NEWS FEATURE

Alain Prost - World Champion

Alain Prost is the 1989 World Champion. In the public imagination, therefore, he is the fastest man in the world.

This year, 'The Professor' wasn't. Ayrton Senna outshone Prost on the race track at almost every stage the year.

The Brazilian was unlucky. He made more mistakes. He took more risks. Prost won the title.

The Frenchman isn't new to such success, of course, for this year's was his third title in five years. It elevated him into an elite society of triple champions, joining Sir Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet.

In the 39-year history of Formula 1 racing only one man has done better than these five. Juan-Manuel Fangio of Argentina won five World titles in the Fifties. The circumstances have changed since then: Fangio's titles were less difficult than in the rough and tumble, dog-eat-dog, world in which F1 now operates.

Prost has won more races than any Grand Prix driver in history -- 39 of the 152 races he has entered since he arrived as a shy rookie in 1980. He has had 20 pole positions; 32 fastest laps; a record number of championship points.

But what does it all prove? There are more races these days than there used to be...

It is the age-old argument of the racing followers: how do you compare a driver from one era to another from a different time.

Some point to the fact that, in addition to his three championships, Alain has come close to winning the title on three further occasions: in 1983 he missed the title by just two points; in 1984 he missed it by half a point; and in 1988 he scored more points than the champion, but lost the title because of the scoring system.

This year he used that system to his advantage: he won only four races while his wilder young team mate at McLaren, Ayrton Senna, scored six wins.

Yet the Prost aura has been dented. The undisputed King of Racing in the 1980s has been eclipsed for speed by Senna.

You can say that inevitably it will happen to any racing driver. Your motivations change with success. Prost openly admitted this year that he had a problem with motivation. The World Championship was important, but it wasn't worth dying for.

People said it was time to quit.

The art of being great, they argued, is knowing when to quit.

There is nothing sadder than a great champion on the slide downward towards the back of the grid -- trading on his former glories and the sponsorship 'pull' of his name.

At the midseason Alain began to talk about not having equal equipment. You often hear that in Formula 1 when a driver can find no other way of explaining why he is being beaten.

The critics began to speak out. Ken Tyrrell, never a man to be backward in coming forward with an opinion was outspoken.

"Prost's ruining it," he said. "He's the greatest champion the sport has had since Jackie Stewart and he's destroying it."

Great champions do not have to make excuses.

No matter what you feel about Prost, you cannot argue that he has not been a great champion.

"It's very important to be the World Champion," he said recently in Adelaide. "But it more important to be A champion.

"You must must show by example to the young drivers and to all the people looking at you around the world."

Alain is a great ambassador for the sport, despite the pressures which seem to grow ever greater. He manages to retain a basic humanity, the aura of being a good guy. Senna has been willing to sacrifice that to win. People just don't like Ayrton as he is portrayed to them: people do like Prost. They can relate to him -- even if he does live in a rarified world of private jets, he retains a common touch.

"I had many problems -- especially human problems," he says of this year's championship. "These made it (the Championship) very difficult to get.

"It is very different. Before I was World Champion I won a lot of races and was very close to being World Champion. The first championship was very important for me -- because it was the first one.

"Eighty-six was the best championship from the sportive side. I was World Champion with the McLaren team and, I think, at this time, the Williams team and Honda engine were better. That was very difficult and very important for me because we were all together fighting very hard to be World Champion and I was World Champion in a really historic race in Adelaide.

"That was, for sure, the best.

"This year it's a bit different. Maybe it looks different today because of the problems, but it may look better than the others in a few months.

"I must say that I had more points than Ayrton last year, and I have more points than Ayrton this year and what is the most important thing in motor racing -- to get more points.

"That's it."

But there have been bad problems this year, not just emotionally, but also within the McLaren team. Senna and Prost, who put up with each other in 1988, despite having very little in common, fell out in a major way early this year.

As the season progressed, with Senna staying at Mclaren in 1990, it became clear that Prost would either move to another team or retire. He chose Ferrari.

Immediately his relationship with the McLaren team and its boss Ron Dennis went sour.

"I want to finish the relationship with Mclaren in a good way," he said before the recent season-closing Australian Grand Prix. "Even with the problems. I don't want polemics.

"I will never forget that I spent six years with McLaren and I won three championships with them. That means they gave me a car to be World Champion.

"It is obvious that the relationship I had has been destroyed this year. It is so obvious there is no need to speak about it. I don't want to leave the team in a bad way."

It was a noble thought, but in the circumstances it was unrealistic. The championship had been settled by the two McLaren drivers colliding in the Japanese Grand Prix. Senna had rejoined after the incident, won the race and then been excluded by the stewards. The team's appeal against the exclusion was an appeal against Alain Prost...

"One way or the other the appeal was against me," said Alain. "And it's very difficult for me to accept that because of what I have done for the team for the last six years was important.

"But, I recognise that they have done a fantastic job for me too."

Back in 1985 the team had a similar friction between two top drivers: Lauda and Prost.

"I think, and I hope, that in 1985 we were intelligent persons to answer the problems

"I just want to think about the team spirit we should have had this year. It's really a shame for the sport.

"We should think about sport more than business sometimes.

"If I was in a really bad team I could not be World Champion. Ayrton must think about that, you know. If we are fighting together, if we don't have a good relationship that is because we have the best car at the moment and we very often forget all the people behind us.

"Ayrton is fantatic driver. Very quick, especially in qualifying but sometimes, especially with me, he was pushing very hard and thinking that, because I was his team mate, I would open the door.

"On the track Ayrton never accepts to be overtaken and never accepts that he cannot overtake and that is a big problem.

"It is very dangerous to think that when you want to overtake, you overtake. You only think about your capability to overtake. You have no respect for the drivers you overtake. That's a problem with Ayrton.

"I always had team spirit. That means that when you are team mates you don't do things that he has done with me.

"I always opened the door, but in Suzuka we were fighting for the championship..."

Alain has been accused of deliberately driving into Ayrton. The Brazilian had to win the race to keep his championship hopes alive. Prost was leading, the two collided. It would be considered a logical course of action by most Formula 1 drivers...

"My car was very good in Suzuka," he explained. "I was trying not to push too hard at that moment. I wanted to push hard in the last few laps because I was afraid of these kind of manners from Ayrton.

"After the fast corner, I looked in the mirrors and he was about 50 metres behind me. I braked a little earlier than normal. I no reason to push very hard. Then I turned in and, as I turned, I saw Ayrton and it was too late.

"It was absolutely too late.

"He was forcing the way. That was my corner...

"I have raced for the last 20 years, if you include go-karts, and I was never very hard on the race track. I've won 39 races and three championships. Do you think I would do something like this on purpose?"

Some people certainly do. It was one of those incidents which will be talked about -- and argued about -- as long as there are two motor racing enthusiasts left in the world.

They will argue that, no matter what, Alain Prost was the greatest F1 driver of all time.

But, in the short term, they will argue over whether Alain is 'over the hill' and should retire.

That question will be answered next year when he joins the Ferrari assault against McLaren and Senna.

Alain's wish to end his days at McLaren without rancour did not happen. It ended messily in Adelaide, with Prost deciding not to race in the dreadfully wet conditions.

The Prost/McLaren love affair was over.

"Scratch a lover," wrote Dorothy Parker, "and you find a foe."

Whatever happens in 1990, it will be interesting...

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