An interview with the new World Champion
pIERGUIDO CasteIli wasn’t remotely interested in the scene outside the technical centre. The excited babble of 200 anxious pressmen and photographers at the gates of Fiorano left him cold. Alain Prost was about to have his first run in a Ferrari, but CasteIli had no intention of watching the run itself. Instead, he was off to watch the television screens. An intensely practical engineer, he knew the telemetry systems would tell him far more about the team’s new recruit than anything his own senses could take in out on the track.
After the Frenchman had completed two laps, CasteIli was tingling. After another five he was so excited he momentarily all but lost the power of speech. “We’ve had Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger, Roberto Moreno, Nicola Larini, JJ Lehto and Gianni Morbidelli in that car,” he enthused when his tongue finally began to function again. “And Alain Prost has a totally different technique to them all. It’s unreal! He’s smooth and progressive, and in two laps he’s already using the engine better than any of them!”
Prost himself admitted he was being very cautious on his first acquaintance with John Barnard’s innovative electrohydraulic gearbox and its fingertip operation. “The last thing I wanted to do was make a fool of myself in front of the Italian press,” he grinned.
lithe remark was typical of an essentially modest man, the depth of his emotion that day was a surprise after his unhappy mien throughout 1989. There was a hint of moisture about his eyes, and he bubbled with enthusiasm.
“You know, for me this is like being back for my first day at school. I feel like a little boy all over again. It wasn’t quite this way even the first time I joined McLaren, or when I went to Renault. Both times then I ran on my own at Paul Ricard, away from prying eyes. Here I just feel so excited!”
Close observers noted how much younger he looked, how the move from McLaren delayed initially after a childish squabble over releases between the British team and Ferrari had shorn five years from his face.
Two of my favourite motor racing stories concern Chris Amon and tricks People tried to play on him to check just how good he was. During one McLaren tyre test with Bruce Harre of Firestone, at an early stage of their relationship, Amon pitted for fresh rubber. As others distracted him, Harre had the same set Put back on, to see if the rookie really did know what he was talking about. Amon did a lap, pitted, and asked: “Er, Bruce, is there any way the boys could have put the same tyres back on? These certainly aren’t new.” When he switched to Ensign for the 1975 Austrian GP, Mo Nunn put on a notch more rear wing after Amon had Come in to extol the car’s virtues. To this day Mo is still stunned that Amon did
another lap before pitting to demand why the hell he hadn’t left the car alone . . .
At Fiorano, Ferrari always sets its cars up to understeer heavily during a new driver’s first stint. After only two laps, Prost was already in to ask for more front wing. Castelli was again impressed . . .
Prost himself is the first to admit he didn’t win his third World Championship in quite the manner he’d have liked, and that when it comes to the one-lap qualifying blast, he cannot match Senna. And he has an honest assessment of his overall 1989 performance, too. “It’s quite different, you know, because the people don’t understand how hard it is to race and work in Fl with all the problems, the stress and the danger. After 10 years in it, you don’t drive like Ayrton. He’s very motivated and I have to be very careful because my life is more important to me than the championship. His trouble is that because he believes in God, he thinks he can’t be killed. “Okay, one day like Suzuka I can prove
that I’m still there. I can be even quicker if I want. Every time I go into a fast corner I know that Ayrton is going to be one or two tenths quicker in it. I know that, but I don’t push harder because of it. It was my way of racing in 1989, because although I still enjoyed the racing, I hated all the pressure. It became more and more difficult because of the ambience in the team, but I was still there when I wanted to be, and some people don’t like that. I’m sorry, but there was nothing I could do about it.”
With those brief laps at Fiorano, and more the following day before the engine and gearbox problems intervened, he swept away the rancour of the season, the rancour that had led to that McLaren refusal to release him to Ferrari prior to the end of the year, and Ferrari to retaliate tit-for-tat by refusing to release Gerhard Berger.
The pairing of Senna and Prost was always going to be tricky. McLaren was Prost’s team, after all, yet Ron Dennis bent over backwards to accommodate his new charge. Sometimes, thought Prost, he bent too far. Yet they survived 1988 with reasonable cordiality, once strong words had been spoken following Senna’s Estoril attempt to squeeze Prost into the pit wall. Even before the start of the ’89 season, however, Alain was feeling aggrieved; he would conduct the bulk of the pre-season testing, only to have Ayrton turn up and slam in fastest time overall.
Despite that, they meshed well enough until Imola, where Prost departed post haste rather than vent his feelings after finishing second. As far as he was concerned, Senna had violated an agreement of his own suggestion, wherein neither passed the other in the first corner of a race. Senna denied ever making such a suggestion, but Marlboro’s John Hogan had been present at the time, and backed Prost. That was when Dennis made his first mistake of the year by calling a press conference at Monaco just to tell a sceptical press that there wasn’t a story. Alain and Ayrton really were good mates. Prost was riled again, but kept his silence, all the while pondering his future. Dennis, rightly, was getting edgy awaiting some sort of decision, and there was
plenty of subtle pressure to try and shake him out of his annoying prevarication. Then came Ricard and the long awaited announcement: Prost was leaving. McLaren wasn’t big enough for him and Senna, and Senna still had a year left to run on his contract.
“My relationship with McLaren has always been excellent,” said Alain. “It has been a very hard decision to make.” At the time it was true. Sure, there’d been an up and down run-in with Honda when he suggested Senna had a better engine in Mexico, but that had all been smoothed over. Senna was the reason he was leaving, and Senna alone.
He and Dennis continued to speak warmly of their friendship, and made it tantalisingly clear their working partnership might not be at a complete end. There were clear hints that they might work together with Prost running a McLaren B team, driving a McLaren lndycar, or even taking a year’s sabbatical and returning for 1991 once Senna had retired.
But there was a snag. Prost wanted to race in 1990; all he wanted to do in leaving McLaren was get out of the same working environment as Senna. Gradually that would become clearer to Dennis. At the time, Williams seemed the favourite to secure his services, and that was okay by Ron.
After Prost’s outspoken comments on the subject of engine management chips were aired fully in Motoring News in July, Honda’s feathers were further ruffled.
Taken to task and shown the offending interview, he calmly replied that he had been quoted exactly as he had spoken.
Around about then the relationship with Dennis began to decline as well. At Hockenheim Honda’s Osamu Goto spent some time assuring MN that Prost now understood that his driving style wasn’t suited to the RA109E’s poor low-speed performance, that Ayrton had realised this and had changed his to suit. It was intriguing that while Prost was Prost to Goto, who professed total objectivity, Senna was Ayrton.
And as it became clearer that Alain was moving ever closer to a Ferrari deal instead of Williams, Dennis came into the picture again, vehemently confirming Goto’s claim that Prost, a winner of 38 Grands Prix (27 of them for Mclaren) didn’t know how to change gear. Williams, to him, was less of a threat. Ferrari was a different matter altogether.
By Hungary Prost was feeling isolated within McLaren. “The stress was unbelievable,” he said later. “I had my worst year in Fl. I learned a lot, especially on the human side, like my friend Jo Ramirez, I still have a lot of friends at McLaren, but . . .”
At Monza came the final undoing of his friendship with Ron. There was all the hoopla about management eproms all over again, and then he gave away his trophy. Both Nigel Mansell and Keke Rosberg had urged him to speak out against the engine situation in Italy, rather than sit
tight ‘and be screwed for the championship’. Against his calculations, Prost did just that, and was hauled over the coals by Estoril, where he signed an official apology as Senna was urging Goto to fire him and Dennis was still seething after throwing his own trophy at Prost’s feet on the Monza rostrum, after Alain had passed his trophy down to the tifosi in a moment of ill-considered generosity. To Dennis, it had been tantamount to treason.
In both Iberian races Prost was an also-ran. Last year he dominated them, yet in his 1989 guise seemed no longer able to summon any fight. Senna, by contrast, was fighting every inch of the way for his second title. Going into Japan he had to win both final races, and few would have bet against him doing so, even though the mathematical advantage was the deflated Frenchman’s.
And yet. And yet in Suzuka the old Prost flared through, snatching the lead off the line and maintaining it under fearsome pressure right up until that dramatic moment on lap 47 as he and Ayrton went into the chicane.
Was his a deliberate move as he slammed the door prematurely on his team-mate? Prost would merely shrug at the suggestion, before responding: “To be very honest I was absolutely sure I was going to win, or it was going to end in an accident. I knew that Ayrton wanted to win absolutely and, you know, the problem with him is that he cannot accept that he cannot win, and he cannot accept that somebody might resist one of his overtaking moves.
“Before the race I said that this time I would not be leaving the door open, as I have had to do in the past. Look at Canada last year, or at the start at Silverstone this season. I had to back off there to avoid contact. Even in testing I’ve had to do that, like at Monza where we were a tenth apart until it came to qualifying, where he then found two seconds!
“That’s why this time I said no. This time I don’t open the door.
“Of course I’m very sorry it had to end like that, but if you have two drivers in Fl who drive like he does, that’s what will happen.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why Alain Prost has so hated 1989, for confrontation has never been his style. Nor has any sort of situation in which the truth becomes difficult to establish. An emotional, yet intensely honourable driver, he drew little pleasure from his third title, “save that he didn’t win it,” he will add in a telling aside. “You know, nobody saw the real Prost in 1989, and if I’m driving this way next year you can write me off. I won three World Championships with McLaren, but I can tell you I want to forget all about them. What I want now is my 40th GP win and I will be going for it in Phoenix. And now that I’ve driven the Ferrari, I am certain I can win the Championship again in 1990 . . . DJT