Is Alpine departure the sad F1 end for Alain Prost?

F1

He was the most devastatingly effective F1 driver in the mid-'80s but trouble always seemed to find Alain Prost, who has now left Alpine amid acrimony, writes Damien Smith

Alain Prost in F1 paddock on a scooter

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

So acrimony and bad feeling follow Alain Prost out the door at Renault. It’s hardly the first time, is it? The four-time world champion was piqued this week by the manner in which his exit from the company’s Alpine Formula 1 team was revealed, as he walks away with a snipe and a gripe from his role as senior advisor.

The 66-year-old has all but claimed he was forced out by Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi, despite being offered a new contract for this year, as a mix of personality clash and internal (infernal) politics ends what had been for the past few years something good and positive for a team that has yet to hit the heights to which it aspires. Bad news, especially for Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, who lose a fabulously valuable ally in a team that has lacked obvious leadership and direction at the top.

News of Prost’s departure comes hot on the heels of confirmation that Marcin Budkowski – who was effectively team principal, even if the convoluted management structure at Alpine is too clever to allow for one – has gone, amid heightening speculation that Otmar Szafnauer will soon step in following his exit from Aston Martin. Choppy times at Viry-Chatillon and Enstone.

For Prost, it’s another episode to add weight to the perception he is among the most divisive and controversial figures of F1’s past four decades. Which is a damn shame, because he is also so much more than that given what we saw from him as a driver in his prime.

Alain Prost with Laurent Rossi in 2021

Prost has accused Rossi (right) of wanting all the limelight within Alpine

Alpine

Yet even on that there are those who like to denigrate him. The four titles, 51 grand prix wins, nearly 800 points from 199 starts, meaning a remarkable average of four scored per race… The stats, even in the wake of Lewis Hamilton’s record-smashing achievements, stand tall. Yet it’s how he achieved those numbers that seem to play against him, especially when viewed through the prism of what tends to be considered the defining relationship of his career. And that’s annoying too, because again he was so much more than Ayrton Senna’s Machiavellian rival.

In the end Prost couldn’t win even when he won

Even his old nickname, The Professor, plays against him, suggesting a cold, calculated way of winning at the slowest possible speed – in an approach that mirrored that taken by the sainted Juan Manuel Fangio. Granted, the signature standout performances are less obvious and celebrated, but at his pinnacle during a 1980s turbo era increasingly reined in by ever stricter fuel limits Prost simply had to race clever to win as many races as he managed. And he did so far better than anyone else in his time.

It was the blend of a pure, natural speed and a hard-working intelligence that made him, in this writer’s opinion, the most devastatingly effective F1 driver between 1982 and ’87 – and by some margin. The speed was on tap from the moment he stepped into a poor McLaren in 1980, then into a line of brutally powerful but fragile turbo Renaults. He had to wait until ’85 and the second year of his return to a night-and-day revived McLaren for the first of his world titles. But with better reliability, he’d surely have been champion at least once in a yellow Renault – and the final career stats would have been even greater. Senna knew. Which is precisely why he zeroed in on Prost, above Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, as the true target he had to not only aim for, but also destroy.

Alain Prost leads Ayrton Senna in 1985

Targeted for destruction: Senna knew that Prost was the driver to beat in the 1980s

DPPI

Yet it can’t be denied that for all his skill and gentle countenance out of the car trouble did tend to find Prost, and follow him too often for it to have been a coincidence. He knew how to play the game, and never blanched from doing so. Back at Renault, following a broken-beyond-repair relationship with René Arnoux – those two never hit it off – his time at what had become France’s national team ended under a cloud when at the end of ’83 he should have been champion. Prost was sacked amid rancour and personal rumour, with poison that seeped beyond the team to the press and a tough French public. Here was France’s best of a mighty fine generation, and yet so many of his countrymen took against him. What was it about him? As he found, he was better off at a British team – in more ways than one – as the original Renault factory team wilted within two years of his departure.

Beyond the Senna hostilities and a souring of what had once been so strong and potent at McLaren, then the turbulence of his two years at Ferrari, even his rapprochement with Renault at Williams in 1993 was uncomfortable. Sure, he’d engineered his way from a sabbatical into the best F1 seat on the grid, to the fury of a flouncing Mansell and a jealous Senna – but he’d earned that drive through entirely merited reputation. Yet somehow the title that followed is remembered by most as his least satisfactory, because in the technical marvel that was the FW15C it was always considered a formality. In the end Prost couldn’t win even when he won, and he made the right call to retire when he did – especially as Senna was incoming to Williams. No reason or will to deal with all that venom again.

Alain Prost with Gerard Larrousse in 1983

Relationship with Renault and team principal Gérard Larrousse turned sour in 1983

Grand Prix Photo

Finally a world champion with Renault power, even here there was a sense of unease. After the flirtations of a return with McLaren withered, amid proof he could rebuild apparently broken bridges, with of all people spiky Ron Dennis, Prost embarked on what would turn into his greatest folly. His five years in team ownership, as the guardian of what had previously been Ligier – France’s other national team – left permanent damage to his reputation at home. By the end it was hard to believe such a great man could have fallen so low.

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The restoration, first through success in Formula E and then back where he belonged in F1 with a returning Renault, promised a far more suitable Indian summer to a special career. But instead the dark clouds have rolled back in and consumed Prost once more. New powers and old politics have done for him, but you can’t help wondering how much he contributed to his own downfall, given the bruised record of his past.

Old friend and former team-mate Niki Lauda found a sense of satisfying redemption from his own previous batterings in F1 management, in what turned out to be his final advisory role, with Mercedes-AMG. Prost doesn’t seem destined for such a rosy-glow ending – although 66 is not so old, especially for a man who keeps so fit.

It’s hard to see how and with whom he might come back, but perhaps his F1 story is not yet done. Then again, if this is indeed it for Alain Prost and F1, it’s a desperately sad note on which to finish. But also somehow entirely fitting too.