There is always a debate among motor racing fans as to who is the ‘best driver’ of a period – whether it be this season, the last decade, a certain era, or of course, of All Time. As an official blogger for Autosport International 2014, I have been asked to nominate the best driver of my generation.
I started watching motor racing in the early-mid 1980s, and have not stopped since. I am fortunate to have seen some of the greatest racing drivers compete, and I hope to see many more yet! But who do I consider to be the best driver of my generation? Who stands out from among the other greats, and why? For me, the answer is Alain Prost.
Prost’s career, of course, is inextricably linked to that of Ayrton Senna. The two of them left the rest of Formula One behind in the late 1980s and early 1990s as their rivalry intensified. The two men could not have been more different; Senna fitted the heroic ideal perfectly, while Prost was almost an anti-hero.
Alain Prost’s brilliance was chiefly that he made driving a Formula One car look simple, using his supreme skill to place his car exactly where it needed to be, with millimetric precision at 200mph. While Senna would drag his car by the scruff of its neck to extract every ounce of speed from it, Prost was impeccable at working in perfect harmony with the same car to achieve the same result.
Over the last decade we have seen Michael Schumacher (and fingers crossed for his recovery) and Sebastian Vettel obliterate virtually every F1 record around, and it is easy to overlook Alain Prost’s remarkable statistics.
Prost was Formula One World Champion on four occasions; in 1985 and 1986, again in 1989 and finally in 1993. He was also runner-up in another four years; 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1990. In three of those four years, he was denied the title at the final race of the year. In the fourth (1988), he actually scored the most points but was beaten by Senna, who won more races.
Alain Prost was blisteringly fast when he needed to be, but never overstepped the mark. Again, the contrast with Ayrton Senna was fascinating. Senna was constantly on the very edge of the car’s performance limit, and frequently crossed the line into an accident or altercation with other drivers. Prost was always a millimetre inside that same limit, ensuring maximum performance without compromising safety or reliability. In a Formula One career spanning thirteen seasons, it is difficult to remember him ever making a serious mistake on the track.
Prost readily admitted that his approach to racing changed early in his F1 career, during the terrible and tragic 1982 season. His friend Gilles Villeneuve was killed in a qualifying accident in Belgium, and then Didier Pironi ran into the back of Prost in a rain-soaked qualifying session in Germany. The vision of Pironi’s Ferrari flying over his head and into the barriers, never to walk again, had a profound effect on Prost.
Managing risk against reward became his hallmark, and combined with his beautifully smooth driving style, Prost went on to dominate the turbo era of Formula One in the 1980s, when the engines were inherently fragile and most cars were largely unreliable.
A look at Alain Prost’s team-mates throughout his career – all of whom he beat during their time together – further highlights his achievements:
Alain Prost’s F1 team-mates
1980 – John Watson
1981 & 1982 – René Arnoux
1983 – Eddie Cheever
1984 & 1985 – Niki Lauda (World Champion 1975, 1977, 1984)
1986 – Keke Rosberg (World Champion 1982)
1987 – Stefan Johannson
1988 & 1989 – Ayrton Senna (World Champion 1988, 1990, 1991)
1990 – Nigel Mansell (World Champion 1992)
1991 – Jean Alesi
1993 – Damon Hill (World Champion 1996)
That list comprises five drivers who were or would become world champions, with Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna both considered to be all-time greats of the sport. Lauda has often spoken about his respect for Prost, and how the realisation that he could no longer compete at Prost’s level precipitated his retirement. Senna’s rivalry with Prost is legendary, with most of the hostility and obsessive nature of their relationship coming from Senna.
Alain Prost retired from Formula One in 1993, after securing his fourth title and confirming his status as one of the greatest drivers in history. His time as an F1 team owner was less successful, but he returned to driving in the Andros Trophy ice racing series and went on to win that title three times. Today he is an international ambassador for Renault and a keenly competitive cyclist.
He may be diminutive in stature, but Alain Prost was a giant of Formula One, and is certainly the best driver of my generation.