Alain Prost’s career as a driver is inevitably compared to Ayrton Senna, and therein lies the problem. Evaluating Prost vs Senna generally isn’t a fair fight – Senna the legend beats Prost the man everytime. Senna didn’t get the chance to lose his edge, start an unsuccessful GP team, grow old or make idiotic comments from the sidelines. Had it not been for Imola 1994, he may well have gone on to taint his standing in all of these ways and more besides – just as Prost has done.
Another factor that counts against Prost is his driving style – bold, dramatic and exciting drivers like Senna or Gilles Villeneuve are usually remembered with warmth and affection. Drivers who win races through stealth and cunning are often not. But Prost was very good indeed, certainly as good as (and possibly better than) Senna. The speed was there, but Prost often decided not to employ it.
Prost’s early F1 career speaks volumes about his level of competitiveness. He made his debut in 1980 for a McLaren team which was on its last legs before the Ron Dennis takeover and immediately impressed. Prost was then a title contender in every single year of the 10 years that followed (1981-1990). Prost outshone most of his team mates in F1 and they were no mean bunch, including John Watson, Rene Arnoux, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell and Jean Alesi.
Prost often appears to be the loser in his battle with Senna but that was at least partly due to the fundamental differences in their approach – Senna would approach qualifying with maximum attack, whereas Prost preferred to prepare for the race. Senna was almost certainly the faster driver over a single lap, but the gap was probably smaller than it first appears. And the late 1980s are a world away from F1 2010.
Monaco 1988 is often cited as the prime demonstration of Senna’s advantage over Prost. Senna took pole position with a lap 1.4 seconds faster than his team mate, which seems staggering in today’s money. But McLaren were hugely dominant in ’88 and the field spread was much wider than it is now (1.3 seconds covered the top 10 in 2010, in 1988 it was 4.3 seconds). To put it into context, had Sebastian Vettel been 1.4 seconds slower than Mark Webber in Monaco this year he would have been 10th and nowhere. In 1988 Prost was 2nd with the nearest non-McLaren nearly 2.7 seconds off pole. When the front row of the grid is virtually guaranteed and pole position virtually impossible, why take the risk of trying for the fastest possible lap? Cold pragmatism may be the right course to take, but it doesn’t make for exciting viewing.
In the race Prost and Senna traded fastest laps, despite Senna having a large lead after Prost had been delayed earlier in the race. Senna eventually set the race’s fastest lap but lost concentration and crashed going into the tunnel, gifting Prost the win. It spoke volumes about the differences in approach and the comparison between the two drivers.
Of course, that’s not to suggest Prost was perfect. He was a highly political animal and this didn’t always work to his advantage. He intentionally closed the door on Senna at Suzuka in 1989, although the payback in 1990 was far more dangerous. His lack of pace was sometimes genuine, rather than a strategy option (although all drivers have off days). He was also surprisingly poor in wet weather conditions, pulling out of the 1989 finale and driving an appalling race in Donnington ’93. In the final year of his career, he gave the strong impression of doing just enough as the indisputed number one driver in a hugely superior car to win a fourth title. The fact that his contract for ’93 expressly excluded Senna as a team mate upsets many fans’ notion of fair play – it certainly upset Senna’s.
In essence, Prost was a very fast F1 driver – not as fast as Senna over a lap, perhaps, but the speed was there – but we saw it less and less as his career went on and he favoured stealth and strategy over outright pace. But an all time great, certainly.