– Back from the brink of a breakaway series
– Prost’s self-sacrifice for the good of McLaren
When Max Mosley came to Suzuka in 1991, he was newly installed as the president of FISA, then the motor sport arm of the FIA. In short order, of course, he was to do away with FISA, and become president of the FIA proper, but in those early days his focus was on the sport alone.
In Japan he made a short speech, and its tone was refreshing, optimistic. Jean-Marie Balestre, his predecessor, had not been a universally popular figure, and many were glad to see the back of him. Mosley suggested that the difficult times were over, that a new era of cooperation was underway, and in a press conference later that day Ayrton Senna – who had suffered more than most at the hands of Balestre – volunteered an enthusiastic welcome to the incoming FIA president.
“Actually,” Max had said, “I don’t expect to spend very much time on Formula 1. It sort of runs itself, doesn’t it?” Went down very well with the audience, that did.
Three years on I was at the Williams HQ to interview Frank. We talked of many things, most notably the loss of Senna that season. Finally we came to the state of the sport.
“Formula 1,” Williams said, “was hijacked a couple of years ago by Max and Bernie, and that’s it. They’ll run it exactly as they want to run it, and we have to live with it. There’s nothing we can do about it…”
And for close on 15 years that was indeed the case. There were occasional minor insurrections, but fundamentally the teams were pawns on the chessboard, and treated as such. The powerbase of Max-and-Bernie became absolute, and in this they were aided immeasurably by the team principals’ resolute inability to agree between themselves – on virtually everything, it seemed.
This was the strongest card in the powerbrokers’ hands, for none knew better than they the power of unity. To that end, after all, they had been instrumental in the founding of FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) in the early ’70s. To that point each team had negotiated individually with circuit owners involved in the World Championship, and often they had been royally ripped off. After the formation of FOCA, Bernie did the commercial deals with the circuits (and later the TV companies) on behalf of its members, and in so doing made a lot of people rich beyond their imagining.
Come the late ’70s, FISA president Balestre was becoming increasingly unsettled by the burgeoning power of FOCA in general, and Ecclestone in particular, and made it clear he was not prepared to have the authority of the governing body compromised.
I have neither the space nor the inclination now to go into all the disagreements which precipitated what became known as the ‘FISA-FOCA War’, in the winter of 1980/81. There were sundry spats about technical regulations, but the one that mattered was far more fundamental: Balestre had had the temerity to claim FISA’s right to manage ‘the commercial affairs of Formula 1’, and that was not to be borne. FOCA, resenting efforts to clip its financial wings, declared its intention to secede from the FIA.
An elaborate, ring-bound dossier was produced, entitled, ‘The World Federation of Motor Sport Present (sic) The World Professional Drivers Championship’, in which were laid out elaborate plans for a ‘pirate’ series, including a race (to be run on May 2) in… New York! FOCA, the document said, already had written confirmation that 13 of the proposed 16 races would take place, with or without the agreement of FISA.
On the opening page was a quote from Frank Williams: “The split was inevitable. Under Balestre, FISA is no longer capable of administering professional motor sport”. That has a certain resonance just now.
If FOCA had a weakness, it was that not all teams were members, ‘grandees’ such as Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo continuing to stress their allegiance to FISA – it was at this time indeed that Enzo Ferrari began contemptuously to refer to the FOCA teams as ‘garagistes’.
“Which championship are you going to cover?” I recall being asked that question countless times. Would it be the official, FIA-sanctioned World Championship, with Ferrari (Scheckter, Villeneuve), Renault (Prost, Arnoux), Alfa Romeo (Andretti, Giacomelli), or the ‘World Professional Drivers Championship’ with Williams (Jones, Reutemann), Brabham (Piquet), Lotus (de Angelis, Mansell), and so on?
Early in 1981 the rebels even staged a race, at Kyalami, won by Reutemann, and not long afterwards Balestre capitulated. What he had failed to realise, though, was that this had been very much a final throw of the dice by FOCA, who had never – apart from anything else – had the wherewithal to put on its own championship.
In essence, the whole thing had been a complete scam, as Mosley, with much mirth, later recounted: “Dear old Jean-Marie – he thought we were serious…”
He did indeed – and he blinked first. Had he held his nerve, the course of Grand Prix racing history might have been very different, but as it was a face-saving truce was announced. FISA would have control of all technical and sporting regulations, but Bernie-and-Max couldn’t have cared less about that: what mattered was that the commercial rights to F1 were officially awarded to FOCA, which is to say BCE. In the fullness of time FOCA was disbanded: BCE, of course, remained.
Fast-forward 10 years, and the rebels took over the palace. Mosley became master of all he surveyed in the Place de la Concorde, and Ecclestone, too, was seconded into the FIA, as ‘Vice-President of Marketing’, or some such. The picture was complete, the takeover absolute. Max-and-Bernie, as Frank Williams said, had indeed ‘hijacked F1’.
Fast-forward another 10 years, and the FIA sold – for 100 years, no less – the commercial rights to Ecclestone. At the time there were, to put it mildly, grave misgivings about this within the F1 community. For one thing, the sum paid by Ecclestone appeared fatuously low for so lucrative a commodity; for another, what guarantees were there that Bernie wouldn’t ‘move it on’ to persons with perhaps other than the sport’s best interests at heart?
Ah, said Mosley, he had thought of that, and thus inserted in the contract what he called ‘the Don King clause’, this a reference to the infamous boxing promoter renowned for, shall we say, putting money first. “If Bernie wants to sell the rights,” said Max, “he’s perfectly entitled to do so – but the FIA reserves the right to say no if we think it wouldn’t be in the interests of F1.”
That being so, there was some surprise when it was revealed in the spring of 2006 that Ecclestone had indeed sold a controlling stake in his Formula One Group to CVC Capital Partners Ltd, a private equity company of the kind sometimes horridly referred to as ‘asset strippers’.
This development did not go down well in the F1 community, for although Ecclestone remained as chief executive of the new operating company, Alpha Prema, and continued to do the deals with circuits and TV companies, ultimately he was no longer pulling the strings. CVC had borrowed massively (primarily from the Royal Bank of Scotland) to finance the buyout, and from now on the F1 teams would do much of their racing to service the company’s debt.
They didn’t like that, and they still don’t. In recent times the overwhelming requirement of a circuit wishing to run a Grand Prix is that it should have the wherewithal – invariably in the form of government subsidy, from a tourist budget, or whatever – to pay an outlandish fee. Thus, European and North American races, which don’t have this facility, have begun to disappear from the F1 schedule, to be replaced by countries – usually Middle or Far East – which can stump up whatever is required. And if those places have no cultural links with F1 (and, if crowd figures be any guide, apparently damn all interest in it), well, hey, never mind, feel the width…
The F1 teams, though, do mind. Very much. Over the weekend at Silverstone, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh put it this way: “It would be nice to think we could have a championship involving countries we might actually want to go to, rather than simply places than can fork out $60 million or whatever, wouldn’t it? Places where our sponsors want to sell things…”
Of late the World Championship has become absurdly skewed towards Asia, and for no reason other than gelt – not so much for the teams, the people who actually provide the product, but for CVC Capital Partners, effectively now the owners of F1.
That’s one beef – and another, of course, is that the teams have long felt aggrieved that their slice of the financial cake, while greater than it used to be, is still only 50 per cent, the other chunk going to… well, you know where the other chunk goes. This dissatisfaction was referred to, albeit quietly, in Luca di Montezemolo’s speech at the inaugural press conference of FOTA in Geneva at the beginning of March.
Ah yes, FOTA. The Formula One Teams Association. It was formed late last summer, and di Montezemolo and (whisper the name) Ron Dennis were instrumental in its instigation. Perhaps RD’s involvement served to exacerbate the antagonism displayed by the FIA towards FOTA from the start: the mutual loathing between Mosley and Dennis goes back to the dawn of time.
Following the Lewis Hamilton ‘Liegate’ affair in the spring, Ron has been cruelly airbrushed out of F1 – but Luca emphatically has not. In Geneva, as he spoke of the need for the three corners of the triangle – the FIA (Mosley), FOM (Ecclestone), FOTA – to work together for the betterment of the sport, his tone was courteous but firm. FOTA might be new on the block, but was not to be taken for granted, not to be treated with disdain.
Almost too predictably, Mosley at once proceeded down that very route. For him, and for Ecclestone, the formation of FOTA was of course a potential nightmare, for they, having formed FOCA 30-odd years earlier, were only too aware of the power unity can provide. Now the gamekeepers in F1, they had long relied on a policy of ‘divide and rule’, and very well it had served them: these team principals, you know, can never agree about anything…
Therefore no opportunity was missed to demean FOTA, to roll grenades into its midst, to seek ways of promoting intra-team dissension. There was the controversial diffuser affair, which could have been swiftly resolved, but was left hanging in the air until scrutineering at Melbourne, the opening race, thereby guaranteeing protests and appeals. But if Max thought this might splinter FOTA harmony, he was wide of the mark. There were indeed differences of opinion, but the rope held.
Overwhelmingly the main topic of debate, though, has been to do with cutting costs, with Mosley’s insistence on the imposition of a budget cap, together with the proposal that those teams electing to adhere to such a thing would be allowed their own set of extremely advantageous technical rules.
This last addled suggestion unsurprisingly provoked outrage in FOTA ranks. As far as budget caps were concerned, one or two (notably the financially stretched Williams and Force India teams) were in favour, but on the subject of ‘two-tier rules’ there was unanimous, unequivocal condemnation.
Historically Mosley had often taken an extreme position on forthcoming F1 rules, so as to give himself leeway, to appear later to be conciliatory – and yet to achieve what he’d sought all along. It was a ploy which had served him well, and he duly conceded the two-tier rules idea should be scrapped.
On the question of budget caps, though, he remained implacable, and this caused a schism between himself and the teams. The cap itself appeared capable of endless modification – it started off at £30m (to be introduced next year), but then little extras were added, like driver fees and hospitality and ultra-pricey personnel, to a point that £30m had become close to £100m for 2010 – to be reduced to £40m in 2011.
Quite how this could have been policed, in any meaningful sense, remained unclear. And it was hardly surprising that the teams, many of them owned by major manufacturers, did not welcome the idea of outsiders coming in to inspect their books. Their argument – surely a valid one – was that they did not need protecting from themselves, thank you very much. They were well aware of what they could afford and what they could not, and they had no more desire than anyone else to see their businesses fail.
Come to that, they had no desire, either, to make hundreds of people redundant because someone – and someone with no investment whatever in F1 – was presuming to tell them how much, or how little, they could spend.
Suddenly, after countless years of resolute elitism in F1, where only the best were to be countenanced, where every team had to design and build its own cars, there was emphasis on small teams not yet in F1, but aspiring to be there. All sorts of outfits, some established, some not, were invited to put in entries for the 2010 World Championship, and many did, encouraged by the promise of all manner of financial help. This suggested a compassion previously undetected in the powers-that-be, and many observers were confused by the motives behind it. There was obviously an agenda – there is always an agenda – but what could it be?
The charitable suggested that Max-and-Bernie were shoring up the sport for an era of iron rations, when the financial meltdown had driven away all the major manufacturers, when some teams had to be around, so as to allow F1 to survive. Those of a more cynical disposition, on the other hand, murmured that Mosley had always had it in for the manufacturers, and this had only increased since the News of the World affair last year. Such as BMW, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota, after all, had issued statements suggesting that, in the interests of the sport, perhaps the FIA president should ‘consider his position’.
Max did, of course, do that very thing, and swiftly he concluded that he wished to retain it. At the same time, however, he said it had always been his intention to retire when his current term of office expired in the autumn of 2009, and he reiterated that, whatever happened, he had no intention of seeking re-election when that time came. Yeah, right.
It was hardly surprising that Mosley should have been angered by the paper’s revelations of his leisure activities, and he lost no time in going to law, eventually winning his case. Within the sport, though, there is a belief that his success against the News of the World has left him not only simmeringly resentful towards those who tried to force him from office, but also believing that now he could walk on water. In the absence of a current Concorde Agreement, after all, he had carte blanche to do as he wished.
On went the battle through the spring and early summer, and Mosley’s attitude remained breathtakingly high-handed, his FIA press releases dictatorial and patronising in tone. This did nothing to assuage mounting ire within FOTA, and one began to wonder quite what he was trying to achieve: was he actually attempting to induce a fight to the death?
At Silverstone it appeared that that time had come. Having been given more than one early deadline to enter for the 2010 World Championship, the teams finally did so, but eight of them – FOTA stalwarts all – said their entries were conditional upon their finding the rules acceptable. Further talks between the two parties did not ease their concerns, but Mosley declined to change the deadline. Remove the ‘conditional’ status from your entries, FOTA members were told, and we’ll sort it all out later. They declined to take him at his word, and at a meeting on June 18, the day before D-Day, resolved to go it alone.
This, clearly, was not the response Mosley had been anticipating, and he lost no time in announcing that the FIA would immediately instigate legal proceedings against the parties involved. Given that he had said a few months ago that, should some teams decide to form their own championship, the FIA would of course sanction it, that seemed a curious response. In the Silverstone paddock on the Friday morning he spent an hour in Ecclestone’s motorhome, the two of them discussing who knows what.
Elsewhere in the paddock, though, the mood was remarkably light-hearted, even buoyant, relieved. “We’ve done it!” one team principal said to me, and out it all poured, this resentment felt by so many for so long.
A selection of comments. “We never know what the rules are going to be – one minute it’s KERS, the next it’s budget caps and two-tier rules…
“We’ve got a calendar we – and our sponsors – hate, and why? Because the only thing that matters is the fee involved – to pay off CVC’s bloody debts. That means charging ridiculous ticket prices – and at half the races nobody turns up to watch. What’s the point in trying to force-feed F1 to people who don’t want it?
“This sport has become more and more unhealthy, and it’s time something was done – nothing will change as long as this lot are running things…”
In the course of interviews, Mosley described FOTA’s actions as ‘posing and posturing’, and referred to certain of its members as ‘loonies’. So that was helpful. “How can he try to make an agreement with ‘loonies’?” someone playfully said. “Surely that would be irresponsible…”
Jackie Stewart (another bête noir of Mosley’s) said that the teams should concentrate their time and effort on trying to win the British Grand Prix. “I think they should devote themselves to that, and not say one word to Max this weekend…”
Should let him stew, in other words.
Mosley left Silverstone on Friday evening, and originally there had been no plan for him to return. As it was, though, he was back on Sunday morning, and by now in a far more conciliatory mood, attempting to make light of some of the more inflammatory remarks he had made before, and suggesting that, no, no, the FIA didn’t want to get involved in litigation; it simply wanted to talk. The points at issue between himself and FOTA were minimal, really, and could easily be resolved…
That morning, though, I got the firm impression from FOTA people that it was too late for talk, that that ship had sailed.
I also became aware that FOTA was way further down the line with its plans than might have been expected, that new teams like Prodrive, once hopeful of entering for the FIA World Championship, had now joined the rebel ranks, that work had begun some little time ago to put together a FOTA championship, should it ever come to that.
It should be remembered, of course, that a breakaway championship had been contemplated not so long ago, in the days of the GPWC, the association of manufacturers involved in F1. But it was by no means as potent as FOTA, and duly died a death after the wily Ecclestone succeeded in persuading Ferrari, and then Williams, to defect.
Prior to that, Mosley had expressed little fear of a breakaway. “I’d say that the chances of the GPWC putting together a series are sort of nil, really,” he said. “On the other hand, the F1 teams are all professional, and they will go to whichever series gives them, and their sponsors, the best return. At the moment that’s F1, by a margin, but there’s nothing to say it always will be…”
Indeed not. The idea of a breakaway remained in the back of many a mind, and following the GPWC episode all driver contracts stipulated they were contracted for ‘F1 or a substantially similar series’.
From the banners in the Silverstone grandstands – ‘Go FOTA, Go Away Mosley’ was among the more polite – and countless blogs, the clear evidence was that public support was squarely behind FOTA, and we shouldn’t have been surprised.
Martin Whitmarsh talked with enthusiasm about how a FOTA Championship schedule might look. “We’d obviously be happy to have a couple of races in Asia, but it’s vital that we get back to North America. Montréal is tremendously important, obviously, but we must have a race in the US. I think we need to show some humility – race there for nothing for five years, if necessary, go out ahead of time and do promotional work, have the cars on show in Times Square, tell the Americans, ‘We know you’re not that interested in us at the moment, but we want you to love us’. We need to be in countries where our sponsors can sell their products, rather than places that can pay the earth, but couldn’t care less about F1…”
Many suggested, not without some justification, that inevitably Grand Prix racing would be weakened if FOTA went through with its plans. Divide one strong championship, they said, and you end up with two weak ones: look what happened when the CART/IRL split occurred in 1996, they went on, and they had a point.
Then again, look what happened to Indycar racing at the end of 1978. Since 1956 it had been run by USAC (United States Auto Club), but for years there had been mounting dissatisfaction with this administration, leading to the founding of CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). Every major team, save one, chose to go with the new organisation, and in ’79 two championships were run.
After a single season the USAC Championship withered away, while CART was off on a roll, highly successful for 20 years thereafter, until greed and vested interests weakened and finally killed it.
It was John Howett of Toyota who first had the courage to suggest there was a problem with the FIA more fundamental than budget caps, two-tier rules, and the rest of it: at the root of the dispute was a deep dissatisfaction with the governance of F1.
Hardly insignificant was a statement from the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) a week before the British Grand Prix. ACEA had discussed the situation in F1 at a meeting in Brussels, and concluded that, ‘The current governance system cannot continue.
‘ACEA has come to the conclusion that the FIA needs a modernised and transparent governance system and processes, including the revision of its constitution, to ensure that the voice of its members, worldwide motor sport competitors and motorists are properly reflected.
‘The ACEA members support the activities and objectives of the Formula One Teams Association to establish stable governance, and clear and transparent rules which are common to all competitors to achieve cost reductions, including a proper attribution of revenues to the F1 teams, in order to deliver a sustainable, attractive sport for the worldwide public.
‘Unless these objectives are met, BMW, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Toyota, along with the other teams, are determined to find an alternative way to practise this sport, in a manner which provides clarity, certainty of rules and administration, and a fair allocation of revenues to the teams.’
I read this, and immediately thought back to what a Ferrari man had said to me a few weeks earlier: “If Mosley thinks he can bring down Luca di Montezemolo like he brought down Ron Dennis, he’s making a big mistake…”
You will hardly need me to remind you that Luca is extraordinarily well connected. Among ACEA’s members, apart from the five companies already mentioned, are Fiat Group, Ford of Europe, General Motors Europe, Jaguar, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Volkswagen and Volvo. It’s a pretty comprehensive list.
By the time of race day at Silverstone both Mosley and Ecclestone were clearly back-pedalling, and with some vim. Max smoothly said he wished to talk to FOTA, that he was sure an agreement was possible, indeed close at hand, while Bernie offered a new and novel interpretation of his colleague’s proposed budget cap: “I sympathise with the teams in a lot of ways – nobody wants to be told how to spend their money. I say that, providing they commit to the championship for at least five years, they should spend what they like…”
Perhaps what bewildered me most about this entire affair was that Ecclestone allowed Mosley to take things so far down the line, for the situation threatened Bernie’s business very seriously, and normally he has been touchy about that sort of thing.
Bernie’s final words, before leaving Silverstone, were that he had given more than 35 years of his life to F1, and ‘would not let it disintegrate’.
That seemed to signal the end for his long-time cohort, for it was clear, while there remained some chance of FOTA’s entering into a future in the FIA World Championship, there was none whatever so long as Mosley remained president. Too much arrogance, too much patronising, too many opaque happenings and decisions… and all for way too long. The teams had had enough, and only regime change would do.
Two days later Mosley defiantly announced that he might well stand for re-election, but a day after that, following a meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council, it was announced that he would be standing down – and that there would, after all, be a unified FIA World Championship in 2010. The question of a calendar acceptable both to FOTA and CVC presumably remains to be addressed.
So, as Mosley had required the head of Ron Dennis in April, now his own is – at last – on a FOTA platter and it is not impossible that Ron, together with virtually everyone else in F1, has raised a glass or two.
Seventy or so years ago the celebrated diarist James Lees-Milne wrote this: ‘It became clear he was a man of overweening egotism. He did not know the meaning of humility. He brooked no argument, would accept no advice. He was overbearing and over-confident. He had in him the stuff of which zealots are made. He was madly in love with his own words. It could be a terrible day, I fancied, when they ran away with him, and took the wrong turning’.
Lees-Milne was writing of Oswald Mosley. On recent evidence it would seem the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Keep a diary, they say, and it will keep you. Well, I’ve never done that, as such, but over time I have maintained a journal of sorts, and periodically look back on where I was, and what I was doing, on this date years ago.
Thus, in 1959 I was in my last term at prep school, vastly excited at the thought of going abroad (in the summer holidays) for the first time; in 1969 I was a fan in the Casino Square grandstand at the Monaco GP, to which I’d travelled with Page & Moy; in 1979, by now a Formula 1 journalist, I was at home, there being a five-week gap – whatever was Bernie thinking? – between the Grands Prix at Monaco and Dijon.
As for 1989, I was at Silverstone for pre-Grand Prix testing, and there spent a couple of hours in the McLaren motorhome, chatting with Alain Prost. Ordinarily Prost, the supreme test driver, wouldn’t have been available for that length of time, but as we talked the rain beat steadily against the windows. He had been out in the McLaren when it was dry, then briefly in the wet, at which point the team pushed the car into the garage, pending a change in the elements.
I was in the pit when Prost climbed out of the car, and he walked over to shake hands: “Come to the motorhome for coffee – 15 minutes?”
At that time McLaren were in the midst of a tumultuous period – not the first, nor the last – and Alain was at the epicentre of it. By now he was into his second season as team-mate to Ayrton Senna and, although narrowly in the lead of the championship, was close to the end of his tether. In Montréal a few days earlier he had started from pole, but retired after only a couple of laps when a front suspension pick-up point pulled out of the monocoque.
In 1980, his first season in F1, Prost had become accustomed to McLaren failures of that kind – it was one of the reasons he controversially left for Renault – but by now the team’s reputation was of the highest, and there was shock in the paddock when the cause of his retirement was revealed.
Alain himself wasn’t too concerned about it, however: “Something like this can always ’appen, you know…”
What he was concerned about – and very much so – was his team-mate, and it says everything about ‘different times’ that he spoke about it freely. Had this been 2009, an ‘instant’ interview (rather than one formally organised weeks earlier with PR staff) would have been out of the question – and even if it had been granted, assuredly someone from the team would have sat in, tape recorder on, a constant reminder to the driver that he should not stray from ‘the message’. Somehow I don’t think Alain Prost would have appreciated the modern way of doing things.
Already, though, he was beginning to understand that the world was changing. “It’s a big problem, isn’t it?” he sighed. “These days you can’t tell anything true without starting a big polemic…”
We were, however, still a couple of decades away from debate, scandal, controversy about whether or not a driver had – gasp! – used the F-word. When he felt the occasion warranted it, after all, Senna would use it – and with some abandon – in press conferences, and it slipped occasionally into Prost’s conversation now.
He was, as we all knew, trying to come to a decision about his future. In 1984 he had rejoined McLaren, as team-mate to Lauda, and they got along famously, as was also the case with Alain’s subsequent team-mates Keke Rosberg and Stefan Johansson. During this time he twice won the title, and McLaren became emphatically ‘his’ team. They adored him, and he them.
After the 1987 season, though, the TAG-funded Porsche F1 programme came to an end. McLarens were in future to be powered by Honda engines – and with Honda came a new driver, one who had worked with the company at Lotus, and established a special rapport.
He was not just any driver, either. Once the forthcoming Honda deal had been settled, in 1986, Ron Dennis had put the question to Prost: ‘Who do we take – Piquet or Senna?’
When I once asked Gerhard Berger to define his ideal team-mate, he didn’t hesitate: “Simple – any guy who’s three seconds a lap slower!” It may have been a frivolous Berger response, but it also contained an element of truth. On that basis a more self-serving driver than Prost would on this occasion have gone for Piquet, a top driver, yes, but patently not as good as he.
As it was, Alain went for Senna: “It was simple,” he sighed that day at Silverstone. “Already he was obviously better than Piquet – which meant that he would be better for McLaren. I’ve always put the team first – and I think Ron would agree with me on that.”
It was a brave decision by Prost, you could say that – and not one which Piquet, in the same situation, would have taken. Indeed, when threatened with it at Brabham four years earlier, he had taken steps to deal with it, as Bernie Ecclestone later told me. Candidly.
“The first time I saw Senna in a car,” Bernie said, “I just knew – that’s why I had him under contract before anyone else. I’ve still got the contract he signed with Brabham. And when Nelson found out, he broke the habit of a lifetime and actually spoke to a sponsor! He rang Tanzi at Parmalat, and said, ‘Bernie’s thinking of taking another Brazilian – bloody stupid, we’ve got a market already, better to take an Italian because we’ll never get on, there’ll be fights in the team and people’ll get injured…’ Tanzi said to me, ‘Don’t take Senna – we’ve got a good team already’, and I said, ‘The guy’s bloody good – he’s already quicker than Nelson, I’ll tell you that, and that is why Nelson doesn’t want him.’ Years later I saw Tanzi at an airport somewhere, and he said, ‘You were right about Senna, weren’t you?’
“You know how it is with top drivers – they run teams, don’t they? I mean, Ron didn’t run McLaren, for Christ’s Sake! Senna ran McLaren – and Lauda and Prost ran it before he got there. Same with Brabham: Piquet ran it, not me – and anyone who’d been his team-mate would have been in trouble. But he knew bloody well that if Senna had gone to Brabham, it would have been him who was in trouble…”
Well, quite. And there can have been no doubt in Prost’s mind, either, that in opting for Senna as his team-mate, he was going to make life much more difficult for himself. Ayrton was, after all, ultimately quick.
That was one thing, however. Prost was an adult, and well able to cope with it: “Ayrton, over one lap, is the quickest driver I’ve ever seen, no question”.
What disturbed him much more was the feeling that he – and he alone – was constantly in Senna’s sights. Ayrton wanted to beat everybody – of course he did – but Alain was overwhelmingly the major source of his motivation.
In a way that was only to be expected. When Senna came into F1, in 1984, Prost was the king of the hill, and that was still the situation four years on, when they became team-mates.
“Here, testing, I’m happy, working with the team, doing a real job,” Alain murmured, “but it annoys me that I’m doing this, or promotion work, while he’s in Brazil, having holidays, then coming back with a fresh mind. He wants to test only when it’s something new and important. Same in the winter – he goes home for three months…
“The main problem, though, is that at the races the atmosphere is… awful. I’ve been here for six years, trying to build something, to have a good relationship with everybody. I know from the outside McLaren looks a little… rigid, but honestly it hasn’t been like that. At the moment, though, I don’t enjoy it – at all. Why? Simple – I don’t trust Senna.
“At Imola we were on the front row, much quicker than the rest, and Ayrton proposed that we didn’t fight at Tosa [the main overtaking spot] on the first lap. To avoid risk for the team, OK? I agreed. We had the start, and he led, and I didn’t challenge him. Then Gerhard [Berger] had his accident, and the race was stopped.
“Now we had a new start, and this time I beat him away. We got down to Tosa – and immediately he passed me! After the race I was so angry that I thought it was better not to talk about it, but then in Monaco he denied he had ever proposed the idea! Fortunately for me, someone else had been there when he said it, so then he admits it – but says he didn’t break his word because it had not been the start, but a restart!
“Not honest, you see – and I can’t live in an atmosphere like that. It scares me, if you want the truth, because I know how dangerously these situations can develop – I cannot forget what happened with Villeneuve and Pironi…
“I was a close friend of Didier, and even more so with Gilles. And the week before he died [after being cheated of his win at Imola], Gilles called me several times. He was so angry I couldn’t believe it. Even now, I shiver when I think about it. He said he was never going to speak to Didier again – and they were team-mates, like Ayrton and I. When Gilles’s accident came, I was absolutely sure why it had happened. And I tell you, something like that is not going to happen to me.
“You know the biggest difference between us? I work first for the team – and he works first for him…”
Those words came back to me a few days later, at the French Grand Prix. Although Prost told me that he had not definitively made up his mind to leave McLaren, by the time I left Silverstone that day I would have bet my house on it, and at Paul Ricard he duly confirmed it, prompting Ron Dennis to say this: “You might not believe it, but Alain, if anything, has taken this decision more for the team than himself. We’ve always been friends, and we’ll remain friends”.
RD was right. Much as he might have wished to carry on with the two best drivers in the world, a continuation of Prost-Senna was realistically out of the question, and he knew it. He also knew that Ayrton, five years younger than Alain, was the man on the rise – and the man adored by Honda.
When Prost years later looked back on that time, he remembered it with relief, and sadness: “I felt like I was being pushed out of my home. But, you know, I’m still here.”