Alain Prost Biography | Extract 1
To coincide with the publication of Alain Prost, a new book that delves behind the scenes of the career of the inimitable four-time world champion nicknamed ‘The Professor’, we bring you an exclusive extract charting the early days of Alain’s formidable McLaren career.
An icon of Formula 1, a legendary driver, and a great friend of the team, Alain’s commitment, quirky sense of humour and unquestionable talent has led him to rewrite the history books with his successes and leave an indelible mark on McLaren’s heritage.
Written for McLaren by renowned motorsport journalist and writer Maurice Hamilton for McLaren and with full co-operation from The Professor himself, we hear in his own words, and from those closest to him, about his early, impressive steps on the Formula 1 ladder, starting with his first test with McLaren at Paul Ricard in 1979.
Alain Prost: “Once I had won the F3 title, François Guiter suggested I should go to the last two Grands Prix in Canada [Montreal] and the USA [Watkins Glen], so I travelled with two French journalist friends, Eric Bhat [Grand Prix International] and Jean-Louis Moncet [L’Auto Journal]. I spoke with Paddy and John in Canada and also Teddy Mayer [boss of McLaren] and there was talk of a drive in Watkins Glen. At the same time, Niki Lauda suddenly left Brabham in the middle of practice in Montreal and I had a discussion with Bernie [Ecclestone, owner of Brabham] about taking Niki’s place. I found myself in this strange situation where I suddenly had a few doors opening – and this was as well as Elf, because François Guiter wanted me to go to Ligier.”
“I was quite interested in Brabham, and McLaren too but I didn’t know what to do. Brabham took [Ricardo] Zunino and in the end I said, ‘No’ to Marlboro. I asked them to understand that I didn’t want to make a mistake; I didn’t know Watkins Glen and I didn’t know the car. I said I thought it would be a better idea to organise a test. I came back to France and waited for at least two weeks without any news. I was really feeling bad, thinking maybe I had blown my chance, that offers of F1 drives don’t come very often. François Guiter tried to help me, which was nice, but he had no contact with Marlboro. It’s at times like that when you begin to have nagging doubts. I had won a couple of championships but I didn’t know if that was enough. I could only wait.”
A month after Watkins Glen, Prost got the call. McLaren were in discussion about continuing with Patrick Tambay and they were looking at other prospective partners for John Watson. McLaren said they would give Prost a test along with the American driver Kevin Cogan, at Paul Ricard in early November.
Alain Prost: “Teddy was pushing for Kevin Cogan because they were both American and Cogan had been winning in Formula Atlantic [the North American equivalent of F2]. I think Patrick [Tambay] was still under consideration. Certainly, I did not feel I was the favourite in the beginning. But that did not matter because I was convinced I would do well, especially at Ricard. That feeling only grew when, on a beautiful day in the south of France, I sat in a F1 car and held the steering wheel for the first time. Initially it [the McLaren M29] seemed quite a big car. I did one slow lap and then one a little bit quicker and, on the third one, I said to myself, ‘It’s okay. I’m going to do it.’ Without knowing the lap time, it felt good.”
Prost’s intuition was correct. Standing at the pit wall with McLaren crew chief Tyler Alexander, Mayer clicked his stopwatch as the red and white McLaren-Cosworth V8 accelerated out of the final corner. Watson had established a benchmark time while setting up the car. Within a handful of laps, Prost equalled the time and then bettered it. Mayer noted that Prost got sideways when exiting the tight corner early on but didn’t lose time in the same way again.
Tyler Alexander: “I’m not sure exactly how many laps Prost did but he was a reasonable amount quicker than John during his first run – which was pretty impressive for a first time out in a F1 car. When he came into the pits, Teddy had his clipboard ready. Prost thought it was the timing sheets to look at – actually, Teddy had already been to the boot of his car and got out a contract he wanted him to sign! That was more or less it. Alain Prost would be racing for McLaren in 1980.”
Alain Prost finished sixth in his first Grand Prix in January 1980. As F1 debuts go, this was as impressive as it comes – particularly after starting from the middle of the grid with a difficult car and enduring 53 laps of the Buenos Aires Autodrome in torrid midsummer heat.
Alain Prost: “It was like driving on packed ice with no grip at all. I obviously wanted to create a good impression with my first race and I could see that this was actually an opportunity. There was no way we could compete with Williams or Ligier or Brabham or any of the top teams, particularly with drivers who were more experienced. But it was obvious that there would be a lot of incidents on this track. My plan was just to drive as quickly but as carefully as I could in the conditions. I think I did have a spin at one point – so did most drivers – but I kept going.”
There would be seven finishers from 24 starters at the end of a gruelling hour and 45 minutes. Never lower than tenth, Prost scored his first of an eventual career total of 798.5 championship points by finishing one lap behind the winning Williams-Cosworth of Alan Jones. The F1 establishment, particularly Renault-Elf, took note.
A fortnight later, Prost was worse off in qualifying (13th) but one better in the race when he put the stamp on his F1 debut by finishing fifth, this time at the bumpy and demanding Interlagos track in Brazil. The plan had been for another circumspect drive but Prost was forced to rely on hard lessons learned in karting when he caught the Arrows of Riccardo Patrese.
This was the start of Patrese’s fourth F1 season, his reputation for being an aggressive driver underlined by several brutal moves as he fended off the novice in the McLaren. Prost remained remarkably calm and persistent before finally making a concise pass after 11 laps of probing and of being forced to back out of legitimate moves. It was his patience when dealing with such a forceful opponent as much as the ability to bring the car home that earned Prost more recognition. Watson, meanwhile, finished one lap down and six places behind.
John Watson: “Alain was working with Teddy [Mayer] at this time. Teddy was a very good engineer from an era when you improved the car by messing around with springs, dampers, roll bars and so on. But we were moving into a period when that was… not irrelevant, but becoming much less important. The key to a car being competitive in 1980 was downforce, much as Ligier had done in ’79 and then Williams and Brabham were doing in ‘80 by bringing much more sophisticated aerodynamic parts to the car. So, here we had a situation where I was saying the problems, in my view, were of an aerodynamic nature while, at the same time, Alain was getting more out of the car simply by going through the age-old process of roll bars and dampers with Teddy. He had arrived in F1 fresh and without being jaundiced by anything he had found in previous years. And, on top of all that, the guy was outstanding. There were no issues or questions about that. He was just bloody quick.”