Alain Marie Pascal Prost didn’t have the intensity of Ayrton Senna or the outright domination of Schumacher. He wasn’t a prodigy like Lewis Hamilton or a grand old man like Juan-Manuel Fangio. But there is no doubt in the minds of those who study and follow the sport’s rich history, that this man was one of the most phenomenal drivers to have graced a Formula One race track.
The hallmark of Prost’s attitude to racing was his methodical approach. He was so systematic and meticulous in his style that he was nicknamed “The Professor”. Racing more with his head than his body, Prost’s cerebral approach not only helped him garner nearly 800 points in his 13-year career, but also helped him gain a far deeper understanding of the sport than most other drivers who have taken the chequered flag.
Prost made his F1 debut with McLaren in 1980 and finished his first race with a point to his name. But the remaining season saw him involved in a series of unfortunate accidents coupled with car-reliability problems that made his debut year rather forgettable. “The Professor” then showed his disappointment with the unreliable McLaren car by promptly moving to Renault for the following season where he stayed for the next three years, winning his first ever race and coming very close to winning his first World Championship title as well. He ended his Renault stint in 1983, just two-points behind the eventual winner, Nelson Piquet.
A tumultuous relationship with his teammate and misunderstandings with the management meant that Prost had to make a hair-pin turn back to McLaren for the ’84 season, without the slightest idea about the drama that was in store for him. He lost the title by half a point (this time to Nikki Lauda) to mark his first comeback year at McLaren. In the following season, his run of second place finishes finally came to an end as he clinched the World Drivers’ Championship for the first time - 23 points ahead of his closest rival - thus becoming the first ever French World Champion. In ’86 he did it again, making it back-to-back crowns, but not before battling a spate of hurdles in the form of repeated car failures. Prost rounded off his second stint at McLaren in ‘89 by walking away with his third title.
Besides three big championship wins, another highlight of his six-year stint at McLaren was the intense relationship that he shared with his teammate Ayrton Senna. The legendary Senna-Prost rivalry is one that remains unparalleled even to this day. These two drivers shared a one-on-one competition pattern that was so strong, that they redefined mortal boundaries of a rivalry. Not only did they break the mould of a traditional rivalry, they also broke several rules and regulations of the sport in their thirst to stay ahead of each other. Each man used every ounce of strength that he possessed to outmanoeuver his rival on the track. There were also races in which Senna and Prost would push themselves so hard, that they would end up tearing their McLaren cars away from the rest of the field, making it look like there was no other competition for the pair on the grid. Thanks to Senna-Prost and all that ensued between them, the sport witnessed the birth of a brand new breed of breathtaking wheel-to-wheel racing that made Formula One more thrilling than ever before.
It was indeed a great time for the McLaren team and a good time for both drivers as well, but the pressure of the rivalry finally got to Prost and he switched to Ferrari for the 1990 season. The move proved futile as an off-colour Ferrari failed to give him a championship winning car. Two difficult years later, frustration got to the better of the Frenchman who publicly lashed out at the Italian team for their underperforming car. The Scuderia management reacted strongly to his comments, and fired him before the final race of the ’91 F1 calendar. Stuck with no better choice, Prost was forced into a state of limbo the following year after Ferrari showed him the door.
Refreshed after a sabbatical year, he was back in action with Williams-Renault for the 1993 season, where he took 13 poles and converted six of them to victories to win his final World Championship title. Immediately after the ‘93 season in which he was mentally and emotionally drained, Prost hung his racing gloves only to disappoint thousands of fans, his new team and of course, Senna who derived a large portion of his motivation from a desire to beat his arch-rival.
The four-time world champion has a Grand Prix career profile that any racing driver would envy. From 199 race starts, he holds a phenomenal record of 106 podium finishes and 51 race wins. He may have won four World Championship titles on paper, but if you read between the lines of his incident-prone career, you will notice that if it weren’t for a few unfortunate events, the Frenchman could well have increased his title tally to six (or even seven) crowns. Prost holds another stunning record- he has beaten all his teammates on overall championship points 11 out of 13 times. This statistic makes a point about his uncanny knack of dominating and also explains why he never got along with Senna- another man who hated to finish second.
Alain Prost’s career profile speaks for itself as one that belongs to a Formula One Wall of Fame; but the sheer intensity that he brought to the track, sets him apart as one of the greatest racing drivers to have ever lived.