever smoothness personified behind the wheel, a gent out of the cockpit. But it was this mix, believes Paul Fearnley, that left him high and dry in an age of the anti-hero

This was no time or place to make your Formula One debut Even ‘Happy’ Jacques Laffite wanted out. He’d planted his Ligier on the outside of the front row, yet reckoned everybody should pack up and go home there and then. The only man who had gone quicker than him agreed with him — in principle. But Alan Jones is a no-nonsense sort of bloke: Buenos Aires was bloody long way to come not to race.

The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was in flux, again, railing against this and that, and being railroaded into the other. There was plenty of bleating about the crumbling track in Parque Almirante Brown, but eventually the field was shepherded onto the grid.

‘Down’ in 12th, almost a second faster and five places ahead of his team-mate, a young man viewed these machinations in the same calculating manner that would become his trademark, his strength, his weakness. Sure, he could see the track was in no fit state, but boy, oh boy, he wanted to race. He’d skipped Formula Two for this. He was in a hurry. A measured hurry.

For this was the time for a cool head in a hot climate. An inch off line and you’d be in the boonies. Plus there were a lot of het-up guys ahead. The crowd had gone ape when ‘Lole’ climbed aboard his Williams. You didn’t get that in F3.

A 24-year-old Alain Prost made up four places on that opening lap, his first in F1. Smoothly slicing, not slipping, not sliding, not skittering. But then one of his car’s aerodynamic skirts began to disintegrate. The McLaren M29, an update of Gordon Coppuck’s Lotus 79 facsimile, verged on the oh dear when everything was au point. Now, with what little ground effect it had leaking away, this balloon, surely, had been pricked. There might indeed have been some deflation in the cockpit, but there was no outward sign of panic. Instead Prost adapted and metronomed around as fast as he felt comfortable. Which is to say fast enough for a distant sixth.

Brazil was even better. He finished fifth despite another melting pot of oozing Tarmac and sabre-rattling. His late-race dissection of Riccardo Patrese’s Arrows during a 10-lap dice displayed staggering maturity. No wild, all-locked-up dives, just a parrying, jinking assessment Followed by a neat, swift kill. Immediately confirmed by his fastest lap — on lap 38, of 40, in broiling heat, around the old Interlagos, which curled and twisted like electric-flex ‘spaghetti’.

Speed, savvy and stamina. Sensation.

Already the mechanics, as is their straight-talking wont, were taking the rise out of John Watson. He was McLaren’s supposed number one — a man heading towards his 100th GP — yet he was being made to look a novice by a novice. Frost sprung to the Ulsterman’s defence, had a quiet word, told the guys to back off. There is no reason to doubt part of him was genuine about this, but how big a part? Was he empathising or patronising? A bit of both? Difficult to tell. If there was though, a disingenuous whiff surrounding him, it was made pungent by others’ jealousy. That was what caused them to gag. He was so damned good, you see. And it was all so effortless. Jackie Stewart-like. And he bit his nails. Jimmy Clark-like.

But he couldn’t be that capable and that nice, could he? Probably not, no. Like most things Alain Prost, however, the good would be understated, the bad overplayed. Already, in the eyes of some, he could do no right for doing wrong.

*****

This was no way to make your Formula One return. Three-time champion back on track should have been a positive note on which to kick-off the 1993 season. Incredibly, FISA made Prost feel wanted only in the sense that Interpol were desperate to meet with Carlos the Jackal. Max Mosley, the sport’s president, had had the brass neck to write to Prost’s latest employers, Williams Grand Prix Engineering, to ask if they thought the Frenchman, a driver with 44 GP wins and 699.5 points (net) to his name, was a fit person to receive a Superlicence. Okay, so Max was fuming over some verbal bullets Prost had loosed off at F1 during his 1992 sabbatical — but come on!

Prost was called to account, whereupon his lawyers pointed out he had been a private citizen when he made those remarks. He was out of FISA’s legal reach then, but boy, oh boy, they made him pay. Made him miserable. Made him realise he didn’t need this anymore.

‘Unhappy’ Alain wanted to pack up and go home as early as round three, after his seven-stopper second place during Donington’s deluge. As he attempted to explain the myriad niggling problems he’d experienced during the race, it dawned on him nobody was listening. Senna, whose brilliance had shone through the gloom, barely feigned interest before pointedly asking Alain if he would like to swap cars. It was cruel. The truth can be. Publicly at least, Senna was still in control of F1’s most fractious relationship.

The only place Prost felt comfortable that year was when wrapped in Williams’ cocoon. Frank and Patrick were getting it in the neck too. They’d sent their entry in two days late. And rules is rules. This piffling clerical oversight put them at the mercy of the other teams — remind us again why we should let you line up in South Africa, etc. Max rode to their rescue, but then used this ‘saintly’ deed as a stick with which to beat them throughout his anti-gizmo crusade.

More than ever, therefore, the utilitarian factory in the shadow of Didcot’s cooling towers became a citadel. Those on the inside were privileged to witness first-hand a year-long Prost master class; those on the outside, though, could not, or chose not to, see it. Handed demonstrably the best car by Adrian Newey and Patrick Head, and placed alongside an inexperienced team-mate — once-bitten-twice-shy Nigel Mansell had stalked off to Indycars rather than face ‘The Professor’ again Prost found himself in a lose-lose situation. Few appreciated his wiles, his wins, while many gloried in his frustrations, his failures. Professionally, he rose above it; privately, he hated every minute of it.

It was all still intact: the unruffled, unerring speed, the uncanny ability to do just enough – how that could grate sometimes, even with his fans – but would Senna have gone any faster in the same car? Probably. True, Prost had enough in reserve to respond, but would Senna have beaten him to the title even so? Probably.

At the height of their McLaren frat spat, the Brazilian had proved always willing to leap onto the next level of risk. On the days when Senna was better, he’d be gone; on the days Prost was better, he knew the Brazilian was never going to let him go, no matter what.

When Prost took Senna off at Suzuka in 1989, he did it hairdresser-style, at 50mph. In fact, he didn’t even take him off. Only he could keep it on the island when ‘crashing’. When Senna took Prost off at Suzuka in 1990, he did it harum-scarum, at 150mph. Only Senna could have taken them so far off.

And that was the difference. Both men had been pushed to the ultimate driving sanction by the depth and intensity of their rivalry, but only one of them had carried it off with any conviction.

Despite his unsubtle, foot-hard-in thwack, the bulk of the sympathy was always going to land at Senna’s door, for he was the racers’ racer, the all-or-nothing qualifier who made his car dance, the quicker man who had been robbed the previous year. Prost, in contrast, was the thinker, the man who won races at the slowest possible speed, they said, the devious one who crossed the talent divide by poring over data and fiddling with springs that went up in iddy-biddy 25lb increments. Who cared if Senna used Prost settings initially? It was minutiae versus maximum attack. No contest.

And so what if Prost scored 12 fastest laps compared to Senna’s six in their two years together – Senna outscored him 26 poles to four.

And it went deeper than statistics. When Prost piped up, he was whingeing; when Senna chimed in, it was a cri de Coeur.

It was easier to like Senna, his heart was on his sleeve. To admire Prost was akin to being in a secret club, required a bit of effort – even though his heart was so obviously in the right place.

Prost fans would carefully construct their case: was it Prost who almost put his team-mate into the pitwall at Estoril in 1988? Was it Prost who manoeuvred Derek Warwick out of a drive? Was it Prost who struck a deal with a driver from another team to compromise his main rival’s race? Valid point piled upon valid point.

But all Senna fans had to do to bring this edifice tumbling down was point out that their man was the faster. And Prost fans, being Prost fans, knew this to be true. And it hurt. There was no answer to that speed, that messianic commitment.

Ah yes, but didn’t Prost come so very close to finding the answer? Okay, he basically gave up on qualifying, but is it wrong to shed your weaknesses to concentrate on maximising your strengths? How else are you to deal with such a situation?

Imagine you are Alain Prost, the world’s best driver. Until, suddenly, you are not. Now you’re only the world’s fastest human faced by a God-given talent. There are days when you feel puny, crushed. Yet somehow you win seven times to his eight in 1988. And somehow you beat him to the title in 1989. There are days when you look him straight in the eye and feel the strength rise up within you — and you do for him, in equal equipment. Just like that. And to do this, if your devil is in the detail, then so be it.

And who could blame you for baling out after two years? It must have felt like 10. At least. Nobody else could’ve stuck it.

And how you stuck it to the critics who said you were running scared. How you moulded Ferrari in your own image. It didn’t last, of course. It never could, pre-Brawn, pre-Byrne, but while it did, you were in your pomp. Even Senna was worried, saw you as an equal.

It is for 1990 that Alain Prost should be remembered: the Mexico charge, the bewitching drive at Jerez, the sheer slog of pulling the Scuderia around, the innumerable race distances in front of empty, soulless grandstands.

He seemed stronger, yet strangely more vulnerable, than he had ever been. He didn’t call impromptu press conferences to bemoan his fate, or make grand sweeping gestures, he simply knuckled down and punched over and above his weight.

But why, oh why, did he let that chink of light shimmer down the inside at Suzuka’s first corner? He’d nailed the start, another Jerez appeared on the cards. But then he eased left, cracked open the door — and Senna put his boot against it.

It was as if Prost knew what was coming. A kind of closure. He had lost the title, but won the war. Senna felt he had won the war, too. And so he had — for they had never been playing to the same rules of engagement. They’re still not.

Ayrton has gone, his glittering memory a swirl of myth and legend; Prost is wrestling with the realities of life at the tail of the grid. It is clear he will never receive the adulation of a Senna, or a Schumacher, or a Mansell, masters of understeer never do but, in his defence, he never wanted it. Not to that level.

He wanted to be competitive and maintain his dignity. That such a simple concept should seemingly be beyond the ken of the many is their problem, not his. He is not free to cast the first stone (he wouldn’t want to) but, by and large, you would have to say he achieved both aims with an understated style.

Alain Prost: saint or sinner?

Neither. A winner.

A votre sante, Monsieur Prost.

*****

John Watson

McLaren team-mate (1980)

“I was at his first test with McLaren, and you could tell by the time he had got to the end of the pitlane by the way he changed gear, the way he used the clutch that he was comfortable in the car. This was the job he had been born to do.

“My first impression of him was: small guy, crooked nose, crooked teeth. He was self-confident but not arrogant – it’s just that he was used to winning.

“He got on with the car better than me in those first two races and, immediately, the team considered him to be their saviour, their future. But I don’t think he’d really grasped the effect of ground effects. He could deal with the car as it stood, but no more. And I don’t think you could’ve expected any more from a rookie. But the team listened to him, not me.

“There was no politicking between us, though. It was the team that was politicking; Ron Dennis and John Barnard were hovering on the sidelines, and the team, in its then-form, was fighting for its life.

“That season I felt like I was Alain’s big brother. At Kyalami, he clipped the kerbs at The Esses and went in hard. By the evening he was in a lot of pain with his wrist. It was me who took him to hospital. And it was me who told the team the next day that Alain wouldn’t be driving for a while.

“A very similar thing happened at Watkins Glen. He had a big shunt in practice and the session had to be stopped. I went to see him in the medical centre, nobody else bothered, and that is where he told me he’d had his last race in a McLaren [for a while].

“On a personal and professional level, I had no problems at all with Alain. He’d some maturing to do, but wasn’t particularly political – the team was doing that for him.

“He stalked his experienced team-mate, like young drivers do, but that’s normal. I had no problem with him. There was no resentment. He just took his opportunity; my disappointment lay with the team.”

*****

Niki Lauda

McLaren team-mate (1984-85)

“When Alain joined McLaren alongside me, I’d prepared the whole car. Then, when John Watson didn’t sign his contract, the door was open for him. And I had done all the work to this perfect car!

“I didn’t like the turbos. You had all that horsepower for one lap in qualifying and then would run with 600bhp in the race. It was stupid. It’s why Alain outqualified me.

“But nevertheless, when it came to race experience, I would have the edge. For the first four races I had tried to match him in qualifying. He’d go quick and I’d go quicker. Then he would go faster still. In the end I just decided, ‘Sod it! What he did in qualifying was his business; I would work on the race set-up.

“Which meant in the race itself I was always ahead of him. As soon as he realised what I was doing — around mid-season — he started working methodically and learning about set-up. That’s why he became a threat towards the end of that year. Before that, I’d start further back, catch him up, and win a couple of races. The next year, although I managed to win one race, at Zandvoort, he was stronger: better in qualifying and could match me in the race. His weakness was now his strength. He had learned by watching me.

“We got on professionally and were capable of working together, but he did once piss me off when I asked him what wing set-up he had on. He told me one thing, but I took a look and it was completely different. I asked, ‘Are you joking?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry, I changed at the last minute.’ By the end of that year, I thought, ‘Sod it, I’m not telling him a thing.’

“He had speed but he was intelligent enough to make the car work for him. He became a perfect driver in terms of performance.

“I hated having him as a team-mate. I had this perfect car, and then this French pain-in-the-ass arrives and blows me away. If he hadn’t turned up I’d have gone on for another few years.

“But he was quicker and younger and I thought, ‘Why waste my time here?’”

*****

Steve Nichols

McLaren designer/engineer (1984-89), Ferrari designer (1990-91)

“Alain was one of the least political drivers I have ever worked with. That year [1990], if anything, it was Nigel Mansell who was attempting to play politics.

“Prost was very quick, quicker than Nigel, better in every respect, especially in developing the car. He didn’t speak fluent Italian, like everybody said, but he knew enough to get him by. Nigel didn’t, and that was a problem — more for himself than anybody else. He needed a reason for why Alain was better: he spoke Italian and, therefore, had ingratiated himself with the team.

“Nigel saw me as Prost’s man. I can see why, we had come over from McLaren, but why would I work with one half of the team to the detriment of the other? Nigel didn’t want to tell me a thing. He just wanted to work with his own race engineer.

“In testing, he always wanted to run light, be fast, set a time and go home. He knew the Italian media and fans liked a fast driver, that they would get behind him. Prost’s race engineer used to have to force him to fit some quallies on and do a time. Throughout all of this, Prost wanted to work like a team.

“In 1991, when Ferrari gave Alain the bullet, he had two problems: he told the truth, and he told it to the press. He was not the least bit devious. In fact, if he had a fault it was that he was too upfront.”

“I was Senna’s race engineer at McLaren. We had a good relationship. I didn’t see him socially but, professionally, we hit it off. But I’d have to say that, if either of them had to be deemed political, it was Senna: it was usually Alain reacting to something Ayrton had done.

“Prost was just a decent bloke, never a superstar in his actions. He was a multiple champion, but when we arrived at airports there was never any of that straight-to-the-front-of-the-queue sort of thing — he would stand with the rest of the lads, laughing and joking. When Niki beat him to the championship, he was pissed off, but that did not stop him coming down to the disco to celebrate.”

*****

Damon Hill

Williams team-mate (1993)

“As somebody had followed his career from a spectator’s perspective, I was a huge admirer of Alain’s style: the epitome of economy, an artist of a driver.

“As a team-mate, I found him to be thoroughly fair and sportsmanlike. Every driver is political it’s not possible to ignore that side of it so I think it is unfair that Alain is regarded as being political. It was part of his character to put himself in a position to win as many races and championships as possible. That is what the job is all about. Every driver tries to do it, it’s just that not many are as good at it as Alain.

“It was clear that I was the number two driver – I knew my place. I was there to be as competitive as I could be and learn. There were a couple of occasions when it was frustratingly close, at Magny-Cours for instance, where I think I could have beaten him. But when you have got a big advantage over the other cars, the last thing you want is have your two drivers fighting it out. It happened to me when I was with Jordan at Spa in 1998.

“The Williams situation was a bit unusual in that, although I was a rookie, I knew a lot about the car, having done most of the testing. But Alain didn’t plug me for information. He pretty much did his own thing. I’d say my car behaved like this, jiggled in that corner, whatever; he’d pause, then say, ‘Yes, mine did the same’. He played his cards close to his chest. I didn’t get too much out of him in that respect. But why should he give anything away? He was like most drivers I have met in that respect.

“He was very methodical and detailed. He worked very hard at it as all great drivers do. His focus was on the details.

“I guessed he’d retire at the end of the year. He’d had some good moments, but I think he knew he had driven better, that he didn’t have – or the year didn’t have – quite the same intensity as previous years. Not that he confided in me; that was just the impression I got.”