There is much more to motor racing than often is presented on television, or held in the public eye. Many assume that getting to the checkered flag first is merely a matter of a heavy right foot, a sizable set of plums and the hand-eye coordination of a black belt, but they fail to acknowledge some of the subtler traits which really dictate success on the circuit.
Hell, even the idea of “excellent reactions” gets thrown around a little too readily, which brings me to our focus tonight, Monsieur Alain Prost. While reactions will help a driver out of an unforeseen situation, they don’t hold the value many think they do. In fact, reactions are what someone uses when they aren’t anticipating an event, and with Prost, the great planner, rarely was he caught by surprise.
Alain Prost might be best known as one half of the Senna-Prost rivalry, or an underhanded villain according to some of his detractors. In actuality, he was much more the gentleman and a genius than posterity grants him, largely because of his understated, methodical approach to racing. Typically, the average fan expects fireworks, a guitar solo, some champagne and a flock of adoring groupies to follow the successful driver who just snatched victory from death’s jaws at the last possible second. While that image certainly sells, the studious disciple and the connoisseur of motor racing know that racing is ultimately a game of wits and strategy, which isn’t always theatrical.
Prost approached racing with his head, not his heart. Ever the cool cucumber, Prost grew up idolizing the thinking drivers like Lauda and Stewart, men who strove not to be daring but effective. These drivers understood the value of pacing, and both the physical restraints of both the driver and the machinery. For this reason, Prost never overused his equipment, made the most of his tires and never wore them out prematurely, and was seldom the victim of mechanical attrition.
What gave the diminutive Frenchman this edge was his disciplined approach to racing. Never indulging in lurid slides and rarely locking brakes, Prost’s technique was measured and incredibly smooth. Dominating the turbo era of F1, his gentle hands helped him make the most of the enormous power available, but not exclusively through pace. Rather, Prost allowed his tires to heat slowly and conserved his pace — and his fuel — before mounting a charge mid-race or later.
Whereas others were floundering around on worn rubber, Prost sailed on confidently, calmly and quickly. Often written off as a mere opportunist, Prost’s strategy is something that the fan who sees racing as a chess match appreciates greatly. However, this calm, calculating approach has endured more criticism than deserved, since his refusal to take excessive risks, matched with a virtuoso talent often made it appear easy.
Another part of his brilliance lay in the way he could rattle his opponent’s cage without having to resort to bullying or dangerous driving. Prost’s rivalry with Ayrton Senna is well-documented, but one event best describes Prost’s approach to dealing with the hotheaded Brazilian. At the 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix, Prost and Senna traded times in qualifying until Prost marked a lap a half-second faster than his teammate.
Even with an extra set of tires and plenty of time to better his performance, Prost changed back into his street garb and lounged around the garage to the bemusement of his mechanics and engineers. This seemingly innocuous wardrobe change infuriated Senna, who with the red mist descending upon him, only drove slower and slower. With a subtle display of self-certainty, Prost had managed to get inside Senna’s head.
Part of the Professor’s success had to do not with his masterly driving nor his psychological advantage, but his appreciation for the technical side of racing. While many of the hard-chargers and hotshoes of his era could secure points by showing up on Friday, driving the tires off an ill-handling car and keeping it off the guardrails, Prost was working on the setup of his machine Wednesday, running endless laps in pursuit of an ideal setup and those incremental tenths in his pocket.
Not only was he willing to put in the hours, but he understood how the cars worked and how to adjust them. With a car working beautifully, he could run away from the pack without having to wrestle with recalcitrant machinery. This approach allowed him to minimize the amount of risks he would take during the race, and perhaps it’s due to this that Prost was never seriously injured in his career.
Considering that his F1 career stretched 14 years, it’s hard to believe that sort of luck. Predictably though, much of this was premeditated. Prost had always had a wrangle on his car in the wet, but after a harrowing incident in the lashing rain, he began a more calculated, reasonable approach to dealing with adverse conditions. During the German Grand Prix in 1982, Prost and others were struggling with the pouring rain making visibility exceedingly poor. As Didier Pironi buried his right foot down the straight, his Ferrari came upon Prost, who up until a few moments prior had been rendered invisible by the spray his tires threw up.
The Ferrari catapulted off of Prost’s Renault, coming down, battering the guardrail, and shattering Pironi’s legs. The aftermath was so gruesome that it caused Nelson Piquet, one of the first on the scene, to vomit. After that incident, Prost swore never to take excessive risks in qualifying, traffic, nor in appallingly poor conditions such as those.
This cautiousness, combined with a reluctance to push 11/10ths was met with criticism, as many felt Prost never quite extracted all the performance available from his machinery, which simply wasn’t true. Prost’s classically-smooth approach often masked a sublime speed. Combined with a level head that kept him from making mistakes, he could be fairly described as one of the sport’s least dramatic drivers.
However, those who knew recognized the subtlety and precision in the Frenchman’s driving style understood that to win consistently, speed was only one part of the equation. Making use of the machinery, minimizing risks, and using clever strategy were equally important, and with his comprehensive ability, Prost could simply run circles around the rest.