Alain Prost – dubbed ‘The Professor’ – was famed for his tactical acumen inside the cockpit. It matched by a Machiavellian political nous outside it that helped him manoeuvre his way into the best cars at the right times.
Without his notorious rivalry with Ayrton Senna, that descended into outright war at times, his career win and championship tallies could have been the greatest ever.
He turned down a one-off drive at Watkins Glen in 1979 to take a full season’s drive at McLaren the next year. He generally had the upper hand over team mate John Watson, but his confidence in the car suffered after a series of dangerous suspension failures. He left for the all-French Renault team who, with turbo engines, powered him to his first win, at home, in 1981.
The championship would have been a possibility in 1982 but for chronic unreliability and the duplicity of team mate Rene Arnoux, who refused to yield to Prost as per their contracts while leading at Paul Ricard. Arnoux left for Ferrari and Prost led the 1983 title race until the final round, when he lost out to Nelson Piquet. Renault then dropped him after he dared to criticise them for not keeping the car apace with technological developments.
He left for McLaren and won first time out at Jacarepagua, answering his French critics. He won seven times that year yet still lost the title to team mate Niki Lauda by just half a point.
Prost finally clinched the title in 1985 and took a second in 1986 in a dramatic finale in Adelaide. By 1987 the TAG-Porsche engine had fallen behind but McLaren boss Ron Dennis scooped the coveted Honda powerplants – and Ayrton Senna – for next season.
Prost kept the upper hand for the first few races but Senna hit back hard, winning four races in a row. As early as round three, at Monaco, Prost was publicly admitting he couldn’t push as hard as Senna. Although he accrued more points during the season, Senna took eight wins to his seven, and the title with it due the peculiarities of the points system.
In 1989 Prost took the title but he was aided by far better reliability than Senna and claimed victory in controversial circumstances, punting his team mate off in Japan.
He took the number one to Ferrari and exactly one year later Senna repaid the favour, ramming Prost out at Suzuka to claim the title in much the same way. 1991 proved a waste of time in the recalcitrant Ferrari and Prost was fired before the final round for criticising the car, much as he had at Renault in 1983.
But, as ever, he had a contingency plan – a contract with the ultra-competitive Williams team in 1993, when he returned from a year’s sabbatical to win a fourth title, despite often being made to look foolish by Senna’s drives in the vastly inferior McLaren. Prost retired and, after Senna’s death in 1994, promised never to race in F1 again.
In 1997 he returned as boss of an eponymous team, formerly Ligier, but over the next five years the team dwindled from race-winners in 1996 to non-points-scorers in 2000. Prost quit for good after the team folded in 2001.