The best of enemies

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Prost versus Senna: the grudge match to beat them all.
And the seeds were sown in 1988
By Nigel Roebuck

If ‘charisma’ is an overused word in today’s world, so also is ‘feud’. As a shuddering glance at any soap or reality TV show will confirm, there is apparently a thirst for controversy and dissension which can barely be slaked, and in sport, too, we appear to thrive on it. Any show of irritation is hyped up, and we are fed an endless diet of rubbishy slogans like, ‘This time it’s personal’.

It’s amusing to hear folk speak darkly of a ‘feud’ whenever a couple of racing drivers have words. They said it of Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Anyone who was around in the era of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna knows a real feud when they see it. They saw the beginnings of it 20 years ago, in that unforgettable season of 1988.

If we expected that McLaren-Honda would dominate, the only imponderable was the relationship between the drivers. Senna was coming from Lotus, which he’d made his team, and where he had grown accustomed to getting his own way. He’d done it with a blend of natural arrogance, intensity and sheer will, and now he was venturing into someone else’s domain. McLaren had long revolved around Prost.

So here we had the two best drivers in the world as team-mates, and at this level egos bruised like peaches, and persecution complexes were apt to ferment. Would Ron Dennis be able to maintain equilibrium? From the outset Ron said there would be no team orders: he had that much faith in his drivers.

Well, sure. But hadn’t Frank said something similar when Piquet joined Mansell at Williams? And look how well that turned out…

It said much for Prost’s sang froid that he raised no objection when Dennis declared his intention to sign Senna. “When we went to Japan, to meet the Honda people, I said Ron should take Ayrton, rather than Piquet, because he was the more talented driver, and I wouldn’t have minded if I was champion or not. I’m telling the truth. For me the team came first.

“The problem was I never had the relationship with Honda that Senna did. They came to McLaren at the same time, but Ayrton had already established a rapport with Honda during his Lotus days.”

Senna did indeed have an almost mystical relationship with Honda, and only rarely, during their two seasons as team-mates, did Prost feel he got a fair shake from the company.

Still, it said much for Alain’s self-confidence that he entertained no fears of comparison with the man widely regarded as the fastest of all. If anything niggled him, it was perhaps the thought that going racing with Senna – after working with Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg and Stefan Johansson – might not be a barrel of laughs.

No-one expected Ayrton to arrive at McLaren with a bunch of shrinking violets, and he didn’t. ‘Banco Nacional’, his personal sponsor, was plastered across his supposedly virginal McLaren overalls. For years company policy had been for the drivers’ generous retainers in part to compensate them for the loss of personal sponsorship: overalls were to bear the logos only of the team’s sponsors, and that rule remains.

Not for Ayrton, though. Dennis relented, and that, Prost admitted, infuriated him. For years he had been turning personal sponsors away.

There never was much doubt that McLaren would clean up in 1988. We might have guessed from the way the team went about preparing for the season, and after testing we knew. Some, though, still questioned that a turbo would be the thing to have in this final year of its eligibility: boost was down from 4 bar to 2.5 (horsepower from, say, 1000 to 670), and fuel from 195 to 150 litres. The non-turbo brigade, by contrast, was not restricted on fuel, and, with a minimum weight of 500, were allowed to run 40 kilos lighter than the turbos. This ‘transition year’, the FIA had intended, would favour the ‘atmospherics’. It didn’t work out that way.

The big question was how Dennis would cope with two drivers of such ability and ambition. Was Frank Williams right in his belief that, ‘You can’t put two bulls in one field’?

“Alain and Ayrton will fight like hell,” said Piquet, “and they’ll have a difficult year, just as I did with Mansell in ’86 and ’87. They might win the championship, but they’ll develop all year, and then they’ll divide…”

During pre-season testing at Rio Prost, not impressed with Senna’s attempts at autocracy, decided to have some fun. They were sharing a car, and the plan was for Alain to run through the afternoon, then turn the car over to Ayrton, who would ‘go for a time’ on new tyres.

In came Prost, and on went the tyres. Senna stood by, but his team-mate stayed put. Only after noting Ayrton’s agitation, hearing him say, “It’s not fair!” (a complaint etched in the minds of all who had known him in F3), did Alain, shaking with laughter, alight.

At first, therefore, the relationship between the two men was a little wary, with Senna feeling his way, and coming to recognise that at McLaren they liked Prost not only for the number of races he had won for them: they also liked him.

In the opening race at Rio it was first blood to Prost, who led all the way after Senna, having switched cars after suffering a gearshift problem on the parade laps, was disqualified. At Imola, though, Ayrton won his first race in a McLaren-Honda, with his team-mate a couple of seconds behind – and everyone else lapped.

The pair of them had qualified three seconds faster than the Lotus – also with Honda turbo power – of Piquet.

On to Monaco, and in qualifying Senna was staggering, a second and a half faster than Prost – who was himself more than a second up on anyone else. Ayrton later admitted that the experience had deeply unsettled him.

“In the last session I was already on pole, but I kept going faster. First I was just on pole, then by half a second, then one second, and still I kept going. Suddenly, I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else – and I realised I was no longer driving the car consciously.

“I was driving by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like the whole circuit in a tunnel, and I was just going and going – way over the limit, but still able to find more. Then, something just kicked me. I woke up, and realised I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off. I drove slowly back to the pits, and I didn’t want to go out any more.

“It frightened me because I was well beyond my conscious understanding. It happens rarely, but I keep these experiences alive in me, because it is important for self-preservation…”

Prost, already a three-time winner at Monaco, shrugged in disbelief. On race day, while Senna disappeared into the distance, he got stuck behind Berger’s Ferrari, and by the time he was through into second, there were only 24 laps left, and Ayrton was 50 seconds up the road.

No harm in having a little fun, thought Alain, and he proceeded to set a series of fastest laps. Senna couldn’t help himself, and responded with a new lap record of his own before finally heeding Dennis’s advice that he back off.

It was the undoing of him. Down from his high, Senna lost concentration, and hit the wall at Portier 11 laps from the flag. As Prost went on to victory, Ayrton disappeared to his apartment.

Having committed one of the great ‘unforced errors’, he was beyond disconsolate. “He made no contact with the team,” said McLaren’s Jo Ramirez. “We rang and rang his number. Nothing! At 9pm the phone was answered by a Brazilian girl, who looked after the apartment, and she kept saying no, he’s not here.

“Finally, she admitted he was there. I persuaded her to get him to the phone. Five hours later, he was still crying about it. That is how intense the guy was, how much it meant…”

Prost, meantime, was annoyed with his boss. “At the evening gala I made a small speech, and thought I was very nice about Ayrton, but there was only so far I could go. Then Ron came up to speak… and he was stupid, but sometimes that’s Ron. Inside he is a sensitive man, but he wanted to help Ayrton – too much. He went on about how fantastic Ayrton was, and for sure he had a problem with the car because he couldn’t have crashed as the result of a mistake, and things like that. It wasn’t necessary. What I had said was enough – that Ayrton had pole, that it was his race, but it was part of the game. But Ron had to go further. He made me feel like nothing…”

At the end of May, in Mexico City, Prost beat Senna fair and square, and now had a convincing championship lead, 33 points to 15, but in Montréal it was Ayrton’s turn to head the McLaren-Honda 1-2, and a week later he did it again. Now it was 45 to 33.

“Everyone keeps asking me,” said Dennis, “who’s going to win the title – Alain or Ayrton? Well, it’s your best 11 scores, and the way things are going, second places are of no use to either of them. The guy who wins the title will be the one who gets nearest to 11 wins…”

Dennis was on the mark, but Prost was wide of it when he said, “It could be boring for the spectators, and I’m sorry for that – but McLaren cannot be less competitive, just to make people happy! We’re trying to win the championship. The others must catch up…”

How could it have been boring when the two best drivers were going at it weekend after weekend? This was no Schumacher era.

At Paul Ricard Prost beat Senna, and in most untypical style, aggressively chopping past after boxing Ayrton in behind a backmarker. It was the kind of move Senna had believed patented to him, and it made him think.

A week later, in appalling conditions at Silverstone, he won consummately – and this time Prost did not score, for he judged the lack of visibility unacceptable, and withdrew before half-distance. “It was my decision,” he said, “and either you respect it or you don’t…”

At Hockenheim Senna and Prost were 1-2 yet again, and now Ayrton was three points behind, and in a cheery frame of mind. “My relationship with Alain is good – better than earlier in the year. It gets better as we get to know each other technically, professionally and personally. We’ve developed a high level of mutual respect.”

It was Senna-Prost at the Hungaroring, with half a second between them – and again at Spa. Now Ayrton led by three points, and Alain was moved to say, “Realistically, the championship is over. I congratulate Ayrton – he’s been the best driver, and he deserves it”. Psychology at work here? We wondered.

Monza was McLaren’s one dud of the season, for Prost retired with engine failure, and Senna, low on fuel and being hauled in by Berger’s Ferrari, impatiently tried to lap Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams at the first chicane, tripping over it in the process.

Now there were four races to go – and the complexion of the championship began to change. In Portugal Prost annihilated Senna in qualifying, and although Ayrton led at the start, Alain had him lined up as they came down the pit straight at the end of lap one.

It is an indication of how ethics in motor racing have changed that we were so shocked by what happened next. As Prost began to draw alongside, Senna swerved towards him. By now Alain was committed to the move, and couldn’t lift, but so close to the pitwall was he obliged to go that Ian Phillips, holding out a board to third-place man Ivan Capelli, had to pull it back.

Prost went on to win easily, with Senna a distant sixth. Afterwards Alain made clear his displeasure at Ayrton’s move – in those days virtually unknown, traditionally regarded as unsporting and unacceptable. “If we had touched – with the entire pack behind us – it would have been like a plane crash. I knew how much Senna wanted to be champion, but I hadn’t realised he was prepared to die for it. If he wants it that badly, he can have it…”

A year on, by which time their relationship had become venomously unravelled, we were inclined to trace its beginnings back to that day.

For now, though, there was still the 1988 title to be resolved, and in Jerez there was more of the same: Prost led from start to finish; Senna, concerned about his fuel level, was fourth. Only the Japanese and Australian races remained, and Prost led on points, 84 to 79.

“Senna may clinch it at Suzuka,” said Eddie Cheever, “but if it goes to Adelaide, I’ll give you a hundred to one on Prost…”

In Japan Senna took pole, but almost stalled at the start. By the end of lap one he was eighth, while Prost sprinted away, and although he climbed to second, it seemed unlikely he would catch the other McLaren.

Then Prost began to experience gearshift problems, and the gap came down, this accelerated by the arrival of rain, always manna for Ayrton. Shortly after half-distance he took the lead, and held on to win by seven seconds.

It was Senna’s eighth win, and it made him World Champion on the ‘best 11 scores rule’. He was ahead of Prost, 87 to 84. With a three-point advantage – the difference between first and second – and only Adelaide to come, he couldn’t be beaten. In defeat Alain was magnanimous: “Ayrton has achieved his ambition, and I congratulate him – he deserves it.”

In Australia Prost was not to be beaten, and finished more than half a minute ahead of Senna. “OK,” said Ramirez, “everyone knew a McLaren was going to win – but which one? I don’t think we made it boring. These were the two best drivers, battling in the same cars. And the fact that, out of 16 races, one won eight, and the other seven, shows how even they were.

“Of course, if the championship had been the way it is now, Alain would’ve won – by 105 points to 94. He had seven wins and seven seconds, to Ayrton’s eight wins and three seconds…”

“In my mind,” said Jackie Stewart at season’s end, “Senna is the fastest driver in the world. But Prost is still the more complete of the two.”

“I wanted Alain to win – and I’m sure Ayrton knew that, too,” said Ramirez. “Often I’d say to him, ‘You’re the new guy, the young guy, you’re going to race longer than Alain, you’ve got time…’ If Alain had been champion in ’88, it would’ve been better for their relationship – I don’t think it would have been destroyed so soon. In ’89, of course, it became civil war…”

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