In defence of Alain Prost

Written by Graham Keilloh. Published on with his friendly allowance - Original article posted on Talking about F1: The F1 blog.

I, like most people who've seen it, consider the recent Senna film to be a triumph, for a number of reasons. But I do have one major criticism of the film: it is immensely harsh in its treatment of Ayrton Senna's chief rival, Alain Prost.

Prost is very much presented as the story's villain, with ex-ESPN commentator John Bisignano describing him as a driver who drove for safe points rather than wins, and used 'politics' to prevail in the sport.

I can understand why this is to an extent. The makers felt that the film had to have a coherent Hollywood-style narrative, complete with a protagonist and antagonist. But the problem is that their presentation Prost is rather jaundiced, and at the negative end of the possible interpretations of him as a man and driver.

I have always thought Prost curiously under sold as a driver generally (and this is coming from someone who spent most of his childhood hero-worshiping Ayrton Senna). This was the case long before the Senna film was even thought of - indeed some commented thus during his career as well as after it. I also always say that if I could buy shares in former F1 drivers I would buy shares in Alain Prost. I feel that his stock will surely only rise: there has to be a point where his driving genius receives the wider appreciation it deserves from history.

First of all, the numbers. In a F1 career that spanned 13 seasons Prost won four drivers' world championships. And he very easily could have won anything up to five further titles (1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1990) but for factors for which he was not to blame denying him. You could also argue that Prost was the last driver to win a championship in not nearly the best car, which he undoubtedly achieved in beating the Williams-Hondas to the 1986 crown.

He claimed 51 Grand Prix wins, and 106 podiums finishes, from 202 starts. And all this was achieved in a time when cars weren't nearly as reliable as they are now, and Prost was invariably up against an all-star cast of contemporaries: Senna, Lauda, Rosberg, Mansell, Piquet among others (and of those, all but Piquet spent some time as Prost's team mate. No Schumi-style rear gunners here).

But of course statistics only mean so much. Which is just as well for Prost as there was so much to appreciate about him other than the numbers.

Prost, nicknamed 'the Professor', is commonly associated with calculation and consistency rather than spectacular racing, which is most probably what John Bisignano was referring to in part. It's less well-recorded that he was bloody quick as well, and that when called upon could go wheel to wheel with rivals as decisively and aggressively as anyone. As one Australian journalist said, Prost had the head of Stewart and the right foot of Villeneuve.

If you doubt Prost's speed and bravery, try this quote from Niki Lauda for starters: 'In qualifying, particularly, you need that extra something, a mixture of enthusiasm and madness. Prost - six years my junior - was more capable of it than I was. At Monaco in particular, I couldn't believe how he went through traffic'.

And how about this from Keke Rosberg, widely considered to be F1's fastest and bravest driver for much of the 1980s, after going up against Prost as team mates at McLaren: 'He's the best I've ever known, no question about it. As an all-round race driver he's head and shoulders clear of anyone else (he's raced against), because he's brilliant in every department...and he's bloody quick, I can tell you'.

Prost's F1 career is strewn with attacking drives of the sort we'd more naturally associate with Gilles Villeneuve or Lewis Hamilton than with 'The Professor'. For example, in the South African Grand Prix of 1982 while he was leading just after half distance one of Prost's tyres punctured. A subsequent three-quarter lap on a shredded tyre and pit stop (lengthy as it was not part of the F1 drill in those days) left him in eighth place and a lap down. But he then got on with it, lapped routinely three seconds and more quicker than anyone else (including his team mate Rene Arnoux, now in the lead) and he regained first place with nine laps left - only 27 laps after his puncture - which he kept.

Then in the 1986 Belgian Grand Prix at the classic Spa track he was involved in someone else's accident at the first turn, which crumpled his front wing. A long delay in the crash, slow lap and a long stop to replace his nose left him way off the back of the field. He then proceeded to smash the lap record repeatedly, and never once touching his turbo boost, to claim the final point for sixth place. And he did this in a damaged car, his engine mountings bent and suspension damaged in the first corner contretemps. In the words of McLaren designer John Barnard: 'the thing was like a banana!'

Then there was as similar performance in Suzuka the following year. This time it was an early puncture that delayed Prost, and it left him so far behind it took him 22 laps of a 53 lap race to even catch the next car ahead. But he again went fast for the sake of it, and made up almost an entire lap on winner Gerhard Berger (and set a fastest lap 1.7 seconds quicker than the next best by anyone else) to come seventh, just out of the points.

And there are many examples beyond these, such as plain beating team mate Senna for pace in Mexico, France and elsewhere in 1988, coming through the field to win from 13th on the grid in the Mexican race in 1990 and hauling an off-colour Williams in qualifying and the race to win in Barcelona in 1993. And then there's Imola the same year, when but one round after Senna's famous triumph in wet conditions at Donnington, Prost swarmed all over Senna's McLaren in the damp early stages of the race, before going on to win.

Indeed, in a race situation Prost was rarely lacking for pace. This much is demonstrated by his collection of 41 fastest race laps in his career, which was a record until Schumi hoovered that one (along with everything else) up.

Indeed, the man himself never concurred with the 'cruise and collect' persona that continues to be attributed to him. After winning his first title, in 1985, Prost commented: '...the last two races I haven't really enjoyed, to be honest. Driving "tactical" races is not what I like to do...I can race in Kyalami and Adelaide (the last two races of the season) now, and feel I can just go for it, which is much more natural to me'. And in a line that could have been in response to Bisignano, on tactical races he said: 'Everyone - Keke (Rosberg), Piquet, has driven this kind of race in the circumstances'.

And while Prost is often viewed as having been something of a 'wimp', in fact he was rarely faint of heart in on track battles. He after all did not flinch when Senna tried to drive him into the pitwall at 200mph in Estoril in 1988. Two years earlier, this time at Montreal, and up against the same rival, Prost showed similar nerve. There once featured a fast right-left-right sweep on the track layout there, with forbidding walls very close by (there's now a straight instead). Prost, having sought for many laps to pass an unaccommodating Senna, nosed ahead there, and decisively claimed the racing line, causing Senna to lift from the throttle and jink his car half onto the grass, and thus cede the place.

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To! © by Oskar Schuler, Switzerland