Alain Prost Biography | Extract 2
Continuing our serialisation of Alain Prost, the new biography written by Maurice Hamilton for McLaren which gives the inside track on the ‘The Professor’s incredible career, we skip to the climax of the 1986 season.
We join Alain and the team with four races to go, when a recent spell of bad results had left him firmly on the back foot. Anyone who knew anything about the sport was betting on a Williams championship triumph, and Alain was looked upon as a real outsider. The following extract – in the words of Alain himself and some key McLaren team members – shows just how quickly things can change in Formula 1, especially with Alain Prost at the wheel.
With four races remaining and the same number of drivers – Mansell, Piquet, Prost and Senna – in with a mathematical chance, the championship pendulum continued to swing as Mansell led Piquet to a Williams one-two in Italy. When Prost came away from Monza empty-handed, it was as if he had been tempting fate beforehand.
Tim Wright, McLaren engineer: “Alain and I had a really good relationship. He used to wind me up and ask me to do things he didn’t think I would carry through. At Monza, he took me to one side and said he didn’t think the race car was performing properly and he’d need to take the T-car. He had qualified on the front row with the Williams drivers and Senna behind us, so you can imagine this really wound me up. He kept going on about it to the point where I was about to agree to the switch – and then he backed off. It was obviously a bit of a joke but the irony was that, when we got on the grid, the electrics failed on the race car. We couldn’t get it to start. So, after everything Alain had been saying, he had no option but to start from the pitlane in the spare car. There was a bit of a fuss about making the switch too late but, in the end, it didn’t matter. The engine on that car failed just after he had got himself up to fifth and into the points. He didn’t try making the joke again.”
Alain Prost Biography | Extract 1
When Mansell won in Portugal and Prost inherited second place after Piquet spun off, Senna not only ran out of fuel but also championship options. Now it was between three as they headed for the penultimate round in Mexico – and it remained that way as Prost finished second, ahead of Piquet (fourth) and Mansell (fifth).
Indy Lall, chief mechanic: “Having been working in the USA and come back to McLaren halfway through 1985, I was back on Alain’s car as No 1 mechanic for ’86. It was very much a continuation of where we had left off. We were a really strong team. It seemed that Alain had matured in terms of how he was thinking and approaching things. He knew how the system worked but he never used it to his advantage. He was very much a team player. At the time, I knew nothing about Daniel passing away. He never mentioned it and we had no idea.
“We didn’t have the fastest car but Alain was managing his races and scoring points through a mix of guile, speed and intelligence. I certainly didn’t underestimate what might be possible in the final race even though we were definitely being seen as the outsiders.”
There was no question that the Williams-Honda was the stronger package and, had Mansell remembered to put his car in gear on the grid, he could possibly have become World Champion in Mexico by finishing higher than fifth. In terms of championship favourite, Prost was considered by most to be the third man in Adelaide.
Predictions appeared to be on the money when Mansell took pole with Piquet alongside. Prost was fourth, more than a second away from Mansell’s pace and knowing he would have to contend with the disruptive element associated with Senna starting from third. But, as Prost said, anything could happen in an 82-lap race lasting for almost two hours. Prescient words, maybe, but only a scriptwriter with a vivid imagination could come up with what was about to happen during a tense afternoon on Sunday 26 October 1986.
Mansell’s points advantage was such that third place or higher would be good enough. Prost and Piquet knew they simply had to win. It was predictable, therefore, that Piquet should shoot into the lead with Mansell eventually settling into a comfortable third place. Prost held a watching brief for a couple of laps, before, almost unnoticed, he eased into fourth and then took third from Mansell and second from Piquet – who then spun and fell behind Mansell.
The race was now being led by Rosberg [in the sister McLaren], clearly determined to end his F1 career with a win. Then two events – both related to tyres – exerted significant influence over the outcome of this delicately poised championship.
On lap 32, Prost suffered a punctured right-front tyre but made it back to the pits. The stop took what seemed an inordinately long 17 seconds.
Indy Lall: “The front jack was a standard quick-lift of the type that most teams used. The puncture meant the front of the car was low to the ground but, quite honestly, it wasn’t a big issue. That’s how long it took in those days in a situation like that.”
From the outset, Goodyear had said they would check wear-rate as the race went on and advise teams accordingly. The tyre technicians seized the opportunity to examine Prost’s discarded rubber. From what they could see, wear was not a problem. Word went out that drivers could run non-stop. Thirty-one laps later, the situation changed dramatically. But, crucially, no one realised it straight away. Rosberg had continued to lead while, at the same time, wondering how he could assist Prost to the victory he needed. The conundrum was partially answered on lap 63 when Rosberg heard and felt what he thought was an engine failure while accelerating hard. Switching off immediately, he coasted to a halt and climbed from a F1 car for the last time.
Keke Rosberg: “In your last race, the most important thing is to come out of it in one piece. Even if you’ve never been scared before, in your last race you can’t avoid it. I had a 28-second lead. Flat out on the straight, there was a huge bang. I thought the crankshaft had fallen off. I switched off, parked up, looked underneath. No oil? That’s strange. Then I walked away. I didn’t realise it was a rear tyre until a marshal told me. I could have driven to the pits on the rim, got a new tyre and maybe won my last race. It was a big disappointment but later they found both my front discs were finished. Another lap or two and I would have been in the wall anyway. I didn’t feel so bad after that.”
Had Rosberg examined his right-rear tyre, he would have seen the cause of the vibration and that he described as the ‘grrr’ sound that gave the impression of a broken crankshaft. The tyre was still inflated but the flailing rubber from a delaminating tread had signalled a serious problem, not just for Rosberg but potentially for others still running.
Nine reasons to be an Alain Prost fan
One lap later, Mansell suffered a spectacular left-rear failure while reaching in excess of 185 mph on Brabham Straight. With the car lurching precariously in a shower of sparks, its right-front wheel pawing the air, Mansell somehow managed to maintain a reasonably straight course and come to a safe halt in the escape road at the end of the straight. His championship was as shot to pieces as the left-rear tyre.
Piquet now led both the race and, in theory, the championship. But Williams faced a dilemma. With 20 laps to go, they could not risk another failure. Piquet was summoned for a tyre change.
Now Prost led with tyres which, of course, were comparatively fresh. If Prost stayed in front and Piquet, having rejoined second, failed to catch him, a successive title would be his.
Easier said than done. With the on-board computer telling him he was five laps on the wrong side of finishing and countless memories of the TAG Turbo running out of fuel, Prost drove as quickly as he dared knowing that Piquet was making massive inroads.
Alain crossed the line with four seconds to spare. Pulling over immediately, the 1986 F1 World Champion, not demonstrative at the best of times but driven at this moment by a surge of relief and adrenalin, climbed from the cockpit and leapt in the air.
Ron Dennis: “The one thing I remember about Adelaide more than anything else is the picture of Alain beside the car just after he had stopped. This was an era where post-race scrutineering of the cars was such that it was clearly an advantage not to complete the slowing down lap. Alain parked the car after the start–finish line and then there was this picture of him jumping in the air. He was a foot or more in the air. It was an amazing picture and it still holds very clearly in the memory.”
Indy Lall: “It was a moment I’ll never forget. It had been a flat-out race – absolutely full-on racing – which was one of the reasons why everyone enjoyed it that much.
“The guy waving the chequered flag was called Glen Dix. Wearing a brightly coloured jacket and with a slightly bowed head, he really did it with a flourish each year. He became an iconic emblem of Adelaide. I asked him if I could have the chequered flag and he was more than happy to hand it over. I was really chuffed with that.
“Once we had packed up, we went back to the hotel for a fantastic party. It was not totally exclusive, but not anyone could walk in. Ron said, ‘As you’ve won the championship, you can decide who comes in.’ There was a big burly security guard on the door and the boys said to come and ask us if there was someone at the door he wasn’t sure about. We could have made a fortune that night with the number of hangers-on wanting to come in. The party was brilliant because the whole team was there and, of course, Alain.”
Alain Prost: “It had been a very hard year. But on the sporting side, I have to say 1986 was one of my best seasons. I knew the Williams were good but, thanks to having been with McLaren for three years and working so well as a team, I always thought we had a chance. But I didn’t expect a finish like that! I remember the last few laps. I had been so preoccupied that I hadn’t been able to think about looking after the fuel. I could see the readout was showing zero but I thought there was no point in trying to back off because Nelson was coming after me. I had to go for it – and hope. You can’t believe the feeling when I saw the flag and crossed the line. But perhaps the best feeling of all came the following morning. I was going down to breakfast and the morning newspapers had been left outside the bedroom doors. The headline said: PROST WINS ADELAIDE THRILLER. And there was the photo of me, jumping for joy beside the car. I’ll never forget that moment. Absolutely fantastic.”