5 Great Moments from Alain Prost's Formula 1 Career
Alain Prost was one of the greatest drivers Formula One has ever seen.
Hailing from Lorette in central France, Prost made his debut in 1980 for McLaren. A points-scorer in his first grand prix, a switch to Renault in 1981 brought his first race win.
Quick, intelligent and a master of race management, he could easily have won three world championships by the time his first arrived in 1985. Further titles in 1986, 1989 and 1993 cemented Prost's place in the history books.
At the time of his retirement in 1993 he held the records for the most points, wins, fastest laps, podiums and points finishes. He remains the driver with the most wins in turbo-charged cars and the most victories at a home grand prix.
Tuesday, February 24, to celebrate Le Professeur's 60th birthday, we look back at five great moments from his illustrious F1 career.
1980 Argentine Grand Prix: First Race, First Point
In the 1970s, future F1 drivers didn't have to start karting before they could spell their own name. Prost was no exception—his biography on Formula1.com reveals he didn't sit in a kart until he was 14, only discovering the sport by chance while on holiday.
Racing became a hobby and later a profession of sorts. Without family funds or a wealthy sponsor, Prost paid his own way in the lower formulae by working as a kart distributor and engine tuner.
He rose through the junior ranks, winning both the French and European Formula Three titles in 1979. Offered a one-off drive for McLaren at the final race of 1979, he declined—but signed with the team for a full season in 1980.
The first race was the Argentine Grand Prix at the Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez. The layout used (the venue has many) would be enough to make the modern FIA safety department cry, but young Prost took the daunting circuit in his stride.
He qualified 12th, ahead of team-mate John Watson, and he was one of only seven drivers to reach the chequered flag as, per ESPN, the circuit fell apart under their wheels.
Sixth place and the first of 798.5 championship points was his reward.
1981 French Grand Prix: First Win
Though he had a good debut season at McLaren and was signed with the team for 1981, all was not well. Per ESPN, Prost was unhappy about numerous failures on the car which led to crashes and a number of injuries.
Renault wanted him for 1981, so Prost broke his contract with McLaren and joined his countrymen at Viry-Chatillon.
The year didn't get off to a great start. Though he scored his first podium in the third round of the season, he failed to finish five of the first six races. The seventh was in France—for a French driver in a French car with a French engine and French tyres, this was the ultimate prize.
Team-mate Rene Arnoux qualified on pole at the fast Dijon-Prenois circuit, but he fell back at the start and Prost, from third on the grid, took over as his team's primary challenger.
He was second when the race was stopped on Lap 58 due to heavy rain, and at the restart he took the lead from Nelson Piquet. Though pushed all the way by former McLaren team-mate John Watson in the MP4, Prost stayed ahead to take his first race win.
Prost won two more races in 1981 and, had his car held together more frequently, could have won the title. As it was he finished fifth, seven points shy of eventual champion Nelson Piquet, having scored points on just six occasions.
The man who would go on to become France's greatest-ever driver had arrived.
1985: First World Championship
Though the pairing had some success, Prost's relationship with Renault was at times difficult. He did not get on well with team-mate Rene Arnoux and the car—particularly the engine—was often unreliable.
Despite Arnoux's exit, by the end of 1983 things had got unbearable. Prost left after losing out on the title to Piquet and moved back to McLaren for 1984. With the TAG-badged Porsche turbo engine mated to the excellent MP4/2 chassis, the team were the class of the field.
That year he lost out on the world title by just half a point to team-mate Niki Lauda. On the podium at the final race of the season, per Andrew Benson, Lauda—perhaps realising the future had arrived—told Prost, "Don't worry, next year you'll win it."
So he did.
Prost won five races and stood on the podium on a further six occasions to claim his first world championship. He was pushed all season long not by Lauda but by Ferrari's Michele Alboreto, who saw his own title chances fall apart in the final five races.
The title was no less than Prost deserved—especially as he had missed out on the championship in the previous two seasons by a grand total of 2.5 points.
The video above shows highlights from the 1985 British Grand Prix, one of five races Prost won.
1989: Beating Ayrton Senna for Third World Championship
Prost was already a two-time world champion when Ayrton Senna arrived at McLaren in 1988. The younger Brazilian was regarded as the greatest natural talent on the grid, while Prost had a more reliable and consistent approach to racing.
Senna emerged victorious in their first year together. Though Prost actually scored 11 more points, only the best 11 results from the 16 races counted toward the championship standings.
But 1989 was Prost's year. Going into the penultimate round he held a 16-point lead over his team-mate. The same "best 11" points system was in place; as things stood, had Senna won the final two races he would have been champion regardless of where Prost finished.
Emotions were running high. The relationship between the pair had deteriorated to the extent they could no longer remain in the same team. The Frenchman would be joining Ferrari for 1990.
Senna qualified on pole but Prost got off the line quicker and led into Turn 1. In The Telegraph, David Tremayne told how Prost had the gurney flap removed from his car on the grid for greater straight-line (and off-the-grid) speed.
If Prost won, the title race was over, so Senna had to pass. He caught his team-mate and, on Lap 46, attempted to dive down the inside into the Casio chicane. The pair collided, putting Prost out on the spot; though Senna got going again and won, he was (somewhat unfairly) disqualified for cutting the chicane.
Did Prost turn in earlier than usual and in effect deliberately cause the collision? Probably. Was Senna overly aggressive and unwise to try to force his way through from so far back? Again, probably.
Whatever the intentions and whoever should shoulder the blame, the end result was Prost's third championship.
It was the only time Senna was beaten by a team-mate.
The video above is focused on Senna, but shows a number of angles of the incident.
1993: Retiring at the Top with Fourth World Championship
Prost finished second at the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix to clinch his fourth and final world championship with two races to spare. Only a few days earlier, he had announced he would retire from F1 at the end of the season.
At the time, he told reporters at Estoril (h/t LA Times):
I want to leave at the summit.
It is a decision that I have reached after careful consideration throughout the year. It has not been taken in a hurry at all. I reached the final decision about a month ago but could not make the announcement at Monza because of the circumstances of the race.
I feel after so many years at the top that I should be allowed to take a rest. It has been a long and difficult career. I feel I have given a lot to the sport, and I want to leave with a smile on my face.
Prost finished on the podium for his final three races and left the sport a four-time world champion with more wins than any driver in the sport's history. He'd also scored more points than anyone else, set more fastest laps and stood on more podiums.
And perhaps more importantly, he had beaten a string of team-mates including Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill—all past or future world champions.
The best way to end a career like that was to go out at the top, and that's exactly what Prost did. The video above shows the opening lap of his 51st and final win.
Bon anniversaire, Alain.