One man’s journey in Formula 1, starring Alain Prost.
He won four Formula 1 World Championships in just nine seasons, and could so easily have won a couple more. And yet Alain Prost never captured the imagination of the public at large, even in his home country of France. Perhaps that was a reflection of the calculated way he went racing, a style that would earn him the nickname “The Professor.” Yet at the start of his F1 career, he was at least as well known for being just flat-out fast.
Joining McLaren in 1980, the reigning European Formula 3 Champion surprised with a sixth-place finish on his debut and stunned by following that up with fifth place in his second start. However, the team was struggling in the ground-effects era and, those results aside, it was to be a difficult year for Prost. There were a couple more points finishes, but component failures led to crashes, led to injuries, led to missed races, and his relationship with McLaren understandably soured.
Still, the potential was obvious, as his teammate of the time, the decade-older F1 veteran John Watson recalls.
“Alain had a good feel for small setup changes – things like springs, dampers,” he says, “and the team was looking for answers in those areas.”
Toward the end of the season Ron Dennis joined McLaren after a merger with his new Project Four outfit, and brought ace designer John Barnard with him. But Prost’s unhappiness with erstwhile team boss Teddy Mayer was compounded by a suspension failure at the season finale in Watkins Glen. With the works Renault team in need of a replacement for Jean-Pierre Jabouille, who’d been injured in a crash at Montreal, Prost gratefully headed “home” for ’81.
Alain stayed with the highly politicized Renault team for three seasons, scoring a total of nine wins and coming close to the ’83 World Championship before being thwarted by a late surge from Brabham’s Nelson Piquet. But disputes with team management, exacerbated by a personal falling out with team boss Gerard Larrousse, saw Prost dumped onto the driver market at year’s end. He was quickly snapped up by Dennis for a return to McLaren, replacing a stunned Watson, who’d not yet signed a deal for ’84.
The combination of Barnard’s chassis and its TAG Porsche turbo engine proved dominant, and the season turned into a fascinating fight between Prost and his teammate, the already legendary two-time World Champion Niki Lauda.
Barnard recalls: “I remember Niki saying to me, ‘I can’t understand this guy. When it comes to that one big lap in qualifying, he can always do me by half a second. I’ve got to figure out why.’ But I don’t think he ever figured it out, other than conceding that Alain was just bloody quick! So Niki started to focus more on his races.”
Prost won seven GPs to Lauda’s five, but the Austrian did just enough to take the ’84 title by half a point. However, in ’85, the pace gap between them stretched. Lauda endured a lot of bad luck, fell out with Dennis, and ultimately decided to retire at season’s end. Meanwhile, despite strong competition from Ferrari, Williams and Lotus, Prost won five races and he became France’s first, and so far only, F1 World Champion. He’d also established himself as The Man at McLaren.
“Alain wasn’t overtly tough,” says Watson. “You see some drivers elbowing everyone and everybody out of the way. I think he won people over because he was outstanding in a racecar, a very nice guy who enjoyed life, and a serious player.”
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