Our Legends of F1 series continues this week with the driver at number six, the French professor Alain Prost. France’s first world champion rose to prominence in the 1980s. Prost would play his part in transforming F1 from a well-known sport to the most popular yearly sports league in the world. In doing so, Prost scooped up four world championships, and 51 race wins.
The cerebral French assassin used to kill his opponents without them knowing a damn thing. Add his sneaky skills to a great for driving a car at 200mph; Prost became a phenomenon in his own right. The late-bloomer emerged to become one of F1’s greats. Prost also played his part in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries, although we’ll come to that later.
The Late Starter
Most young racing drivers jump into a kart at a very young age. Fernando Alonso drove a kart at the age of three, while Nico Rosberg pedalled a home-made kart from four. Alain Prost only started karting at 14-years-old as he discovered it on a family holiday. His family tried to stop him from racing; they were wasting their time. Prost got hooked on the need for speed. For Prost to start racing as a teenager against kids that started as toddlers is an impossible task. The fact that Prost succeeded is a testament to how he worked out all the problems that faced him. That unique problem-solving skill would serve him brilliantly as he stepped up the categories.
Prost quickly rose up the French karting ladder. He even started tuning his own engines to help the teams out as they couldn’t afford the necessary staff. After winning the senior French karting championship, Prost got granted a French Formula Renault championship licence. He dominantly won the title. Prost was now garnering significant attention from the F1 big-wigs. After winning the European Formula 3 championship, there was only one step left to take. Within ten years of jumping into a go-kart, Prost annihilated everything in his wake. The F1 world championship beckoned.
A Difficult Start
Prost debuted for Mclaren in 1980 as a 24-year-old. It didn’t work out at all as the Mclaren suffered plenty of mechanical problems in the season. Prost felt disillusioned, so he signed for Renault, who wanted a French driver for their French team. In his two years with the French manufacturer, Prost would win five races. However, Prost grew unhappy with the team as they failed to develop the car throughout the season. Eventually, he got so frustrated that when speaking to ESPN, Prost said that the car wasn’t good enough.
The professor plotted the next move that could provide him with that elusive world championship. Mclaren, with their Porsche engines, appealed to the now free-agent driver. Regardless of the previous falling out in 1980, Mclaren, under new leadership with Ron Dennis, promised a different outcome. Prost signed on the dotted line in a move that would change the course of F1 history forever.
World Championships and The Professor
After joining Mclaren in 1984, Prost rocketed up the F1 grid. The Mclaren was the fastest car in the world that year; the world title crown would get fought out between Prost and his teammate Niki Lauda. The Austrian Lauda would win the title by half a point, a dramatic wet race in Monaco that got abandoned when Prost complained about the rain ironically cost him the title. That race would infamously sew the seeds of a rivalry no-one would ever forget. Lauda faded into the background after 1984; the team belonged to Prost.
The Frenchman duly strolled to his first world championship in 1985. The racing world was at his feet, although it took a dramatic turn in 1986. Williams with Honda power were faster.
1986 came to a three-way showdown in Australia. It was Prost vs Nigel Mansell vs Nelson Piquet for the world championship. On a day when the Williams cars were quicker, Prost sneakily hung around like a bad smell. He did that all season long; he was the scavenger stealing scraps whenever Mansell and Piquet hit trouble. Once Mansell’s tire blew up, Prost nursed his car to the world championship. The mark of great racing drivers is to be successful without the best car. Prost did that in 1986. His racing intellect and planning gave him the nickname of The Professor. His incredibly smooth driving style and a sixth sense of what other drivers would do made Prost so good. The double world champion was now F1’s top man. Although a new challenger rose from Brazil to take the crown in brutal fashion.
Senna vs Prost: F1’s Deadliest Rivalry
After a championship-less year in 1987, Mclaren signed an engine deal with Honda. The Japanese manufacturer wanted a Japanese driver, Prost argued for Brazillian sensation Ayrton Senna. In 1988 Mclaren won 15 out of 16 races; it was the most dominant car ever. The ferociously fast Brazillian took the world championship in ’88, much to the chagrin of Prost. The double world champion felt unloved as his team gravitated around Senna. 1989 saw the relationship fracture; Prost didnt trust the team because he thought they favored Senna. On the other hand, Senna thought the federation’s president favored Prost as he was French.
The dormant rivalry erupted in Japan as the race for the championship went to the final race. Prost and Senna crashed into each other. Naturally, neither took responsibility. Prost’s car was too damaged to carry on; meanwhile, Senna finished the race. He took the checkered flag and the world championship: until Senna got disqualified after the race. The title belonged to Prost. The two rivals’ relationship disintegrated in 1989. Prost left to go to Ferrari; he couldn’t stand being in the same team as Senna. In 1990, Prost once again scavenged his way to a title showdown in Japan. Senna, still seething after from the year before, deliberately crashed into Prost’s Ferrari to take him out. Both drivers ended up on the wall; Senna became world champion due to Prost not finishing the race.
Sabbatical’s, Politics and Tragedy
After four fractious years battling with Senna, Alain Prost walked away from F1. Burn-out from the worlds fastest sport took its toll. Prost dabbled in TV commentary before the phone rang once more. This time, Renault phoned him to come back and race for the Williams team using Renault engines. By the early 90s, Williams became the dominant force. They’d won the world championship in 1992. For 1993, they wanted Prost.
The Frenchman had two conditions; block Ayrton Senna from joining the team and send defending world champion Nigel Mansell to Indycar. Williams obliged, and Prost dominated to win his fourth championship in ’93. Prost retired for good after the season, which allowed Williams to sign Senna for 1994. Senna signed, desperate to best his rival one more time; Senna would tragically die on May 1st after crashing his Williams car.
Why He’s On Our List
Prost is on our list because he demonstrated a new to win in F1. Savage speed wasn’t the only way to win. Prost could sneakily pick apart the racetrack with his car. He never made mistakes; he understood the car like it was an extension of his body. Prost was slower than Senna, no doubt about it. Yet Prost stayed a level above the Brazillian when it came to the other parts of racing. Not many drivers before or since Prost enjoyed this much success with a calculating method.
His supreme feel and understanding of situations made him the smartest racer ever. He earnt the nickname of The Professor. While others ran around playing checkers at 200mph, Prost played chess at 180mph, and he still experienced incredible success.