How Alain Prost’s ‘strange’ win kickstarted McLAREN’s Monaco dynasty - Presented by NTT DATA
For 21 years, McLaren couldn’t buy a win in Monaco, but then everything changed
Alain Prost was on his third sponsor dinner at a third different restaurant when his Thursday evening in Monte Carlo began to wind down in 1984.
For the Monaco Grand Prix, it was business as usual. In so many ways, the race has always been unlike any other. Set in a nation the size of London’s Hyde Park, with a population of around 38,000 (one in three of which are millionaires), once a year, it is completely taken over by Formula 1.
Six weeks are dedicated to building the circuit and a further three to deconstructing it. In between then, more than 100,000 fans flock to the Circuit de Monaco to watch one of the greatest sporting events on the planet.
It is F1’s ultimate challenge in its ultimate arena. Unsurprisingly, everybody wants a slice of Monaco, from fans and celebrities to sponsors and broadcasters. This results in increased media and marketing responsibilities, which Prost says meant multiple meals with his partners.
When you’re Alain Prost, that is especially true. When he talks, you listen. That was true then, and that is true now as we sit opposite him in his living room. As part of our Triple Crown celebrations, Prost has welcomed us into his France-based home to relive his 1984 Monaco Grand Prix victory. “Anything for McLaren,” he says with a smile as he opens the front door and invites us inside.
Prost's 1984 Monaco Grand Prix winning car on display at the McLaren Technology Centre
We walk past his four World Championship-winning race suits, hanging proudly on the wall, and spot his instantly recognisable helmet on a large bookshelf at the back of his living room, almost hidden amongst various memorabilia and ornaments. He offers us a seat and takes one himself, his dog Phoebe never leaving his side.
Prost appears as comfortable as you would expect a man to be in their own home, and over the course of three hours, he makes us feel just as relaxed. You can imagine he had the same effect on his sponsors in each of those three meals nearly 30 years ago. His success in Monte Carlo and love for the city made it something of a second home.
In 1984, his remarkable love affair with the Monaco Grand Prix was blossoming. He has since become one of the most successful drivers in the race’s history, with four victories, playing a pivotal role in McLaren becoming its most storied team, with 15 wins. But in 1984, neither he or McLaren had ever stood on Formula 1’s most famous top step, nor tasted its sweetest champagne.
Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt had both won titles for McLaren, but neither had been able to win at Monaco. Our founder, Bruce McLaren, had managed it with Cooper, but never achieved it with the team bearing his own name. In fact, of the 34 F1 World Champions, only 14 have won in Monte Carlo.
“Some very good drivers didn’t like Monaco,” Prost begins. “They either weren’t very competitive there or just didn’t like it. Having a good car is not enough at Monaco, you have to like it there. If you take the example of Jacque Villeneuve, he said that he didn’t like Monaco. Niki [Lauda] was not fantastic at Monaco, he didn’t like it very much. Whereas myself, I won there in ‘84, ’85, ’86 and ’88.
“If you win at Monaco, you go into the next year a little more confident. In Monaco, psychology is very important for performance, it really is everything.”
As part of our Triple Crown celebrations, Prost welcomed us into his France-based home to relive his 1984 Monaco Grand Prix victory
After a brief period with the team in 1980, Alain returned to McLaren for the 1984 season. We had grown considerably in his absence, the size of the team increasing from less than 60 people to more than 80.
He was pleased that many of those he had worked with in that first spell remained. They dictated the culture, blooding the new arrivals and ensuring the atmosphere Prost had loved in 1980 was prevalent. He felt instantly at home.
“I always say that my best team in terms of ambience was McLaren because of this family feeling,” Prost continued. “The ambience, both in the team and England, was much more what I like. I never felt well in a completely French environment. I like a pragmatic environment, and I like to separate the fun and the work.”
Partnered with Niki Lauda, Prost was technically the team’s number two driver, but he arrived with a serious pedigree. He had narrowly missed out on his first World Championship with Renault in 1983, and it was considered a case of when, not if, he would take that final step.
“With Niki in ‘84, it was a dream because he was my hero,” Prost says. “In school, when I started go-karting, he was winning the Formula 1 World Championship in ’75. Being his teammate was exceptional, and we got on really well together. We had a very professional way of working with the team to develop the car. There was a lot of trust and no problems, never.
“And we had a lot of fun. My nickname was The Professor, and his nickname was The Computer, but I tell you, outside of racing, it was exactly the opposite. I learned a lot from Niki about racing, but also outside racing: he taught me how to separate work and fun, and how to make things positive when it is not very positive.
After a brief spell with the team in 1980, Alain returned to McLaren for the 1984 season
“I remember at one point, I lost two consecutive races due to reliability problems, and I was really depressed, so he took me to a nightclub one evening and said something like ‘Okay, drink.’ I had never drunk [alcohol] before! He taught me to forget about those races and to think about the next one. He was taking care of me.”
Even though he was technically number two, Prost proved an instant challenger to Lauda and arrived at Monaco with a six-point championship lead. “I was always very confident going to Monaco,” he says.
Although Prost hadn’t yet won in the principality, he had come close multiple times. In 1982, he had led until a crash at the Chicane du Port, and he had been on pole in 1983, only losing due to a differential problem during the race.
“At that point in 1984, my main competitor was Nelson [Piquet] more so than Niki. Nelson had often been on pole, and his car was very, very fast. Niki qualified eighth in Monaco, which wasn’t the best result for him, but he would always come back through.
“Monaco is a very mentally [challenging] race for everybody. There is more tension, more pressure, and more work. I loved it because the more difficult a race was and the more pressure we had, the better I was.”
The walls in Monaco are barely a car’s width apart: the Fairmont Hairpin is the slowest corner in F1, with cars taking it at just 30mph. It is the tightest, most intricate lap of the calendar, and it requires inhuman levels of accuracy and precision to manoeuvre F1 machinery through the streets of Monte Carlo.
In 1984, Prost took pole ahead of 26 other drivers in qualifying
In 1984, Prost took pole ahead of 26 other drivers in qualifying. “It was really bloody dangerous, really, really dangerous,” he says of the number of cars, compared to the width of the track. “It’s not like today. It was almost impossible to have a clear lap without overtaking someone.
“I'm very surprised that we never had a very bad accident in qualifying. They were all very scared about Monaco, but that was part of the challenge.”
On the Sunday, torrential rain stuck. That wasn’t uncommon in Monte Carlo, but to this day, Prost says he’s never seen rain like it at the circuit. It had begun with a light drizzle in the morning, but as the race grew closer, the downpour increased, and people began to question whether the race could even go ahead.
In the end, they pushed ahead, but Patrick Tambay and Derek Warwick crashed out at the first corner after a collision with René Arnoux. Nigel Mansell momentarily past Prost for the lead, but suffered the same fate on Lap 16, crashing at the casino after “pushing too hard and aquaplaning.”
Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto and Corrado Fabi also all lost control of their cars. Whilst, in the commentary box, Murray Walker and former McLaren driver James Hunt were commentating on static as the television feed kept getting cut off by the storm.
“The weather is impossible to predict in Monaco, but this one in ‘84 was for sure the worst,” Prost says. “The reason why a lot of people were having problems is because this was the year when we introduced carbon breaks. Initially, these brakes were difficult to use and get into the right temperature [window], and Monaco was a good example of this.
Mansell momentarily past Prost for the lead, but crashed out on Lap 16
“When it started to rain a lot in the race in Monaco, all of the cars with these brakes had problems because when we braked hard, the brakes dropped in temperature, so we couldn’t brake hard, which made it impossible.
“We had put tape on the brakes to make them warmer, but we didn’t have much experience with them at that point – it was May, and we had only done a few races with them, and I don’t think any of them were in the wet.
“It was becoming very, very dangerous. A lot of people spun or crashed, and that was because of the brakes. I remember looking at the big screen as I was driving, and on every lap, you had a car crashing or spinning. Some drivers span three, four, or five times. It was awful.”
Prost hated the wet, he said so himself on many occasions. Mainly because it was dangerous but also because it promoted unpredictability, and this was in contrast to his cerebral style of racing. The Professor, as he was known, worked from the left side of his brain. Like his teammate Lauda, he was an analytical racer, winning battles through intellect and by outthinking his opponents. The randomness of wet racing made this much more difficult.
“I remember looking at the big screen as I was driving, and on every lap, you had a car crashing or spinning”
For many, the race at Monaco in 1984 is remembered as the day Ayrton Senna announced himself on the world stage with Toleman. As Prost clung onto the lead through the blinding spray, grasping at any form of grip he could find, Senna charged his way through the pack.
Whilst many heeded the warning of Mansell’s earlier crash, Senna carried on regardless, magnificently scything through from 13th to second. That number of overtakes was unheard of on the tight and twisting streets of Monte Carlo, but Senna became famous for it.
“Ayrton had steel brakes,” Prost points out. “I think that was one of his biggest advantages at this time. And if the race had not been stopped, it was impossible for me to fight.”
Ultimately, we would never find out. Course clerk Jacky Ickx decided enough was enough and stopped the race on Lap 32. “I think for safety reasons, it was the best decision,” Prost says. “At the time, the cars were not very, very safe. If you had crashed, somebody could have been killed. Today, there’s absolutely no question you could have run in these conditions.”
Toleman's Senna charged through the field from 13th to second
It's been reported that Prost gestured several times to Ickx to end the race, but the Frenchman says that, contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t the case. “I did it once, saying it was maybe becoming too much.”
That isn’t the only alternative storyline to have come from the race. At the time, Ickx was driving for Porsche in the World Endurance Championship, and McLaren were running a Porsche engine in their F1 car.
Many put two and two together and concluded that Ickx must have ended the race to protect McLaren’s victory, but Senna actually had an issue of his own. He had damaged his suspension at the apex of the Nouvelle Chicane, so although he was catching Prost by around three seconds a lap, there’s a chance he wouldn’t have even finished the race.
“I don’t remember if he had a suspension problem,” Prost says, sincerely. “Some people invent stories, but you never know because I could have crashed, he could have crashed, or one of us could have had a problem.
“I feel very sad, even today, because of poor Jackie and what people said about his integrity and the relationship with Porsche. People who know Jackie would not think that. It was more of a TAG engine than a Porsche one. We were just a client of Porsche, so the relationship with them wasn’t that big. It was all a little bit unfair. Jackie even told me that he didn’t see the sign I gave.”
Prost took three poles, four wins and seven podiums from 16 races in 1984
For all of the rumours, it’s ironic that Prost’s season could have benefited from it going the distance. With less than 75% of the race completed, half points were awarded, and at the end of the 1984 campaign, Prost missed out on the title to Lauda by half a point.
If the race had gone the distance and Prost had finished second, he’d have taken home six points, as opposed to the four-and-a-half he actually received. However, there was never any bitterness from Prost. How could there be? His team won the title. It’s a point he’s keen to make.
“That is an example of how you can lose the championship for half a point, which is still a record today, but still be happy that your team won,” he says. “We had a fantastic season in terms of ambience.”
Prost’s time would come. He must have known it - McLaren certainly did. What the world didn’t yet know was that we’d just witnessed the start of a rivalry that would come to define not only McLaren but Formula 1.
“That is an example of how you can lose the championship for half a point, which is still a record today, but still be happy that your team won”
Their racing on that day in Monaco is an excellent example of their contrasting styles: Prost was conservative and methodical, managing severe rain and his brake issues, whilst Senna disregarded the risk, driving on instinct as he flew through the field.
Both styles proved equally effective, and between them, they won the Monaco Grand Prix nine times in 10 years. These memories from Monaco remain particularly special for Prost.
“Monaco is exceptional,” he continues. “Don’t forget that the year before, I was on pole, and McLaren did not qualify, they were struggling. So I knew that it was the first win for McLaren, as well as the first for me. I knew that it was important for them.
“It was a strange podium. It was a short race, and we’d had to wait for the royal family to come down, but it was still really special. We were completely wet, and Ayrton was half happy, half disappointed. But he wasn’t angry at all, I went to see him and said that maybe it would have been his race if we hadn’t stopped. He just said, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ or something like this.
At the end of the 1984 campaign, Prost missed out on the title to Lauda by half a point
“After the podium, they have a traditional dinner, and the winner has to be there. I became close with the family, and I was always there because I love this kind of tradition. Winning in Monaco is always special. Being of French nationality, Monaco is like your home race.
“Going back to Monaco, even now, it is almost like my country. People from different generations remember that you are part of the family and the history of Monaco. People need to understand that is why Monaco is so special.”
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