Top 20 Greatest F1 Racers: Alain Prost
Race starts: 199
Pole Positions: 33
Race wins: 51
Fastest laps: 41
World Drivers’ Championships: 4
The numbers speak for themselves. Not only do you have to be an exceptionally gifted driver, but an equally keen student of the sport; observing, adapting and improving with each day of a life lived at a breakneck speed. You need to be measured, confident, methodical and fast. And this man was exactly that, behind the wheel of an F1 car. He is Alain Marie Pascal Prost OBE, Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, born 24th February 1955 in Loire, France.
The Career Records
Alain Prost took to karting at the age of 14 while on a family holiday, and never looked back. Progressing through the junior formulae, he won the French and European Formula 3 championships before signing for McLaren for the first time in 1980. Since then, in a sterling 13-year career as an F1 driver, Alain Prost’s record was second only to Juan Manuel Fangio before the rise of one Michael Schumacher. His tally of 51 Grand Prix wins was a record for a decade from 1992 to 2002, before Schumacher surpassed him in his bid to rewrite all record books. Prost raced for 4 different teams in his career [McLaren, Renault, Ferrari, Williams] and went on to notch up Grand Prix wins with every single one of them; a record in its own. He is the last French driver to win a French Grand Prix. He also shares an incredible record of starting all races in a season  with Ayrton Senna (1989) and Damon Hill (1996). The highlight of his career, and undoubtedly a highlight of Formula 1 history, was Prost’s bitter rivalry with Ayrton Senna during the latter half of his career which saw him win 2 Drivers’ titles and miss out on 3. (More on that here: https://www.sportskeeda.com/2012/05/30/tribute-to-f1-rivalries-chapter-1-senna-v-prost/). The rivalry was to lead Prost out of McLaren, to Ferrari and later Williams in search of a fourth World Title, which he won in 1993 and promptly retired on a high.
Prost would return as a team owner in 1998, but that venture was not to yield comparable success.
More on “The Professor”
Cool, collected and methodical; Alain Prost had an unflustered demeanour behind the wheel. He was known to have a very tactical thought process, even while racing flat out. His mental strength allowed him to stay focussed on the bigger picture rather than pushing for immediate gain.
“When I test I never go right to the limit. Only because when you are below the limit you can go at the same speed all day, and that’s the only way you can be absolutely sure about what you are testing.” – Alain Prost
Alain Prost’s emphasis on avoiding mistakes and ensuring calculative race finishes for best results overall, earned him a lot of negative comments and snide remarks for being too mechanical and not spectacular enough. Criticism notwithstanding, Prost was always unapologetic about his ‘mentality’ as he stood by his instinct of shunning excessive risk in favour of solid results. His was a driving style that focussed on slowing down enough, to go quick overall. The uninitiated might be unable to appreciate the reasoning behind it, but that seldom stood in his way to a quick lap-time as demonstrated by his 33 poles and 41 fastest laps. He was very particular about his preparation for a race weekend, and believed in a methodical approach to build a win. He explains it brilliantly when he says:
“I always work the same way, starting from the beginning of the weekend, so I know at the beginning of the race, from all that I have analysed during the practice, whether I will win the race or not.” – Alain Prost
But Prost didn’t earn this title just by his intellectual approach to driving fast. He not only understood the intricacies of the technical side of the sport, but also the political aspects of it. He recommended Ron Dennis to offer Senna a contract in order to lure Honda in as engine suppliers for McLaren. That move worked out wonderfully for the team. Prost was quoted once as saying that any judgement of quality in F1 can only be made over a period of a season or a career, not race by race. In extension to that, he became one of the main proponents of the scoring system adopted during the 90′s with 10 points going to the winner and all results counting towards the championship. A few of the recent down-to-the-wire championship seasons have gone down to the last race, thanks to that revision.
The teammate wars
Throughout Prost’s career, there have been very few times when his teammates have outscored him on aggregate points. First time in his debut season, by 1 point, and the next, in 1984 when Niki Lauda had half a point more than Prost (due to the rain soaked Monaco Grand Prix which was halted midway with Prost in the lead, getting half of the 9 points that went to the winner). Incidentally, that half point decided the championship in favour of Lauda (72 points vs 71.5), sowing the seeds for Prost’s backing of the 90′s points system. Triple world champion, Keke Rosberg too didn’t manage to outscore Prost when they were teammates. Even in 1988, when Senna won the Drivers’ Championship on the best results rule, Prost had scored more points (105 vs 94). Not surprising then, that he did not enjoy very amicable relationships with his teammates.
His stint in 1982-83 with Renault saw him fall out with Rene Arnoux over the latter dishonouring a pre-race arrangement to support Prost in the race, and going on for the win himself. His arrival in McLaren in 1984 brought a change in the status quo there, with Ron Dennis investing in Prost as the future rather than Niki Lauda, leading to Lauda’s exit in 1986. Similar circumstances prevailed with Senna’s rise to prominence, but the roles were reversed this time and Prost moved to Ferrari. At Ferrari, he had his car switched with Nigel Mansell‘s, suspecting Mansell’s one to be superior, without the latter’s knowledge. He went on to dominate Mansell that season. Result: when Prost went to Williams in 1993, Mansell quit and moved to CART.
Alain Prost, in spite of the Order of the British Empire, the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur and the Four World championships, remains a greatly under-celebrated racer. Prost had an understated elegance and precision, was always silken smooth on the track, seldom off line, easy on the brakes, gliding toward the apex and shooting off out of the corner with so minimal effort, it didn’t look like he was trying to push at all when in fact he was going flat out. The timing sheets told just how effective he was. His rivalry with Senna took them both to unprecedented heights of success and fame, but the contrast in their personalities and racing styles, while enabling him to stand his own against Senna, also did Prost a great disservice by underplaying his own achievements. Where Prost was methodical and controlled, Senna was flamboyant, all-in and super aggressive, naturally attracting more attention and adulation. When people inevitably compare the two, they tend to forget that to build a rivalry so fierce and close, the protagonists must be very evenly matched. One must also remember that Senna came to Formula 1 when Prost was at his peak, and hence was Senna’s benchmark. It takes tremendous courage and natural ability to compete against someone who is determined to surpass you, especially when you’re put on the back foot and forced to fight harder to reclaim your top spot. That Prost could push himself so far beyond his comfort zone, and maintain an edge over Senna throughout, just cements the fact that Alain Prost was truly one of the greatest racing drivers of all-time.
My reasons for why Alain Prost ranks amongst the greatest ever:
- Stats. The numbers speak for themselves. Winning 4 Drivers’ Championships is a feat surpassed by only two other men: Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher, in over 50 years of history of F1.
- Edge over teammates. He had almost always outscored his teammates over a season, which in a heavily technical sport like F1, is a pretty authentic yardstick to measure one’s calibre, especially when the teammates were multiple-time world champions.
- Talented, intelligent and cunning. He possessed unbridled talent, almost sadly veiled by the lack of theatrics in the cockpit. Prost was equally competent in all conditions, and knew how to extract the last bit of performance from the machinery. His in-depth understanding of all aspects of the sport, both on and off track, really made Prost the complete package.
- Ability to push himself beyond his comfort zone when needed, and yet stay in complete control, was an outstanding characteristic of Prost.
- Never-say-die attitude. Need an example? His car ran out of fuel on the home straight on the last lap in Germany and instead of abandoning the car, Prost put in a valiant attempt of pushing it over the line!
All these qualities, irrespective of controversies, fallouts and media-shyness, make Alain Prost one of the greatest living legends of F1.
Here’s a video of Prost’s prowess in a scary Renault car on the difficult track of Zandvoort: