One of Formula 1’s best known and longest running rivalries was to shape the destinies of two of its most talented drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – but, asks Mark Hughes, just who were the men behind the wheel?
In the world of Formula 1, the names Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost are synonymous with one of the greatest and most enduring rivalries in racing history. For 10 years, two of the sport’s greatest drivers were engaged in an intense duel. Indeed, the antagonism between the Brazilian prodigy and the cool Frenchman became the stuff of legend, living on far beyond Senna’s untimely death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The scale of challenge that Senna would come to represent to Prost first became evident at Monaco 1984, Senna’s fifth grand prix. Prost, already a multiple grand prix winner and in his fifth season of F1 (each season comprising multiple grands prix), was leading the race for the dominant McLaren team. So far, so routine. But a few laps later, an irritant: as the rain fell more heavily someone was catching him at between three and four seconds per lap.
What was this? A lowly Toleman team car catching his McLaren? Driven by a rookie? Prost, recognized at the time as the world’s number one driver (and in F1’s fastest car), was being made to look pedestrian by Senna, five years his junior. With Senna’s previous half- minute deficit down to just seven seconds and the rain intensifying, Prost waved his hands to officials as he passed the pits, suggesting that conditions were becoming too bad. This probably played its part in the race being declared after just 31 of the scheduled 78 laps – before Senna was quite able to catch up and pass.
With half-points awarded on account of the race being shortened, Prost gained just 4.5 points. Had the race gone the full distance and Prost finished second to Senna, he’d have gained six points. In that scenario he – and not his teammate Niki Lauda – would have been world champion. Instead, Prost lost it by half-a-point.
On that rainy Monaco day Senna arguably cost Prost his first world title. In the years ahead he would cost him more – and that irritant in Prost’s mirrors would grow to become his Moby Dick, the adversary that would define his career. The two would become locked in combat and would fight each other for the world title across three consecutive seasons, between 1988 and 1990, and two of them as McLaren team-mates.
What’s the deal?
Prost is smart, strategic, political – and supremely gifted. This combination of qualities garnered him four world championships and 51 grand prix wins over a 12-season F1 career. He is one of only four men in the 65-year history of the F1 world championships to have won four or more titles. He has won more races than anyone other than Michael Schumacher. His career statistics eclipse those of his great rival Senna – though in the three years that they competed against each other head-to-head for the title, the numbers slightly favour Senna.
A less obviously charismatic man than Senna, Prost had come from a fairly ordinary background in central France – his father was a furniture maker – fuelled by an obsession to make racing his career. From the earliest days he planned that career meticulously and ruthlessly, applying his considerable intelligence to the task. He was thoughtful and serious but beneath the surface lay a streak of impish mischief – and a very Gallic attitude to affairs of the heart.
The force of Senna’s personality, the passionate conviction of his views, his otherworldly ability in a racing car and the spiritual aura that surrounded him even during his lifetime have ensured that his legend transcends the sport of F1. He is a world figure, an icon – even a myth. The numbers (41 grand prix wins and three world championships in a 10-season career) say he is merely the fifth most successful driver in F1 history. But since his death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, there’s been an element of beatification about his status and he now stands as arguably the most revered F1 driver of all time.
On The Track
Prost’s driving style reflected his personality: low-key, under-the-radar, quietly devastating. He wouldn’t attack a corner so much as dismiss it, with a subtle technique that made it appear as if the car was not being pushed that hard. He would nudge up to the tyres’ limits rather than go beyond them, getting the car settled into the corner early and maintaining maximum momentum through it. It could appear as if he was on a Sunday afternoon cruise – until you checked the lap times. In this way he took less from the tyres than his rivals and would typically plan his races accordingly – just one among the pack in the early stages when the car was heavy with fuel, then progressively a stronger force as the race went on and the tyres of rivals wilted. His clinically precise style minimized stresses upon the car and ensured he was in good shape when it mattered most.
Passion trumped logic in Senna’s personality and approach, which took him to places only his monumental talent could rescue him from. It made him one of the most thrilling, high-octane performers the sport has ever seen. The intensity of his competitive will, fuelled by emotion, meant he was willing to take wheel-to-wheel combat into life-endangering realms when pushed to extremes – as was confirmed by his refusal in Japan in 1990 to even lift the accelerator when Prost attempted to take up his line into the first corner. So incensed was Senna at what he saw as a conspiracy designed to help Prost ‘steal’ his title, that he was prepared to drive flat-out into him at 274kph to ensure the ‘conspiracy’ failed.
A complex character, he could justify to himself pretty much any action required for him to prevail. Yet he also displayed deep compassion away from the racetrack and used his celebrity status to raise funds and instigate programmes to alleviate the effects of poverty in his native Brazil. He also became increasingly religious as he sought to dig deeper into his purpose in life. He was born into a life of some privilege as the son of a wealthy land and factory owner and was racing karts from the age of eight. His fits of rage whenever he was unsuccessful were said to be striking in the extreme, and seemed only to intensify his determination to master his craft. Even into maturity, a sense of entitlement could still occasionally be seen, his emotions surfacing whenever he perceived a competitive injustice, as was very apparent in a diatribe against Prost in 1992 after it became clear that the Frenchman had out-manoeuvred him in getting into a faster car for 1993.
Playing the Game
Prost reserved his ruthlessness for behind the scenes. He was a more forward-thinking and adept political operator than Senna – less impassioned, more clinical. He made key alliances that went below the surface, not least with Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the governing body of the sport at the time. He would work out the dynamics of power within a team, within the sport, and work to align it to best suit his interests as a driver. But when Senna joined Prost at McLaren, he brought with him Honda – with whom Senna had already been working for a year at his previous team – and that proved a political barrier that even the diplomatically nimble Prost could not vault. The value of Honda to McLaren at the time, and Honda’s total devotion to Senna, definitely played its part in leaving Prost feeling squeezed out and sidelined, triggering his decision to leave McLaren at the end of 1989 after securing his third world title, having lost out to Senna the year before.
Because his emotions were always on his sleeve, Senna was perceived as being more sincere than Prost. It also suggested an appealing vulnerability. But though their outward characters were very different, they were remarkably similar in their devotion to winning. On the track, Senna’s approach was all-out attack and he was perhaps the fastest qualifier there has ever been. He could dig deep to take himself into some other realm to pull out seemingly impossible lap times – never more so than around the streets of Monte Carlo, where he was spellbinding in 1988. He approached that weekend determined not only to defeat Prost but to humiliate him. It contributed to his amazing qualifying lap – 1.5 seconds faster than Prost – but also to him crashing out of a big lead. The intensity of his ambition, and the desire to perform to the maximum of his own talent, could sometimes bleach out the competitive requirements of the bigger picture.
Off the Track
In 1993, in his final season of racing, Prost took his fourth world championship. After retiring from the cockpit he developed his business interests and later secured associations with corporate France to establish his own F1 team. This was short-lived and ended not without financial acrimony. His life remained low-key and, for a driver of such achievement, his legacy is perhaps not what it might be. He remains a less inspirational figure than his arch-rival and, as he himself has observed, it’s as if he is defined merely as the opposing player in the great Senna drama.
Although the handsome, emotional Senna portrayed an image of swashbuckling glamour that resonated with fans much more readily than did the more contained persona of Prost, in reality he was every bit as private. Though he’d enjoy his big celebratory parties after winning a title or an important race, he was a million miles away from the ‘party animal’ racing driver as exemplified by James Hunt in an earlier generation. He loved to retire to his beloved Brazil and the company of his extended family whenever there was time between racing commitments. Certainly, Prost’s reputation as a Casanova was under no threat from Senna, who nonetheless had a steady series of girlfriends after an earlier failed marriage. Although living a life of luxury, his tastes – like Prost’s – showed restraint. There was no suggestion of tasteless ‘footballer-style’ ostentation. Senna’s legacy has proved an enduring one. He remains an icon to racers who were not even born when he died, epitomising an indomitable spirit, a refusal to compromise or surrender.
A version of this story appeared in the June 2016 special F1 issue of Baku Magazine.
All images courtesy of Getty Images