Fernando Alonso is taking nothing for granted as he closes in on the World Championship title. After all, another Renault driver failed to win the title in similar circumstances in 1983: Alain Prost.
Alonso may be sitting pretty at the top of the championship table but, with six races left in 2006, his closest rival Kimi Raikkonen can still make a bid for victory. Although his Renault has been quick and reliable all season long they will have to continue that level of performance, and not let the title slip through their fingers as they did 22 years ago.
Today, Alonso leads Raikkonen with 87 points to 61 – meaning that Raikkonen’s points total in 70% of Alonso’s. In 1983 with three races remaining, Brabham’s Nelson Piquet trailed Renault driver Prost with 72% of his points total (51 to 37). Yet, by the end of the season, Piquet had turned the tables and snatched the championship by a single point (see chart).
For Prost, the rot set in at Monza. Piquet’s BMW turbo-engined Brabham powered him to victory while Prost’s Renault expired at half-distance. Renault had introduced turbo engine to Formula One six years earlier, but even with several years’ head start on development they were unable to run them reliably enough throughout a season to win a championship.
Piquet won the penultimate round at Brands Hatch, but Prost kept his hopes alive with second place. In the days when a win was worth nine points and second six, this left Prost on 57 points with Piquet on 55. Another Frenchman Rene Arnoux, driving for Ferrari, was just within range of the championship, on 49 points.
The championship would be decided at the final round in Kyalami, South Africa. Once again the Brabhams had a significant performance advantage over their rivals. Piquet lead and could easily have won, but when Prost retired once more he dropped the revs and let himself slip to third place, enough to take the title by just two points.
This began a time of decline for Renault. Prost, furious at Renault’s lack of development in 1983, publicly criticised the team and was kicked out. The team lasted just two more years, winning no further races, before withdrawing from the sport. Despite a subsequent and immensely successful period as an engine supplier, they only returned as a full team in 2002.
All analogies are limited in their usefulness – for example, Piquet’s Brabham was infamously running on an illegally high octane fuel for most of the season, whereas there is no reason to suppose that Raikkonen’s MP4-20 is anything other than a very good car. Also, one rather feels that the Ferrari driver in the equation today – Michael Schumacher – is more of a threat than Arnouxâ€¦
But the obvious point is that Alonso will be acutely aware of McLaren’s – and now possibly Ferrari’s – performance advantage over Renault. Raikkonen may be clinging to his championship hopes but he has the luxury of having nothing to lose – he can extend himself to the full in the cockpit. Alonso has to think a little conservatively, not get drawn into unnecessary incidents – and this easy-does-it approach is exactly what caused him to hit Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota the way he did in Budapest.
Crucially, Renault seem to have learned from the past. Their reliability this year has been almost faultless. And the modern points system certainly helps them by rewarding the mid-points positions too highly. But as long as a rival remains within range, he is a threat.
Just ask Prost. After losing the 1983 title he consoled himself with the though that he couldn’t have lost the title by much less. Until the following year, when Niki Lauda beat him to the title by a mere half-pointâ€¦