France’s first Formula 1 World Champion was the super smooth and canny Alain Prost. With four titles and 51 Grand Prix victories to his name, “The Professor” was the most successful driver during an era that included the likes of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and his greatest rival Ayrton Senna. The intense and often controversial competition between Prost and Senna was immortalised in the documentary “Senna” and remains one of motor racing’s fiercest rivalries.
Fast track through the junior categories
The Frenchman’s speed, racing brain and championship winning potential was evident from childhood. Victory in karting’s Junior World Cup in 1973 was followed by graduation to cars two years later as winner of the Pilot Elf Paul Ricard. That success continued in Formula Renault 2.0 with Prost winning both the 1976 French and 1977 European titles with a works Martini.
He was part of the Hugues de Chaunac-run Martini-Renault squad for the 1978 Formula 3 season although that year’s MK21B was somewhat disappointing. That said, Prost beat the European regulars at Járama in September and he shared that year’s national title with Chevron’s Jean-Louis Schlesser. He remained in the category in 1979 and his Elf-sponsored Martini MK27-Renault dominated both the French and European Championships. Unbeaten on home soil, Prost won the prestigious Monaco support race and another seven victories secured the European title as well.
Formula 1 – early success with McLaren and Renault
Now among European racing’s most coveted talents, Prost joined McLaren for the 1980 F1 World Championship although the team was on the wane at the time. Despite that, the young rookie outperformed established team-mate John Watson at the start of the season – finishing his first two races in the points (including fifth in Brazil) before breaking his arm in South Africa. He missed that and the subsequent Long Beach Grand Prix as a consequence before returning to score further sixth place finishes at Brands Hatch and Zandvoort.
That year’s most impressive newcomer, Prost switched to Renault for his sophomore F1 campaign in 1981 and confirmed that talent. The 1500cc turbocharged Renault engine may have been temperamental but he delivered when the car held together. When he finished it was in a podium position and Prost followed a maiden victory in France (on just his 19th F1 start) with back-to-back wins at Zandvoort and Monza. However, mechanical failures and contact with others restricted him to fifth in the final standings.
Prost began 1982 with victories in the South African and Brazilian GPs – inheriting the latter after Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg had been disqualified. However, it was mid-season before he scored another point as technical gremlins and a couple of incidents thwarted his challenge. He finished second at Paul Ricard (after René Arnoux disobeyed team orders) and Dijon-Prenois but fourth overall was a disappointing return from a season that had begun with such promise.
Renault finally added reliability to their engine’s undoubted power in 1983 and Prost seemed on course for a maiden championship success. He won the French, Belgian, British and Austrian GPs to establish a 14 point lead in the standings. With the title seemingly his, Prost made an uncharacteristic error while disputing the lead of the Dutch GP – crashing into Piquet’s Brabham-BMW with both rivals eliminated.
A first mechanical failure of the season at Monza further blunted his challenge as Piquet won that race and the next to close to within two points of Prost before the South African finale. When Prost’s turbo expired after 35 laps of Kyalami, Piquet was able to complete a conservative race to snatch a narrow World Championship victory with Prost a deflated runner-up. It was a bitter defeat but there was shock when he was promptly fired by Renault a week later.
Renault’s loss is McLaren’s gain
With McLaren restructured under the leadership of Ron Dennis and powered by turbocharged TAG Porsche V6 engines, Prost returned to the team with which he had made his F1 debut four seasons ago. It proved a wise decision for the MP4/2 was the class of the field in 1984 and he fought out a season-long battle for the title with team-mate Niki Lauda. Prost scored more wins (seven) than the Austrian veteran but was Lauda’s experience that eventually prevailed. Just half a point separated the McLaren drivers (half points had been awarded for the curtailed wet Monaco GP) at the end of the season with Prost finishing as runner-up for a second successive season.
Having come so close in recent seasons, Prost finally became the France’s first World Champion in 1985. He won the opening race in Brazil but lost the San Marino GP when his car was found to be underweight after the race. Podium finishes at nine of the next 10 races included further victories in Monaco, Britain, Austria and Italy and Prost clinched the title at Brands Hatch with two races to spare.
The Williams-Honda team was increasingly competitive during 1985 and they began the following season as championship favourites. However, Mansell and new team-mate Piquet traded wins while Prost remained in the championship fight throughout the season thanks to three victories and consistent podium finishes. The three rivals all maintained a mathematical chance of the title when the circus assembled in Adelaide for the final round. When Mansell suffered a spectacular tyre failure on the Dequetteville Straight and Piquet pitted as a precaution, Prost swept through to victory and the World Championship once more. In doing so, the Frenchman became the first driver to retain the title since Jack Brabham in 1960.
1987 was the final year of TAG Porsche’s partnership with McLaren but Prost’s challenge for a third title in a row suffered through a lack of engine development. Prost still won the Brazilian, Belgian and Portuguese GPs to establish a new record for GP victories, eclipsing Jackie Stewart’s long-held 27 wins as he slipped to fourth in the championship.
Prost versus Senna – the stuff of legend
McLaren switched to Honda engines for the last season of the turbocharged era in 1988 and added Ayrton Senna to its driver line-up. It was evident from the first practice session that the McLaren MP4/4-Honda was the class of the field and the team won 15 of the 16 World Championship GPs that year. They went head-to-head for the world title and Prost outscored his team-mate over the season. However, with each driver counting his best 11 results, it was Senna’s better win rate (eight to seven) that delivered the title with a round to spare.
Inevitably, having two of the best F1 drivers of all time in a dominant car led to a fierce rivalry and that boiled over in 1989. With McLaren-Honda once more the team to beat in this first season of 3500cc normally aspirated engines, the frosty relationship between Prost and Senna escalated to outright hostility at Imola. They lapped the field with Senna leading all the way but Prost was seething after the race – the Brazilian seemingly having disobeyed a pre-race team agreement. It was a successful if toxic final season for Prost at McLaren although his third World Championship was only sealed in the most controversial of circumstances. Senna entered the penultimate race of the year needing to win the Japanese GP to maintain any chance of retaining the title. With five laps to go, Senna attempted to pass his team-mate entering the chicane only for Prost to turn into his car. Prost was out but Senna re-joined and won the race, only to be disqualified after the event. That confirmed a third world title for the Frenchman but it was an inglorious conclusion to the year.
The Ferrari years
Rather than endure another fractious season as Senna’s team-mate, Prost moved to Ferrari in 1990 and his arrival helped the resurgent team to challenge once more. Spurred on by his desire to beat Senna and McLaren-Honda, Prost compensated for Ferrari’s power deficit to win five times, including three mid-season races in a row. In contrast to the previous Japanese GP, it was Prost who needed victory to keep hopes of the title alive. Furious that the FIA decided that his pole position should be on the “dirty” side of the track and harbouring a clear sense of injustice from the previous year’s race, Senna drove his rival off the road at the start in a high speed and dangerous manoeuvre that clinched the title.
Prost’s second season with Ferrari was a disaster and the Frenchman failed to win a race for the first time since his debut season in 1980. The team began 1991 with an upgraded car which proved no match for the latest McLaren-Honda. Prost made an embarrassing exit at Imola – pilloried in the Italian press after spinning into the barriers on the way to the grid – and finished no higher than second in the United States, French and Spanish GPs. With the team in disarray, Prost was fired before the final race of the season after openly criticising the organisation once too often.
A successful return with Williams
With no competitive drive available, Prost did not race in 1992 but returned a year later with World Champions Williams-Renault. The FW15C was the most technologically advanced car of 1993 but Prost faced competition from a familiar foe again that year. Senna’s Ford-powered McLaren lacked Renault’s horsepower but the Brazilian won three early races to lead the championship. However, Prost eventually won seven times to ease to the World Championship for a fourth time. That proved to be Prost’s final season as a Grand Prix driver for he retired at the end of the year rather than accept Senna as his team-mate for 1994.
There were tests for McLaren in 1994 and 1995 but it was as a team owner that Prost returned to the sport. He acquired the Ligier team in 1997 and Olivier Panis finished that year’s Spanish GP for the renamed Prost Grand Prix. Jarno Trulli repeated that result in the 1999 European GP at the Nürburgring but the debt-ridden team eventually closed its doors at the end of 2001.
Prost, who has been awarded the Légion d’honneur and OBE, remains a legend of French motor racing and most recently has been a partner in the Renault e.DAMS Formula E team.