“I never considered early on that Niki could beat me to the championship. That was a mistake!"

In 1984, Alain Prost joined mighty McLaren and confirmed what we already knew: he was the fastest man on the grid. But wily old team-mate Lauda wasn’t about to roll over… F1 was set for an epic – and the tightest finish in history
Writer Adam Cooper

Just as the 2014 F1 season has turned into a battle between two team-mates, so it was 30 years ago when Niki Lauda and Alain Prost fought out one of the most intriguing contests the sport has ever seen. In the end it turned out to be a triumph for experience as the Austrian won the world championship by just half a point, a margin that still stands as the closest in history.

The season was significant in other ways. It firmly established the Ron Dennis-managed McLaren International as a major force, and at the same time the way the team operated under technical guru John Barnard, with a sharp focus on the details, forced everyone else to raise their game. The modern era of F1 was arguably kick-started by McLaren in 1984.

The road to that season had begun late in 1980, when Marlboro’s John Hogan engineered a merger between Teddy Mayer’s struggling Team McLaren and the emerging Project 4 set-up. Dennis had total faith in Barnard and his pioneering MP4 carbon chassis, and the design proved its worth in 1981. However, it became clear that one element was missing.

“At the end of ’81 I said to Ron ‘We’re going to need a turbo if we’re going to have any chance of winning from here’,” Barnard recalls. “We’d won the British GP that year, but you could see the writing on the wall.”

Mayer wanted to go with Renault, while Dennis and Barnard paid a visit to BMW. John was not impressed by either option, thanks to their road car origins. The Munich engine even came with a frame that attached it to the Brabham chassis, and John was told he could not design his own.

“There was nothing out there that I liked, and basically everything was a compromise. We needed a racing engine, so we went through a whole list of people who might build one. Then we said ‘Porsche’ – and Ron being Ron he picked the phone up, got hold of somebody at Porsche, and within the next day or two we were over there talking to them about the concept I had.”

The Stuttgart manufacturer was about to launch a full-on return to sports car racing with the 956, and had no interest in a factory involvement in F1. But it was willing to build an engine for McLaren on a customer basis.

“I said I wanted a V6 and I wanted all the pumps off the side of the engine, this is the profile I want, and that was it. I didn’t want any compromises, I didn’t want this tube frame, road car bollocks. They had about three years on the programme they gave us, and we said ‘You had better make that 18 months!’

“The first stage was design, and we as McLaren had just about enough money to pay for it. At that time, though, we didn’t have enough to take it forward. During that design stage, which was about eight or nine months, Ron went out looking for the money to finish it – and that’s when he got hold of TAG and did that deal.”

The engine first appeared in testing in July 1983 in a converted Cosworth chassis, dubbed the MP4/1D.

“Niki said, ‘It’s like taking off in my Learjet, it just keeps pushing all the way down the straight until you get on the brakes’,” recalls Barnard. “I remember Porsche saying, ‘There’s not enough oil in the car, you’ve got to have a much bigger tank’. I said, ‘This is not a sports car, I can’t put an oil tank in the passenger seat’. We had to get Porsche out of this Le Mans mindset, which was not easy.”

Barnard requested revised piston rings in an attempt to reduce oil consumption, and Porsche duly responded. There might have been a clash of cultures, but the two parties soon understood each other.

“Apart from testing it in a hack chassis, I didn’t want to race it in ’83,” says Barnard. “I was pressured. Basically the pressure came from Niki and Marlboro. Niki was firing up John Hogan because he wanted it there and then, and John was leaning all over Ron, so it was like, ‘You’ve got to do it’.”

Lauda gave the interim MP4/1E its debut at Zandvoort, where he started 19th and retired with brake problems. He also retired at Monza and Brands Hatch, as did John Watson in the other car. However, in the finale in South Africa Lauda was catching leader Riccardo Patrese before a late retirement due to an electrical relay failure. By now Niki was full of optimism for the future.

“Barnard didn’t want to bring it in the season before,” Lauda recalls. “But I forced him to do it for Zandvoort, which was the most important decision. We developed the car and I was quick in South Africa, so I knew exactly what was going to happen in 1984. Then unfortunately Prost came…”

After missing out on the World Championship at Kyalami, Prost was dropped by Renault, leaving one of the biggest stars of the era without a job. Watson was still embroiled in salary negotiations with Dennis, however, and thus a door was potentially still open at the Woking team.

“When I lost the championship in Kyalami in the last race, I was going to catch a helicopter back to the airport and I met John Hogan,” Prost says. “I knew that something could happen. I told them that we must keep in touch, and I was right, because I knew the day after that it was possible for me to go to McLaren.”

Dennis had all the cards, and he played his hand in typically ruthless style. He dropped ‘Wattie’ and captured Prost for a pittance of a salary relative to the record-breaking deal Lauda had been able to extract from him.

“It was sad for me because John was more than a friend,” Prost recalls. “At the time when I started my career in F1 in 1980, when I was with him, he was really like a big brother. The contract was not very much in favour of me, I was a number two driver, and I had to accept it.”

Lauda, meanwhile, watched events unfold with some frustration. He’d done all the hard work, developing the turbo and helping Dennis to build the team, and now the balance had completely changed with the arrival of this upstart – although Prost was actually only six years and two days younger than his established team-mate.

“Watson screwed up!” Lauda says, with a smile. “Alain was the quickest guy at that time, no question. He was the next generation and really good and quick.”

Prost had worked briefly with Dennis and Barnard at McLaren at the end of 1980, shortly after the amalgamation with Project 4.

“I was then very close to staying at McLaren because of Ron and John,” he says. “It was very difficult for me, I’d had a lot of problems, a lot of accidents, in 1980. I lost confidence. I was very tempted to stay when I saw the project with Ron and John, but on the other side I had the Renault factory deal. I was not 100 per cent convinced that it was the right move, but sometimes you have to make a decision. I don’t regret that move, anyhow.”

A lot had changed by the time he returned: “It was completely different, yes. Going to a big team like Renault, with a big factory behind it, it’s another environment, very strange, very different, a lot of politics. And then you come back to McLaren where it was not a small team, but it did not compare to the team that you have known from a few years before. You felt you were part of the family and I liked Ron, even if he’s not easy all the time.”

Lauda was wary initially, but he and Prost soon hit it off, both men sharing a healthy respect for each other’s abilities.

“There was competition, but as a person I had no problem with him,” Lauda says. “We had a good relationship, but as racing drivers we were fighting each other.”

“This year was very good because I had a lot of respect for Niki,” Prost says. “He was older and strong, and for sure I was the young guy. But the balance was very good, we never had any problems because of that.”

Meanwhile, Barnard designed the definitive turbo car in the MP4/2. Others had experimented with carbon brake discs, but McLaren was the first team to commit fully. It was a steep learning curve, especially with the extra straight-line speed of the turbo to deal with, until drilling radial holes in them proved to be a huge step forward in Kyalami.

“That changed everything,” says Barnard. “So for ’84 I designed my own twin calipers, specifically for carbon brakes, taking into account the heat and so on.

“The thing that worked really well on that car was the rear wing. We were running these winglet things, and did quite a bit of work on them in the tunnel – in particular on the supporting strut that went across between them. That actually helped to deflect flow back under the wing. The car had tremendous traction and rear grip.

“Once you’ve got aerodynamics that are not sensitive, but are efficient and can produce downforce, then your car’s going to work well. Whatever you did with it your back end was nailed, which meant the driver never really lost confidence in it, and that was a key to the car.

“We had lost our ground-effect underbodies because of the flat floor coming in at the end of ’82. I told Ron at the time we’ve lost 50 per cent of the advantage of the engine we had built, because it was specifically designed around ground effect. But it turned out to be a good package anyway…”

Indeed it did, as was demonstrated in the Rio season-opener. A fully motivated Lauda was determined to show Prost who was boss, only to retire from the lead due a faulty battery cable.

“When we came to Brazil he was five tenths quicker in practice,” the Austrian says. “Then I led the race, but my car stopped and he won. This was the worst thing for me. My car, first race for him, and he wins. And this thing went on all the way through the season…”

South Africa provided the real wake-up call for the opposition. Prost suffered a last-minute fuel pump drive failure and started from the pitlane in the T-car, but he had enough pace in hand to charge up to second place, behind Lauda.

The package was still fragile, however. After a troubled practice both cars retired at Zolder, Prost with early distributor trouble and Lauda through water pump problems. Niki stopped again at Imola, this time with a piston failure, while Alain scored his second victory, despite a brake-induced spin. Four races in Prost led the championship on 24 points, while Lauda was down in fifth on nine. That 15-point advantage was as big as it would get.

Meanwhile Niki was still struggling to come to terms with Prost’s qualifying pace.

“I remember him saying to me, ‘This f***ing little Frenchman is always half a second quicker than me, I’ve got to figure out what to do’,” Barnard says. “Niki had the nous to suss out his competition and play games with them mentally, but at the end of the day, Prost was just quicker. And it used to piss Niki off no end, because he couldn’t figure out how to find that time.”

John provides an interesting insight into their driving styles: “As I said the ’84 car was always nailed down at the back, which meant you were nearly always trying to dial out that entry understeer, which Alain could kind of drive around. Niki had to dial it out a bit more to be comfortable. I think Niki would go in a little deeper and a little harder, so he needed a bit more grip from the car’s front end.”

At Dijon there was a further series of piston failures, and a new batch of engines had to be shipped in for Sunday. In the race Prost had a fright when a wheel was not properly secured at his pitstop – the result of the screws holding the disc bell working loose, and a rare chassis glitch. He finished out of the points in seventh, while Lauda scored a crucial victory after a charging drive. It moved him up to second place, and from now on the championship was all about the McLaren team-mates. Nobody else could provide consistent competition.

“We were not fighting on the same register,” Prost says. “That means I was always quicker than him in qualifying. In the races he was not quicker, but he was always there, you know! You could not believe that he was able to come back.

“The way he was driving too, he was really much better in the races than in qualifying, that’s for sure. And it was also a time when you could overtake, you could make a proper race, and you could also set up the car differently for qualifying and races.”

Prost took his first pole of the season in Monaco. Come the wet race he scored a controversial victory after the race was flagged prematurely, just as rookie Ayrton Senna was closing in. He scored only half points, however. Lauda had crashed out at Casino Square while running third.

The three-race North American tour proved largely frustrating for McLaren. In Canada both drivers were beaten by Nelson Piquet’s Brabham, with Lauda finishing second after passing a down-on-power Prost – one of the few times all year that they were actually together on track. In Detroit a puncture left Prost a frustrated fifth, while Lauda retired with an electrical problem.

A fortnight later Prost looked set to bounce back with a win on the crumbling Dallas track, but with 10 laps to go he clipped the wall and was forced out by a puncture. Lauda had an off of his own while running third, but he had at least set fastest lap. It was one of five he would secure in the last eight races of the season.

“I changed my strategy,” the Austrian says. “I worked only for the races, and not for qualifying, because I couldn’t beat him there. Thank God I did this, because I won many races afterwards.”

The Austrian’s race engineer Steve Nichols says: “The thing that stood out about Lauda more than anything else was his absolutely iron-willed determination to get the job done. No matter what it took, no matter how hard it was. It really was just incredible. He knew he was up against it in qualifying with Prost.

“He tried very, very hard for the first half of the season to match Alain’s qualifying pace, and finally decided he just couldn’t. He’d have to give up and concede that he was going to be a tenth or two slower over one lap, and concentrate on the race.”

At Brands Hatch Prost retired from the lead with a gearbox failure, handing the win to Lauda, and then at Hockenheim Alain led a safe McLaren one-two. The next race in Austria was to prove critical. Prost spun on oil while driving one-handed as he nursed a dodgy gearbox, and then Lauda had a drama of his own while leading. After losing fourth gear he thought his race was over, but he kept going with sufficient speed to fool the pursuing Piquet. It was his first ever win in his home race.

“He did a magnificent job,” Nichols says. “If Piquet had realised that Niki didn’t have that gear he would have attacked, and that would have been it. But he drove just fast enough to make Nelson think he didn’t have a chance. There was a tooth embedded in the case that had broken off, but luckily it stayed and plugged the hole.”

Lauda adds: “It was a very big win, because this was a key part of the championship. Alain crashed – and for me that was the important thing. It was one of the most significant races for me, to win despite the gearbox trouble.”

The victory moved Niki into the lead of the championship for the first time, by 48 points to 43.5. By now Prost could be forgiven for thinking Lady Luck favoured his team-mate.

“I had more mechanical problems than him,” he says, although in truth Lauda had his fair share too. “I was really fighting against Nelson, especially for qualifying and the beginning of the races,” Prost adds. “I was like a rabbit for Niki. I never considered in the first part of the season that he could be able to beat me in the championship, and that was a mistake!

“When I had a problem, like with the gearbox in Brands Hatch, every time he was there, and in the end it was quite a lot of points. Maybe sometimes I could have been a little bit more cautious, less fast at the beginning of the race and taken care more of the car and the tyres.”

Prost appeared to have turned the tables when he headed Lauda home in a one-two at Zandvoort, but next time out at Monza the team was plagued by engine trouble. Alain retired with a failure on the fourth lap, but Niki survived to claim another victory to give himself a 10.5-point lead with just two races to go.

“It took a lot of luck and quite a bit of good management to achieve what we did,” says Nichols. “To win 12 races with the reliability we had was quite an achievement. We had to try to pick a winner out of the engines that had the best oil and water consumption. They put red dye in once to try to track down the water leaks. We went out, did a run, took the engine cover off, and the whole engine bay was just pink from various tiny, untraceable leaks and water migrating through the castings…”

Meanwhile, Lauda had been distracted for some weeks by ongoing talks with Renault. After they collapsed Dennis convinced him to stay at McLaren, for a third less money than before, following some painful negotiations. Lauda’s relationship with his boss was strained, to say the least.

Prost bounced back by winning the penultimate race at the new Nürburgring, while from 15th on the grid Lauda finished fourth – despite a spin. It was a crucial piece of damage limitation for Niki, who went into the finale at Estoril with a three and a half point advantage over his team-mate. He thus knew that he could finish second and still win the championship, but initially things didn’t go Lauda’s way in Portugal.

“Qualifying there was awful,” he says. “He was second on the grid and I was about 11th. And I knew that I had to finish second behind him to win the title. But funnily enough, before the race I knew that if I didn’t make a mistake, like running into somebody and breaking my wing, then I could make it.”

To the world at large Lauda seemed relaxed while Prost had a weight on his shoulders, but even Niki lost his cool after his car suffered a water leak in the warm-up. “It was such a tense weekend, everybody was really on edge and stretched really tight,” Nichols says. “He sort of flipped and freaked, and was shouting at everybody in general and me in particular about the preparation. He probably didn’t realise that all of us were pretty tense.”

Lauda opted for a cautious first lap, and then his life was made harder by a turbo fault. But gradually he began to make up places, helped by winding up the boost and going to the edge on fuel consumption: “I had a turbocharger problem right from the beginning, so had to take risks to make up for my loss of power.”

Barnard says: “It was the one time I saw Niki just chuck everything at it and go for it big time. And he came up the field like I’ve never seen. You could tell it was, ‘This is my one chance’. He was passing people here and there. He just came storming through.”

Prost did everything he could by winning – but at the flag Lauda was there in second. He’d logged five wins to Prost’s seven, and had beaten him in qualifying just once in 16 attempts, but he won the title by half a point.

“Fighting Prost in the same car, it meant a lot to me,” he says. “It was very good. I think I adapted very well, beat him, and the next year he won everything, and I retired. I would have retired maybe two years later without Prost…”

Prost says, “When he won the championship I was not sad at all. Even if I lost the title by two points the year before, and ’81 and ’82 could also have been winning seasons, I was not too disappointed, because the ambience was so good. At the end I felt happy for him.

“Whenever I talk to Niki we remember that we had so much fun together, we really were friends. Sometimes you remember things outside racing – and the party we had in Estoril was one of the best!

“I was not lucky with the mechanical things, but in the end it was a dream season for Niki. Coming back after stopping his career and being world champion, and beating me by half a point, it was so good for the history of F1 and I am really proud to be part of that story.”

On the podium in Portugal, Lauda told Prost that his turn would come the following year – and he was to be proved correct.

“In ’84 I learned a lot,” Prost says, “because I said to myself that maybe the quickest driver is not going to win the championship, and for the future I have to think and work maybe differently. In ’85 I had a lot of races where I was thinking it was better to finish second, third or fourth, rather than going too fast or taking a risk. So in fact you always learn about these things, and in the end Niki’s way was right. I do not say I was wrong, because I was not very lucky, but this is the way it is.”