Alain Prost with Karun Chandhok
One of the most common questions that journalists ask me is "Who was your racing idol when you were growing up ?". The long answer to that question is Mario Andretti for his sheer diversity in the sport, Frank Williams for his incredible success and drive to win World Championships despite being a quadriplegic, Ron Dennis because when I started watching F1 in the late 1980's Mclaren was THE 'superteam' and he was the boss, Bernie Ecclestone because without him the sport would be a pale shadow of what it is today and finally Alain Prost.
The short answer would always be Alain Prost. The follow up question: "Really ? Not Ayrton Senna?". Despite my dad and grandfather being racing drivers, I probably have to blame my mother for this influence because she was a Prost fan! That perhaps got me started but the more I read about Alain in the pre-TV broadcast days, the more I grew to admire him. It amazes me how few people actually are Alain Prost fans, but what I've found in my travels is that people who truly watched F1 race after race in the 1980s and lived through the Prost glory years would agree with me.
Now before all the Senna fans stop reading here, let me get a few things straight. There is no question that ultimately Ayrton was the faster driver over a single lap. I mean for sheer commitment and ability to extract every last ounce of speed from a car over a qualifying lap, there has been no driver faster than Ayrton Senna and there may never be. Secondly, the Senna movie has opened up a whole new era of Senna-mania and fans have come crawling out of the woodworks. Lest we forget, this was a MOVIE and in a movie, there has to be a hero and villain so of course Alain came off second best (well probably second worst after Jean-Marie Balestre). The film didn't show any of Alain's greatness or Ayrton's failings; despite the film makers being good friends of mine, I believe this was wrong.
I believe there have been very few people to ever walk this planet who had the charisma of Ayrton Senna da Silva. The man had such presence and when he spoke, the world stopped to listen. Even today, I can't help but spend the odd half an hour on YouTube listening to Ayrton in that curious mix of a soft spoken voice combined with a firm belief and conviction in what he was saying. He was a man that the fans could relate to easily and carried all the emotions that someone with latino blood does, which meant that he won the fans over the more reserved and less flamboyant Prost.
When you talk about Alain, it's easy to solely talk about the Senna years but we have to keep some perspective here by the late 1980's, Alain had been in F1 as a championship contender for many years. He nearly won the championship in 1983 and was denied only due to poor reliability at the final round. He nearly won in 1984 and lost out by half a point to Niki Lauda, ironically because the Monaco GP was red flagged before 75 percent distance and therefore he only got half the points for the win. A fact often glossed over is that even in 1988, Alain scored more points than Ayrton and it was only due to the unusual system of dropped scores that year that Ayrton was awarded the title. So all of a sudden, Alain's 4 World Championships could pretty easily have been 7. He won 51 Grands Prix for four different teams, in an era with fewer races per season, much worse reliability and incredible competition through various different regulation eras.
So why am I a Prost fan? Well, in a nutshell, I thought his philosophy of spending hours to set the car up and make it as easy and comfortable as possible to go as fast as possible in the race was brilliant. Yes, it's easy to get excited by qualifying and I must admit I love nothing better than a low fuel, new tyre qualifying run, but the reality is you only get points on a Sunday! Alain's ability to put aside qualifying glory and consciously work on the long term game seems so logical to me. Races like Mexico in 1990, where the Ferrari wasn't very quick over one lap were just fantastic. Alain spent all of practice and qualifying working on race setup and despite starting 13th on the grid, came through to pass Ayrton and win.
I also thought Prost had a lot of conviction to stick by his beliefs. When he felt that Ayrton was getting preferrential treatment, he quit Mclaren. When he thought the Ferrari wasn't good enough, he called it a "truck" and even got the sack for saying so! He took a year off and made sure he got himself into the best seat available for his return to F1 in 1993 for Championship number 4. But where I thought he showed this conviction the most was in Adelaide in 1989 where the weather conditions were ridiculous. After a single lap, he drove back into the pits and quit in protest as he felt it was too dangerous. He proved to be right as accident after accident meant the race got called off but not before there was plenty of damage. Plenty of fans called him a wimp, but Gerhard Berger rightly said that actually "Alain was the guy with the biggest balls".
People say that you shouldn't meet your idols but I disagree with that theory. I have been fortunate to have had dinner with Alain on a few occasions and spent some time with him at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. He was absolutely fantastic and allowed me to go back into fan mode asking him all the questions I wanted to over the years. The man is still so damn fit and competitive it's amazing competing and winning in ice racing at the Andros trophy as well as cycling thousands of kilometres a year. A true sporting legend.