Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost: Underappreciated heroes

Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost: Underappreciated heroes

Formula 1

Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost: Underappreciated heroes

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Between them, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost accounted for seven World Championships and 78 grands prix victories. So why is it, when we look back, that neither of them was ever regarded as the fastest man of his era? Or that they were overshadowed on that score in their day by Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt, in Jackie’s case, and Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna in Alain’s. They were the most successful men of their time, yet now that is sometimes dismissed in a derogatory manner by those who remind us, “Yeah, but Rindt/or Senna was faster.”

Both were the perfect proof that fast and successful don’t always amount to the same thing.

Forty years ago Stewart scored his 27th and final victory, fittingly at the Nurburgring, and by the end of the tragic season of 1973 had retired with his third World Champion’s trophy in the cabinet.

Twenty years later, Prost having surpassed Jackie’s record with a 28th win in Portugal six years earlier took his final victory in Germany and his fourth champion’s crown before making way at Williams for Senna.

It was the ever-amusing Frank Gardner who once said: “I didn’t necessarily want to be the quickest driver in the business, though I certainly wanted to be the oldest”

In some minds, neither Stewart nor Prost deserve the accolades heaped upon Clark or Rindt or Villeneuve or Senna. Let’s say it, death immortalized that quartet. They were all seen as dashing heroes who all needed to be the fastest, to be running out front. With the exception of Clark, who had the least flamboyant style of the four, they were all crowd pleasers because of their dramatic style. Jochen’s car control was always evident, as was Gilles’. And you could see the way Ayrton could make a racecar dance and vibrate.

I was in the Williams garage in South Africa at the end of second qualifying for the first race of the year in 1993. It was Prost’s first race for a team whose proprietors adored the likes of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell who wore their raw speed like a badge of honor. Jonesey was a man’s man, hard in everything he did. Keke would stub out his cigarette and then lap Silverstone at 160mph. Mansell would drag a time out of the car with his iron will and unbelievable strength. They were old school heroes, and Frank and Patrick lapped it all up.

Honestly? They looked bored by Prost that afternoon, and, with Senna fastest in the McLaren Ford, they were impatient. Frank was stony-faced, Patrick’s blood pressure looked as it if was rising by the second. The car with which Mansell had wiped the floor with everyone in 1992, and which had been improved, was not being driven in the manner they had expected of their new driver. Senna had lapped in 1m 15.784s and time was running out. The lap Prost was on didn’t look any quicker. Then suddenly the time flashed up: 1m 15.696s. Frank and Patrick were on pole, and their jaws dropped in surprise.

But that was Alain. And it was Jackie, too. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in later life, both would pen excellent books on how to drive fast. And pitching a car through a corner on tire-smoking, crowd-pleasing, oversteer-controlling opposite lock had no part in their philosophy. They were both superbly disciplined drivers intent on doing the job effectively and efficiently, which meant spending as little time as possible going sideways, and getting everything out of themselves and their equipment in the smoothest possible manner. They carved every one of their fast laps with surgical precision, without the need to demonstrate to spectators how difficult it was to perform up there on the high wire. Dammit, they made it look easy, and therein lay the confirmation of their skill. But to some they were also boring to watch.

When he was in his mid-50s, Jackie drove me around Oulton Park in a Ford Escort Cosworth. Let me tell you, he was quickand he was as smooth as silk. Two other F1 drivers were there that day; Johnny Herbert was quick, but he got his speed a different way as he frequently hammed it up with his shattered feet, while Jonathan Palmer found his pace with the finesse of a butcher dismembering a side of beef.

Neither Stewart nor Prost fitted the mold of the rugged race driver, cheating death with a smile on their lips. They were thinkers who were all too aware of the risk. “In bed one night, Helen and I were counting up how many people we had lost, close friends, to racing,” Jackie once told me. “We stopped counting when we got to 50”

How chilling does that sound in today’s era? But it all went so much deeper than that. These were their friends, people with whom they spent much of their time on the road, with whom they lived, loved and laughed, taken suddenly and violently. The Stewarts saw all the anguish at the closest quarters. Helen was always by Jackie’s side, his succor in such moments of tragedy, and as brave in her own way as he was. Many times she would be the one who had to clear the dead man’s hotel room.

At the height of Jackie’s safety crusade which was born as much from anger at the senseless waste of young lives as it was his own brush with death at Spa in 1966 when he was trapped in his damaged BRM he was branded a “milk and water” racer by Motor Sport magazine’s Denis Jenkinson. The latter had partnered world champion Eric Oliver in sidecar racing and won the Mille Miglia as Stirling Moss’s navigator in 1955 and therefore had some right to such an extreme view, but it was nonetheless ridiculous. And Stewart would still take pole positions and wins at tracks that he regarded as dangerous. Driving the hefty BRM H16 one-handed at Spa in 1967, while holding the beast in gear with the other hand, he was beaten only by Dan Gurney’s Eagle. Was that the performance of a wimp? I think not.

What people forget about Prost is that in his early years, especially after Gilles’ death in May 1982, he was the wild man who set the pace for Renault and sometimes, such as at Zandvoort in 1983 when he collided inadvertently with Nelson Piquet, the impetuous one. But today more recall him giving up in the wet at Silverstone in 1988, and again in the deluge that was Adelaide in ’89. He was panned for that, for such behavior surely was not befitting a real racer?

“I don’t mind racing in the wet,” he explained, “but it makes no sense whatsoever to me when you cannot see. I remember what happened to Didier [Pironi] when he did not see me in the spray at Hockenheim in 1982. The people who criticize me don’t remember that.”

Neither Prost nor Stewart needed to display their egos while driving. Jackie adored Juan Manuel Fangio and was a disciple of the great Argentine’s philosophy of winning at the slowest possible speed. (Interestingly, perhaps because to do so would have been infra dig in his era, Fangio was never criticized for that.)

In 1973, the short-wheelbase Tyrrell 006/2 was a tricky little car to handle, but if you knew how to do it you could get a lot of speed out of it. The sweetly progressive Lotus 72 was arguably better Emerson Fittipaldi still maintains it was the greatest racecar he ever drove, while the McLaren M23 was still being developed but was a more sanitized and stronger version of the Lotus. Taken across the season, they were the three most consistent pacesetters, with cameo roles from BRM, Surtees and the Hesketh March.

The title came down to Stewart versus Lotus, and the myth is that he made hay while Emerson and Ronnie Peterson stole points from one another. That doesn’t quite stack up, however, since reliability (and Fittipaldi’s bad crash at Zandvoort) ultimately hampered Lotus. Peterson failed to finish in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Canada, should have won in Sweden and eventually did in France, Austria, Italy and America. Fittipaldi, meanwhile, won in Argentina and Brazil, then Spain, and was on the podium in South Africa, Belgium, Monaco, Italy and Canada, but failed to finish in Sweden, France, Britain, Holland and Austria.

Stewart by contrast was consistency itself, in what only he, Ford’s Walter Hayes and team owner Ken Tyrrell knew would be his final season. He informed them of that in April, but never drove like a man on a countdown mission. He had recovered fully from the mononucleosis which affected him in 1972, and won in South Africa (despite being charged with uncharacteristically passing under a yellow flag), Belgium, Monaco Holland and Germany, and was on the podium in Argentina, Brazil and Austria.

“I spent the year maximizing what we had,” he admits. “But also I had this tightrope act to play with Francois [Cevert, his teammate]. He was very quick that year, but he was getting itchy feet and Ferrari was courting him strongly for 1974. I knew that I would be retiring and that he would become Ken’s number one driver that season, but I couldn’t tell him that because I couldn’t tell him I was retiring. Even Helen didn’t know! I kept gently telling him he needed one more year alongside me at Tyrrell”

Stewart never had any problem acknowledging his young teammate’s speed, or that there were races in 1973 where the Parisian had been faster than him. He was even reluctantly mulling over a request from Tyrrell to let the younger man win at Watkins Glen, should the opportunity present itself.

“At some races towards the end he was quicker than I was, though he wasn’t always able to do it on a repeating basis. I knew that I was going to be leaving the destiny of Ken’s team in safe hands. I think he would have won the championship in 1974.”

Instead, Cevert died on the Saturday afternoon during practice at Watkins Glen. When Ken Tyrrell withdrew as a mark of respect, Stewart’s racing career came to its end in desperately sad circumstances.

Twenty years on, Prost went into his final season under media attack, portrayed as the man who had snatched away Mansell’s winning ride while keeping poor old Senna out of the team.

“After what I had gone through with him alongside me at McLaren, could they really blame me for that?” he asked, amazed that so many took Senna’s side in the argument.

Then there was that massively embarrassing defeat in the changeable weather at Donington, on one of Senna’s greatest days. As Alain sat relating his litany of woes at the end, a beaten third in the best car in the field, Ayrton had sadistically made him a laughing stock with the comment: “Perhaps you should change cars with me”

There were many who felt that, while he wasn’t exactly going through the motions, Prost was not pushing the limits in 1993. They pointed to rookie partner Damon Hill’s speed in the FW15, and to an extent that was true. Alain was following his diktat of driving just as fast as he needed to. Ayrton, meanwhile was driving his heart out in a slower car. Guess who the hero was?

Alain was unfairly penalized in Monaco and Germany and robbed by mechanical failures of wins in Hungary and Italy. He did deliver victory in South Africa, San Marino, Spain, Canada, France, Britain and Germany, and was on the podium in Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Japan and Australia. However, despite such success, his final title is largely dismissed as the season in which he was shooting fish in a barrel while Senna was “unfairly” forced to race an inferior car. But one of the arts of a champion is to get himself into the right car at the right time, and unquestionably Prost did that and did enough with it to justify his final success.

“We did find it a little difficult to adjust to a driver who did not feel the need to be fastest in every session,” admits Patrick Head, who had always championed head-down chargers, “but after a while we realized that Alain had his own way of doing things. And that it could be pretty effective”

So why is it that the man in the street frequently fails to accord either Stewart or Prost their due respect as pure racers, and tends to pigeon-hole them instead as artists while decrying their lack of raw speed? Certainly, Prost got his backside into some great cars, notably the 1983 Renault, the Dennis-Barnard era McLarens, the Ferrari 641 and the Williams FW15, but the same can hardly be said of Stewart. The 1965 BRM P261 was as much a jewel as the P83 H16 was a truck, the March 701 was awful, and the Tyrrells, while quick, were never the best cars. The one outstandingly great machine he drove was the Matra MS80 of 1969, in which he won the first of his three World Championships.

Perhaps it’s as simple as Stewart’s safety crusade upsetting some who have long memories, and Prost’s low profile and defensiveness in his Senna period created images that insiders know to be unfair. Certainly, Stewart is as charismatic, albeit in a different way, as Mario Andretti, and both he and Prost were gentlemen at all times in the way they performed on the track (Suzuka 1989 notwithstanding). Maybe it’s just that sports fans often prefer those perceived as underdogs which, once they had hit their stride in decent machinery, Stewart and Prost most assuredly were not.

Both were sensational in the early stages of their careers when they were still rising stars. Jackie won at Monza in his first season, 1965; Alain won with Renault in his second, at Dijon in ’81. Stewart was as fast as Clark and Rindt, or later Fittipaldi, Peterson and Jacky Ickx. But where he wisely quit while he was on top, Prost bravely accepted Senna into McLaren at a time when he had reached his peak and the young Brazilian was ready to do to him what Prost had himself done to Niki Lauda in 1984/’85. The biggest difference between Prost and Senna was that when they were teammates, one was hungrier and therefore more inclined to take massive risks than the other. Prost at his best versus Senna at his? There’d be nothing to choose between them, in my opinion.

Both Stewart and Prost could certainly match the pace of their rivals. Remember that fabulous British GP in 1969 when Stewart traded fastest race laps with Rindt as they fought for the lead, or how Prost stunned Senna in the opening laps of their fated duel at Suzuka in the 1989 Japanese GP. No, there was never a case for this pair lacking speed. It’s much more about their subtle manner of delivery and the fact that they went flat out only when they deemed it necessary; their one-in-four victory rate and seven World Championships would suggest they struck the right balance for success.

Most of all, though, we should rejoice that they’re still around today to talk about it.

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