The launch this week of the superb new Alain Prost book written by my old friend Maurice Hamilton is a timely reminder of the contribution that the Frenchman has made to the sport.
Thirty five years after his debut F1 season he remains a big player, having contributed to the success of the eDAMS team in the inaugural 2014-'15 Formula E championship. The sight of him doing a little jig on the Battersea Park podium as he picked up the teams' trophy was quite something! As a Renault ambassador he could yet be a key element of the future works F1 team, should the deal to buy Lotus finally go through.
However, he will forever be associated with a golden era in the history of McLaren, spending more than half of his F1 career with the Woking team, as well as winning three of his four World Championship titles.
Prost's name will always be linked with Ayrton Senna, and he's sometimes been unfairly maligned. There are two sides to every story, and Maurice's book helps to redress the balance by allowing Alain to tell his side of a story that is such a significant part of F1 history. However, there is a lot more to his tale than just the Senna era.
I first became aware of the Prost name in 1979, when he was starring in F3. He made his name in karting before he was picked up by Elf, like so many other Frenchmen of his generation. Victory in the European F3 Championship marked him as a potential star, and I recall him impressing at the British GP support race, where he ran very quickly after a pit stop. He bypassed F2 completely when he joined McLaren in 1980 to partner John Watson, replacing his countryman Patrick Tambay, after impressing in a Paul Ricard test.
It was a huge opportunity for him. Unfortunately the team’s fortunes were at a low ebb, and it was to be a difficult season. He made a good impression by finishing sixth on his debut in Argentina and fifth second time out in Brazil, before an accident in South Africa saw him miss two races. It was the first of several major crashes that season caused by car problems that were beyond his control, and which soured his relationship with the team.
Towards the end of the season Ron Dennis came on board after a merger with his new Project Four outfit, but by then Prost had fallen out with team boss Teddy Mayer, and was on his way to Renault.
Alain stayed with the French team for three seasons. He scored his first win in France in 1981, and looked set to take the World Championship in 1983, only to lose out to Nelson Piquet at the very last round in South Africa. A dispute with the team management then saw Prost suddenly on the driver market at the end of the season. He was quickly snapped up by Dennis to replace Watson, who had not yet signed a deal for 1984.
The combination of John Barnard’s chassis and the TAG Porsche V6 engine proved to be very competitive, and the season turned into a fascinating fight between Prost and his veteran team mate Niki Lauda. The former was invariably faster in qualifying, but the latter focussed on preparing his car for race day, and usually brought home a good helping of points. Prost won seven races and Lauda five, but the Austrian did enough in the final race in Portugal to take the title by the tiny margin of half a point.
In 1985 Prost had a clear advantage over Lauda, who had a lot of bad luck, and ultimately decided to retire at the end of the season. Despite strong competition from Ferrari, Williams and Lotus Prost won five races – a sixth at Imola was lost because of an underweight car – and became France’s first ever World Champion at the European GP at Brands Hatch – the 30th anniversary of such prompting the publication of this book.
In 1986 he had a new team mate in Keke Rosberg. The Williams-Hondas of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell set the pace, but the tenacious Prost continued to score well, and he kept himself in the title fight until the final round in Adelaide. He remained very much the outsider, but after Mansell retired with a tyre failure and Piquet made a precautionary pit stop Prost surprised even himself by coming through to win the race and take his second title. He was the first driver to successfully defend the World Championship since Jack Brabham in 1959-’60.
By 1987 the TAG Porsche engine was overshadowed by the Honda, and McLaren struggled against Williams and the Lotus of Senna. However Prost left new team mate Stefan Johansson far behind and still managed to win three races. But for an unusually poor finishing record would have stayed in title contention for a lot longer than he did.
At Monza that year McLaren confirmed that it was switching to Honda power for 1988, and that Senna would be coming on board to join Prost. The news signalled the start of another extraordinary chapter in Prost’s career.
Prost was 32 and at the top of his game when Senna’s signing was announced at the 1987 Italian GP meeting. The Brazilian came on board at the same time as Honda replaced TAG/Porsche as engine supplier, so it was a time of great change for the team.
Prost had a lot of respect for Senna, and it didn’t take long for him to realise just how strong his new team mate would be. Ayrton was not only fast in the car but a hard worker out of it, and like most top drivers, was clearly very adept at building a strong relationship with the key players in the camp. And he already knew Honda well from his time at Lotus.
The MP4/4 of 1988 was so good that Prost and Senna completely dominated the season. McLaren won all the races except Monza, where both cars retired, and Ferrari scored a memorable one-two. Elsewhere the year was all about the battle between the Frenchman and the Brazilian, who had shown so much promise at Lotus, but had not been able to string together a title campaign.
Prost won seven races, finished second to Senna seven times, and set seven fastest laps. However, ultimately Ayrton had the advantage in the championship battle, clinching the crown in Japan with one race to go. The fact that Prost took only two poles confirmed that Senna had the edge on ultimate pace.
The following year things intensified, and their battle became ever more fraught. Senna had the better start to the season, but Prost fought back to win four times in the USA, France, Britain and Italy. Matters came to a head at Suzuka, where the two men clashed at the chicane. Senna carried on and won, but was later excluded, handing the title to Prost. Due to heavy rain Alain elected not to start the season finale in Adelaide, which was to have been his final race for McLaren.
For 1990 Prost joined Ferrari. He remained a key player in the McLaren story as the season again developed into a battle between the Frenchman, and Senna. Again it was ultimately resolved at Suzuka, where Senna drove into the Ferrari at the first corner. He guaranteed himself the title as both men were out of the race.
Nevertheless it was a good year for Prost, who won five races. Unfortunately in 1991 the Ferrari was uncompetitive. He picked up a few podiums, but fell out with the team, and was sacked before the end of the season.
Contractually Prost was forced to sit out 1992, but he returned with Williams in 1993. Armed with the superb high-tech FW15C he was hard to beat, but Senna tried hard, and again was his main rival. At the end of the year Prost retired, and Ayrton took over the Williams drive.
Prost found it hard to stay away from F1, and in 1994-’95 he tested for McLaren, renewing the old relationship once more. There was even talk of him racing, but it never happened, although he eventually joined as an advisor.
Then for 1997 he became involved in a takeover of Ligier, which was renamed Prost. Running the team proved to be a far more difficult job than he envisaged, and the money ran out at the end of the 2001 season. Since then Prost has remained close to the sport, competing in events such as ice racing and pushing the career of son Nicolas.
All of this is covered in great style by Hamilton, who has got some great insights from his subject, who has always been very articulate, even in his second language. Alain turned 60 in February, but he remains an energetic, restless soul, and he still has a lot to offer. We will see him back in the F1 paddock next year as part of the Renault F1 team management, competing against his old pals at McLaren? Let's wait and see...