Farewell to an artist

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108

Alain Prost’s retirement leaves Ayrton Senna a clear road

We used to have a sort of natural culling of drivers. We used to lose one or two a year and if Prost or Mansell had been killed, it would have been forgotten after a couple of races.”

There can be few motorsport enthusiasts who are not now familiar with those words, attributed to Bernie Ecclestone by two colleagues during an interview in EstoriI. I happen to respect both – Oliver Holt of The Times and Bob McKenzie of the Daily Express, and to hold their integrity in esteem. They are not the kind to manufacture such things.

Ecclestone, they claimed, then went on to say (mainly referring to Prost): “Some drivers just flit in and out to suit their own convenience.” He appeared to have his enthusiasm for the Frenchman under firm control.

No doubt those words will haunt Bernie, and those who recall his friendships with Stuart Lewis-Evans, Jochen Rindt and Carlos Pace will be well aware that the apparent insensitivity and brutality of them is not necessarily a reflection of his true feelings. Ecclestone likes to shock, and he admits that it was not a good time for the two writers to pose questions about the future of the sport over which he has ruled these many years.

The effect, however, was saddening, for in the scratty little paddock of Estoril a great champion announced his decision to retire, and prepared to walk away in circumstances which did not match his glittering career.

It is easy to think of Alain Prost as the man who, ultimately, preferred to quit rather than to face another bout with Ayrton Senna as his team-mate, and no matter how much all the parties deny it, that is the impression that remains. Few truly credit the idea that Prost decided to quit before Frank Williams began enticing Senna as his likely 1994 partner. Some, whose interest in motorsport dates back only to Nigel Mansell’s rise to true stardom, see Prost as a percentage player who was never prepared to lay everything on the line.

He is devious, we are told, manipulative. A political animal! We’ve heard all that too, mostly from Mansell and his disciples in the national media. As if any champions these days aren’t.

Perhaps he is. Perhaps not. You can only speak as you find. And I have always found him a perfect gentleman. A busy one, true, but always prepared to honour commitments, “A great champion prepared to walk away in circumstances which did not match his glittering career”, always courteous, and, usually, prepared to consider even the most difficult and probing questions.

His penchant for wearing his racing heart on his Nomex sleeve can be irritating at times, but in human terms it indicates a character which would much rather have things out in the open. In that light the characteristic becomes more endearing.

In his first season of F1, he annihilated John Watson at McLaren, yet was sensitive enough to remonstrate with a team joker when he saw him drawing critical cartoons of Wattie on the garage wall. The Ulsterman was going through a bad patch, and that seemed too much like kicking him when he was down. I always thought that an interesting index of the man.

In his years with Renault Prost was invariably among the qualifying pacemakers, and when Niki Lauda found himself paired with him at McLaren in 1984 and ’85, he was astounded. “I soon realised that there was just no way I was going to be prepared to go to the lengths he did in practice,” he would relate. Only some years later, when Senna joined him at McLaren, did Prost see life in such terms, too. If he stays around long enough, Senna too may experience that, for that is the way nature works.

I prefer to recall Prost as the man who twice (Silverstone 1988 and Adelaide 1989) had sufficient courage to withdraw from wet competitions. His reasoning has been well documented, and though personally I prefer the Rodriguez type of competitor, I admired his honesty on both occasions. I prefer to think of his drive to sixth place at Spa in 1986 when his McLaren had been damaged at the start; that day he drove balls-out with controlled aggression. Or his fight with Senna at Suzuka in 1989. That was the most electrifying battle I have seen in F1. Or his unnatural self-control in the early stages of the 1990 Mexican GP, as he held back and preserved his Ferrari and its Goodyear tyres before launching into the attack that would take him from 13th place to victory.

You don’t win 51 Grands Prix by luck; like any topline sportsman Prost has been totally adept at making his own, but there is a huge measure of rare skill in the mix too. With Senna he remains at the pinnacle of his profession.

The decision to quit, he said, came slowly during the season. “I think it is better to stop,” he said. “After all, I have to one day. It was hard to find the motivation for 1994. It has been such a hard season with the politics.” Don’t forget that at the start of the year FISA at one stage threatened not to grant him his superlicence, or Williams its entry, and at Monaco his penalty for an alleged jump start was little short of scandalous. “After 13 years in Formula One you sometimes have to make the decision to stop,” he said, barely audibly.

It saddened me that his enforced 1991 sabbatical – in marked contrast to Mansell’s decision to move to IndyCars – met with such little outrage, but then I have always suspected that his very smoothness has militated against him. Mansell and Senna have brawled in public, both in and out of their cars, and frequently exited races after inflicting mutual damage. By today’s standards of sporting conduct, that bash-and-crash mentality has elevated them to spectator favourites. Prost, on the other hand, with his Clark-like precision and control, was said to be boring to watch. Even on quick laps, he looked slow.

The one time I ever saw him drive dirtily, when he weaved at Senna in the chicane at Suzuka in 1989, the effort was lamentable. It was as if he had no idea how to pull a dirty trick. Most F1 drivers today are like the sort of yobs on motorways who block and brake test; Prost is in a minority prepared to give its rivals racing room, just like they used to in more glamorous days. His style compared with so many others was like pugilism compared to street brawling. I for one will miss the thrill of watching such artistry at firsthand.

Whatever the reasons, he has elected to leave at the top. In retrospect, though, it was an indeed ironic twist of Fate that blew his engine in Monza, and thus denied him the chance to check out with dignity at one of the world’s great circuits. Somehow, in Portugal, with Bernie’s acerbic comments muddying the waters, it all seemed so sordid.

D J T