“Honestly, it’s very difficult for me to talk about Ayrton, and not only because he’s not here any more. He was so different, you know, so completely different from any other racing driver – any other person – I’ve ever known…”
Speaking now, more than four years after the death of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost is in an invidious position, for while the two are linked for ever, indisputably the best drivers of their generation, so also each was very much the other’s nemesis. That being the case, in discussing Senna, Prost cannot win, and Prost knows it. Come out with only kind words, and some will say that he sang a very different tune when Ayrton was alive; go the other way, and they will vilify him for daring to criticise a defenceless icon.
“That’s why I have always refused to speak about him,” says Prost “When he died, I said that I felt a part of me had died also, because our careers had been so bound together. And I really meant it, but I know some people thought I was not sincere. Well, all I can do is try to be as honest as possible.”
From the very beginning of Ayrton Senna’s Formula One career, back in 1984, his sights were set squarely on Prost. In a way it was inevitable, for Ayrton was a man of extraordinary intensity, one who needed to prove himself the best in all things, and at that time Alain was very much the king of the hill. It was their very first meeting that was to set the tone of their relationship down the years.
“I remember it very well. In the spring of 1984, the new Nürburgring was opened, and there was a celebrity race for Grand Prix drivers of the past and present, in Mercedes road cars. I was coming from Geneva to Frankfurt on a scheduled flight, and Ayrton was due to land half an hour before, so Gerd Kremer of Mercedes asked me if I would bring him to the track. On the way we chatted, and he was very pleasant. Then we got to the track, and practised the cars. I was on pole, with Ayrton second – after that he didn’t talk to me any more! It seemed funny at the time. Then, in the race, I took the lead – and he pushed me off the track after half a lap. So that was a good start…”
That year, 1984, was Senna’s first in F1, and his Toleman-Hart was not on par with the front runners. At Monaco, though, there was rain, and when the race was abandoned, shortly before half-distance, the rookie was right on the point of passing Prost’s McLaren for the lead.
“From the beginning, he looked good, although you can’t always tell for sure when a guy is with a small team. He drove a great race at Monaco, but in those days – when monocoques were far less stiff than now – it was quite possible to have a poor car in the dry turn out to be very good in the wet. Of course we all rated him, but with the reservation that sometimes a young driver looks quite good, but then joins a top team, and looks ordinary. There’s always some doubt until the guy gets into a quick car. With Ayrton, though, it was pretty dear he had a special talent.
“Something else people should remember is that, 15 years ago, there were a lot more very good drivers in F1 than there are now. For sure Ayrton did well from the beginning, but he showed nothing that was truly exceptional before Monaco. Monaco was the thing: after that everyone discovered him, and talked about him. Without that, it might have taken a little longer, but the impressive thing, as I say, was that he looked so good at a time when there were so many top drivers…”
Senna was also, from the start, no respecter of reputations, and that upset many an established star. After a single season with Toleman, he joined Lotus-Renault for 1985, brilliantly won the Portuguese Grand Prix (again in the rain), and was a front runner everywhere. But at Hockenheim, for example, he made a mistake at the Ostkurve, and when Michele Alboreto went to pass, Ayrton swerved left and right to keep him back. Back then such tactics were not embraced by the F1 community.
“Hmmm, yes, Senna was very tough in that way, from the start. Actually, one thing I really believe now is that it wasn’t so much a matter of being that tough as having his own rules. He had them, he believed in them, and that was it.
“He really didn’t know he was sometimes in the wrong”
“He was extremely religious, and he used to go on about that, about speaking the truth, about his education, his upbringing, and everything else. At the time, I used to think that some of the things he did on the track didn’t fit with all that, but now it seems to me he really didn’t know he was sometimes in the wrong. As I said, he had these rules, he played by them, and he wasn’t interested in anything else. Looking back, I really think he believed he was always in the right, always telling the truth – and on the track he was the exactly same way.”
It was not, however, until Senna became Proses team-mate, in 1988, that there were any problems between them. The year before, Lotus had used Honda engines, and Ayrton had established a deep relationship with the Japanese engineers. As he came to McLaren, so also did Honda. And one team insider puts it this way: “I tended to think of Prost as a McLaren driver with a Honda engine, and Senna as a Honda driver with a McLaren chassis.”
“Yes, I think that was a good way of putting it. My biggest problem was that I really loved McLaren, and wanted to do everything I could for the team. For my team-mate in ’88, it was a choice between Senna and Nelson Piquet. When I went with Ron (Dennis) to Japan, to meet the Honda people, I said that Ron should take Ayrton, because he was the more talented driver, and for me the team came first. If I was going back to the start of my racing career now, I would do it rather differently – I would concentrate on me and my job…
“In fact, I could have said no to Ayrton coming to McLaren. One strength I have is that normally when I make a decision, I don’t regret it, but, from my own point of view, on that occasion I definitely made a mistake!”
In the very first pre-season test they did together, in Rio, Prost saw that Senna was emphatically not doing this for the fun of it. “We were tyre-testing, just using one car. I did the first run, and he was then due to take it over. I came into the pits, and the mechanics began to change the wheels. I could see Ayrton there, helmet on, pacing around, waiting for me to get out, so I decided to stay in the car just a little longer. And he got furious, telling everyone, ‘It’s not fair, it’s not fair!’ Then I got out, and I was laughing. He was not…
“Actually, though, our working relationship through that first season was pretty good. The only problem was at Estoril, at the end of the first lap.”
It was a moment which will never be forgotten by anyone there to witness it. Down the pit straight Prost slipstreamed Senna, then ducked right to go by, whereupon Ayrton swerved towards him, putting him maybe six inches from the pit wall. Main didn’t lift, and emerged into a lead which he would keep to the end, but afterwards he made his feelings plain.
“That move in Estoril was very dangerous, and, yes, I was angry afterwards. I was right against the pit wall, and I really thought we were going to touch, and have a big crash — with the whole pack right behind us. I didn’t like it at all, and told him so, but, in a way, I can’t blame him for doing it, because he did always get away with it. How many times in his Formula One career was Ayrton sanctioned for that kind of thing? Never.
“Still, apart from that, the first year wasn’t too bad. On a few occasions he was quite tough and uncompromising with me, but we didn’t really have any other problems. And, in fact, he did apologise to me for what happened in Portugal.”
The pair had a staggering season in 1988, Prost scoring more points (105, from seven wins, and seven seconds) than Senna (94, from eight wins, and three seconds), but Ayrton claiming the driver’s championship, 90 points to 87, by virtue of the ’11 best scores’ rule which applied at the time.
“At the end of ’88 I was very pleased for the team – we were first and second in the championship, and I really wasn’t too upset that he won the title; I’d won it twice already by then, it wasn’t a problem.
“For ’89, though, I was worried about Honda. And I think my biggest problem was that I never had the relationship with them that Ayrton did. From the beginning, it was something I never felt I had under control. I wouldn’t have cared very much if they’d simply preferred one driver in the team but the way they handled the situation was very difficult for me, because Senna and I had very different driving styles.
“I never understood why Honda took his side so much. It wasn’t that I thought it was a question of the Brazilian sales market or the French market, or anything like that. It was more a human thing. I worked with Honda again last year now as a team owner and it struck me again: I think the Japanese just work differently. In a team, they always favour someone over the rest. I’ve heard it said about their motorcycle teams, as well.
“Let me give you an example. At one point in ’88, the last year we were allowed to run turbos, I asked for some specific changes to the engine to suit my driving style and we worked on it for two days at Paul Ricard. At the end of that test I was very happy – but at the next race, one week later, they never put that strategy on my engine.
“Then we went to the French Grand Prix – at Ricard – and suddenly the engine was just as I had wanted! You understand what I’m saying? Ayrton and I raced for two seasons together in the McLaren Hondas, and at both the French Grands Prix I was on pole position and won the race. Everyone said, ‘Oh look, it’s Prost in front of his home crowd,’ and that sort of thing. It was nothing like that; it was just that at those races I had something which enabled me to fight…
“Honda’s chairman admitted that I was right in believing that Honda was more for Ayrton than for me”
“Understand me, this is nothing against Ayrton, OK? Ayrton was very quick, and in qualifying he was much better than me – much more committed, just as I think I was when I was the younger driver in the team, against Niki [Lauda].
“Anyway, before the 1989 season I had dinner at the golf club in Geneva with Honda’s then chairman, Mr Kawamoto and four other people. And he admitted that I was right in believing that Honda was more for Ayrton than for me.
“He said, ‘You want to know why we push Senna so much? Well, I can’t be 100 per cent sure.’ But one thing he did let me know was that the new generation of engineers working on the engines were in favour of Ayrton, because he was more the samurai, and I was more the computer.
“So that was an explanation, and I was very happy afterwards, because then at least I knew very well that something was not correct. Part of my problem had been that Ayrton was so bloody quick, it wasn’t easy to know how much was that, and how much was Honda helping him. So after this dinner with Mr Kawamoto, I thought, ‘Well, at least I’m not stupid – something really was going on, and now I know the situation.'”
Whatever, the situation was not to improve. Quite the opposite, in fact. In 1989, the fragile relationship between Prost and Senna broke apart utterly, and that existing between Alain and McLaren was not a lot better.
“Until then, I never had a problem with anyone at McLaren, but ’89 was different My contract was due to expire at the end of the year, but Ayrton’s was not. Ron knew the future of his team was with Honda and therefore with Senna. He tried hard to persuade me to stay, but in reality he couldn’t keep both of us, and I told him in July that I would be leaving at the end of the season. In my opinion, he was not fair with me in ’89. We’re still very good friends, and, despite everything, I still even now think of McLaren as my team. But Ron knows my feelings about that period.
“At the time, I was completely disillusioned. After everything I’d done with the team, and for the team, I didn’t think I should have been treated like that. But at the end of the day, you know, Ron was trying to push his company to the front, and of course I can understand that a little.”
It was at Imola that the most bitter feud in motor-racing history took seed. Senna and Prost, as usual, qualified 1-2, a second and a half clear of the rest, and Ayrton suggested that they not jeopardise their prospects by fighting at the first corner, Tosa, on the opening lap: whomsoever got there first would keep the lead. Alain agreed. At the start, Senna led away, and at Tosa Prost duly fell in behind him.
Afterwards, I said it was finished; as far as our personal relationship was concerned, that was it.
Then, however, the race was stopped, when Gerhard Berger had a serious accident. On the restart, it was Prost who got ahead – but at Tosa Senna snicked by into the lead.
“Afterwards, he argued that it wasn’t the start it was the restart, so the agreement didn’t apply. As I said, he had his own rules, and sometimes they were very… well let’s say strange. It had been Ayrton’s idea, in the first place, and I didn’t have a problem with it. Afterwards, though, I said it was finished; I’d continue to work with him, in technical matters, but as far as our personal relationship was concerned, that was it. And the atmosphere in the team became very bad, of course.
“By the time we got to Monza, I was ahead of him in the championship, by about 10 points. But that race was the real low point between McLaren and me. Senna had two cars, with 20 people around him, and I had just one car, with maybe four or five mechanics working for me. I was absolutely alone, in one part of the garage, and that was perhaps the toughest weekend of my racing career. Honda was really hard against me by then, and it was difficult trying to fight for the championship in that situation. In practice, Ayrton was nearly two seconds quicker than me – OK, as I said, he was certainly a better qualifier than I was, but two seconds? That was a joke.”
In the race, though, Senna retired, and Prost won; by the time they headed off to Suzuka and Adelaide, the last two races of the 1989 season, Alain led by 16 points. By, now McLaren-Honda essentially worked as two different teams, which happened to operate out of the same pit. Once again, the two red and white cars were on the front row, both its drivers in defiant mood, Senna knowing he had to win, Prost making it clear he’d be no pushover.
“I told both the team and the press, ‘There’s no way I’m going to open the door to him any more.’ We talked very often, you should know, about the first corner, the first lap, and Ron always said the important thing was that we shouldn’t hit each other, we should think of the team. Well, as far as I was concerned, Senna thought about himself; and that was it. For example, at the start of the British Grand Prix that year, going into Copse, if I hadn’t moved three or four metres out of the way we’d have hit each other, and both McLarens would have been out immediately. That sort of thing had happened too often; I had had enough.
“As for the accident between us at the chicane, yes, I know everybody thinks I did it on purpose. What I say is that I did not open the door, and that’s it. I didn’t want to finish the race like that I’d led from the start, and I wanted to win it.
“I had a good car; I’d been very bad in qualifying, compared with Ayrton, and I concentrated entirely on the race. In the warm-up I was nearly a second quicker than him, and for the race itself I was quite confident, even when he started catching me.
“I didn’t want him too close, obviously, but I wanted him close enough that he would hurt his tyres; my plan was then to push hard over the last ten laps. As it was, he tried to pass – and for me the way he did it was impossible, because he was going so much quicker than usual into the braking area.
“I couldn’t believe he tried it on that lap, because, as we came up to the chicane, he was so far back. When you look in your mirrors, and a guy is 20 metres behind you, it’s impossible to judge, and I didn’t even realise he was trying to overtake me. But at the same time I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to leave him even a one-metre gap. No way.’ I came off the throttle, braked – and turned in.”
A year later the two were back at Suzuka, once again to settle the World Championship, and this time it was Alain who had to win. Although no longer in the same team, he and Ayrton had not in any way diluted the intensity of their strife. Prost, said Senna, had better not try to turn into the first corner ahead of him: ‘If he does, he’s not going to make it…’ In the event, at 150mph, the McLaren ran into the back of the Ferrari.
“Well, what can you say about that? After I’d retired we talked about it, and he admitted to me as he did to the press that he’d done it on purpose. He explained to me why he did it. He was furious with [FIA President] Balestre for not agreeing to change the grid, so that he could start on the left, and he told me he had decided that if I got to the first corner ahead of him, he’d push me off.
“What happened in Japan in ’90 is something I will never forget, because it wasn’t only Ayrton who was involved. Some of the people at McLaren, a lot of officials and a lot of media agreed with what he’d done, and that I couldn’t accept. Honestly, I almost retired after that race.
“He didn’t want to beat me, he wanted to destroy me”
“As I always said, you know, he didn’t want to beat me, metaphorically he wanted to destroy me – that was his motivation from the first day. Even in that Mercedes touring car race, back in ’84, I realised that he wasn’t interested in beating Alan Jones or Keke Rosberg or anyone else it was me, just me, for some reason.”
Right to the end of Prost’s career as a driver, that situation never changed. But on the podium in Adelaide in 1993, his last race, the two embraced, and it was as if, now that Alain was no longer a rival, Ayrton saw no reason for any more hostility. Prost was surprised by the gesture.
“Yes, I was – and also a little bit disappointed, to be honest. This will tell you something about Ayrton. In Japan, the race before, he won, and I was second. As we walked from the podium to the press conference, I said to him, ‘This may be the last race where we are at a press conference together, and I think we should show the people something nice maybe shake hands, or something.’ He didn’t answer me, but he didn’t say no, either, so I thought maybe he agreed. We went to the press conference and he wouldn’t even look at me.
“In fact, I’d even thought maybe in Australia we could exchange helmets – the last helmets we’d worn in a race against each other – but after Japan, I forgot about it, because he hadn’t seemed interested in any sort of reconciliation.
“Then we went to Adelaide, and finished first and second again. On our way to the podium afterwards, already he was starting to talk a little bit, and he said to me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I was very surprised! ‘I don’t know yet,’ I said. ‘You’re going to be fat,’ he said, and he smiled. Then on the podium he put his arm round me, shook hands, and everything. Why? Because now it was his idea, and it was on his terms. OK, in any case, that was nice. But that was Ayrton – if it was his idea, fine; if not, forget it.”
Later Senna would admit to a close friend that only after Prost’s retirement had he come fully to realise how much of his motivation had come from fighting with this one rival. Only a couple of days before his death, filming an in-car lap of Imola for Elf, he amazed everyone with a spontaneous greeting: ‘I’d like to welcome back my friend Alain – we all miss you…’ Prost was touched by that.
“In fact, after I’d retired we spoke quite often on the telephone. He called me several times, usually to talk about safety; he wanted me to keep involved with that, and we had agreed to talk about it at Imola. That weekend he was talking, talking, talking, about safety, and he was much softer than before for me, he changed completely in ’94. He seemed to me very down somehow, without the same power as before.
“We had this conversation on the Friday, and I saw him again on the Sunday morning after Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal accident, of course. I was with a lot of people at the Renault motorhome at the time. You know how Ayrton usually was he’d go from the garage straight to the motorhome, but that morning I was very surprised, because he came into the middle of all these people, which he would never normally do, just to get to me. We had a chat, and he was trying really hard to be nice, to be friendly.
“Ayrton was the best driver I ever raced against, by a long way”
“Then I saw him in the garage briefly. I didn’t want to disturb him, but I knew he wanted help, that he needed somebody. That was obvious. We were going to speak again the following week…”
Senna’s funeral took place in Sao Paulo, four days later, and Prost was one of many drivers in attendance. It was not a particularly difficult decision to take, he said, except in one respect.
“I knew I wanted to go, but Ayrton and I had such a history for so long that I didn’t really know how the Brazilian people would perceive it: would they be upset if I went, upset if I didn’t go, or what? The day after the accident, I was in Paris, and a good friend of Jean-Luc Lagadere (the chairman of Matra) called me. His wife was Brazilian, and I asked his advice. ‘I have my ticket ready,’ I said, ‘but what do you think I should do?’ He told me I should definitely go, that the Brazilian people would like that I didn’t have to be pushed – I already wanted to go – but he convinced me. And I know now that if I hadn’t gone, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.
“There was no hostility towards me in Sao Paulo at all – the very opposite, in fact. I’m still in contact with Ayrton’s family all the time; the day after the funeral, his father invited me to his farm, and we talked for a long time. And I see his sister very often, do what I can to help with the foundation.
“Ayrton was certainly the best driver I ever raced against, by a long, long way. He was, by far the most committed driver I ever saw. To be honest. I think the best race driver – in terms of really applying intelligence – was Niki, but overall was the best, by far. He very successful in every thing that mattered to him, everything that he set out to achieve for himself
“Actually, I think it’s not impossible that in time we might have become friends. We shared an awful lot, after all, and one thing that never changed – even when our relationship was at its worst – was our great respect for each other as drivers. I don’t think either of us worried too much about anyone else. And there were those times we did have fun together, you know. Not very often, but…
“He was just strange, you know. In 1988, I remember, we had to go to the Geneva Motor Show for Honda; it’s only 40kms from my house, so I asked him to come over for lunch first, and then we’d drive there together. He came to my house – and slept for two hours! Hardly spoke at all.
“Then, after lunch, we went for a walk, and I still remember our conversation clearly. I liked to talk to him: sometimes it could be boring if he was going on about something, but usually it was fascinating. Yes, I think maybe we could have become friends eventually. Once we were not rivals any more, everything changed.
“I look back on those days now, and think, to myself, ‘Jesus, what was that all about? Why did we put ourselves through all of that?’ Sometimes it seemed like a bad dream. Maybe because usually we were so much in front, it was inevitable that there would be problems between us, but why did it have to get so venomous – why did we have to live like that? I used to say to people, ‘You’re a fan of Ayrton Senna? Good, that’s fine – but please don’t hate me! It was the same with the press.
“The pressure was so high, so high… If we had to do it all again, I think I’d say to Ayrton, ‘Listen, we’re the best, we can screw all the others!’ With a lot of intelligence, it could have been such a good dream. Still, even as it turned out, it was a fantastic story, don’t you think? And I think, in a way, we’re missing a little of that today.”
Alain Prost was talking to Nigel Roebuck