Any driving instructor will talk about the merits of driving smoothly. Precision, consistency, reduced tire wear, and speed are the main reasons mentioned, but there’s more to it than that. Basically, all drivers begin driving roughly and slowly, then begin softening their inputs and finding some speed. Now smooth and somewhat fast, they then begin to search for more speed to become truly quick, and in doing so often get a bit ragged behind the wheel. The final step, which not even some professionals get to, resides at the junction between outright speed and sublime smoothness.
Perhaps more so than any other Formula 1 driver, Alain Prost exuded these two qualities in abundance. At times, his meteoric speed was masked by a subtlety behind the wheel; an ease, a serenity and a level headedness that served him well but didn’t always endear him to the fans. Rarely would Prost slide the car excessively and he almost never threw it around. Rather, he eased the car into a corner, and used his prodigious talent to make the most of his tires without abusing them. He famously said, “When I look fast, I’m not smooth and I am going slowly. And when I look slow, I am smooth and going fast.”
Prost tended to turn into the corner slightly early as a means of defense, and this often delays the rate at which a driver can depress the throttle. With an expertly-controlled release of the brake pedal, the Frenchman could enter a corner without pushing the front wide better than any of his rivals, and then transfer weight to the rear tires for exceptional traction. Additionally, Prost preferred a little understeer and that usually translates to rear grip.
Prost fed in the power smoothly as he relaxed steering lock — textbook driving, but his precision was at another level than what his peers were capable of. This approach allowed him to balance the car near-perfectly through the cornering phases, generating maximum traction without spinning and damaging the tires. Consider that the cars he was most successful in boasted huge turbo lag and a monstrous power delivery, and his advantage was magnified. The car in focus, the 1983 Renault RE40, boasted 750 horsepower and in the formative years of the turbo engine, the power tended to come in with a bang.
One advantage often overlooked was his maintenance of the gearbox. As is audible at 02:35, Prost would often skip gears on the downchange to minimize the number of times the clutch was engaged, for instance shifting from fifth to second instead of fifth to fourth, fourth to third, and so on. The titanic power of the turbo engine could strip gears and end a race prematurely if the shifts were made haphazardly, and to pull this off, Prost would bring the revs up the perfect amount to match the number of gears he was skipping. Listening to the times he shifts sequentially, his blips are much quieter and quicker.
This graceful style served him well over the course of a race, during which he could maintain his tires, engine, and transmission better than the competition and therefore have a better average pace, even if he was occasionally slow at the start. Though he often gets flak for not being aggressive enough behind the wheel, Prost was stylish and smooth in a way that few were, had a mechanical sympathy behind the wheel, and makes a life-threatening situation look almost graceful.