NEWS FEATURE

Is Alain Prost slowing down?

How can it be that Alain Prost, one of motor racing's all-time great drivers, has been matched this year by Formula 1 new boy Damon Hill, who never showed anything more than a solid talent before he arrived in Formula 1?

This is the question that has been in the minds of every Grand Prix racing fan this season. It is also a question which has mystified F1. Is Damon Hill really as good as he seems? Or has Prost lost the skills which gave him three world titles?

For experienced Prost-watchers the performance this year means only one thing. Prost is not pushing to his absolute limit, but is using the weapons he has to run a clever - and it would seem - very successful campaign to win the 1993 Formula 1 World Championship for Drivers. But it is more than that because Prost also wants to win a fifth title before he retires at the end of 1994.

Prost is certainly not as fast as he used to be in his prime, but this is not unusual among racing stars. Most drivers, as they gow older, begin to realise that there is more to life than motor racing. They lose the absolute edge of their speed, but this slackening off is often compensated for by their gains in terms of experience. This is an entirely normal part of growing up. People have different views of the world when they are 20 to when they are 40.

The idea of getting into F1 is a great driving force and motivation to a young driver and he is willing to take extra risks to get there and to establish himself. Once established a driver can find that there are other things in life which he has not previously considered. This never used to be a problem and drivers were killed and replaced by eager youngsters, but nowadays drivers talk of planning their careers and such activities which previously were not common place.

There is an old racing saying that a driver loses half a second a lap for every child he has - and there are a lot of cases in the past which suggest that this is true. Drivers are less inclined to take big risks if they have taken on more responsibilities.

This basic fact of life is one of the reasons why Grand Prix drivers retire young. At the age of 40 the idea of constantly risking one's neck ceases to appeal to all but the most dedicated and team bosses know that 40 is a the best time to stop.

Prost is now one of the older generation in F1 and they are all aware that the generation which was born in 1950s is fading away and the new boys rushing into F1 were born in the 1970s.

At 38 Prost joins Michele Alboreto (36) and Philippe Alliot, Riccardo Patrese and Derek Warwick (39) in F1's old guard.

Nothing much changes over the years, when Prost arrived in F1 in 1980 as a young wolf of 25 another old guard was moving out: Clay Regazzoni was 41, Mario Andretti 40, Carlos Reutemann and Jean-Pierre Jabouille 38, Jacques Laffite 37 and Patrick Depailler 36.

Prost knows that time is running out for him and that he probably has a couple more seasons of top racing before it is time to retire. Prost's record in F1 is remarkable, but there have also been disappointments. He may have won titles in 1985, 1986 and 1989, but equally he lost them by a small margin in 1983, 1984 and 1990.

Having manoeuvred himself into the Williams-Renault team at a time when it had an unbeatable car, Prost started the year as favorite to dominate the championship as Nigel Mansell had in 1992. Not only that, but with a two-year contract, Prost has more or less guaranteed himself a fifth title in 1994 because Williams is so far ahead of the opposition.

This would make him equal to Juan-Manuel Fangio in World titles and way ahead in GP wins. The only blot on Prost's record is 1988, when he was beaten to the title in identical machinery by Ayrton Senna.

After that there was an uneasy peace at McLaren between Prost and Senna, but this exploded in Suzuka that year and it has been outright war between the pair ever since. They have never been willing to accept the other as a team mate.

When he signed for Williams Prost had a clause in his contract excluding the signing of Senna. Thus it was that Damon Hill came to be chosen. That exclusion clause does not exist in 1994 and, mindful of the future with Prost likely to retire at the end of next year, Williams is considering whether to keep Hill or sign up Senna alongside Prost to ensure that the team has a topline driver for the long-term.

The last thing Alain wants in 1994 is to have Senna alongside him. Ayrton is younger, hungrier and just as ruthless as Prost and has proved that he can beat the Frenchman. Thus Prost has been pushing all along for Williams to maintain the status quo and keen Hill alongside him. He knows he can beat Damon, even if at times it has not looked it on occasion.

Hill has done a much better job in the second Williams than anyone expected of him, and he deserves all the praise he gets. However some of that has been because Prost has helped him to impress. It is ridiculous to suggest that Damon is in Prost's league. At Magny Cours in July Damon sat dutifully on Prost's tail as the Frenchman won the French GP for French engine builders Renault. But, while some took this to suggest that there were team orders, few analysed the lap times, which showed that on two or three occasions in the race, Prost suddenly pulled out a second over Hill - just to show the youngster who was in control. Prost was playing, putting on a show for the French public.

But the clearest indication of Prost making Hill look good was in Belgium, where having lost the lead during the pits stops, Prost settled for third place, because of a handling problem. This was fine, because it did not really damage Alain's World Championship hopes, but it did not explain how suddenly three laps from the finish Prost set the fastest lap of the race.

In all likelihood this was Prost showing that he can still do it when he needs to. The fact of the matter is that in Spa all the Renault top management were present, to watch Renault's 50th F1 win and to see Williams win the Constructors' title. Prost wanted to win, but once Hill was ahead, he let the Englishman go. Hill's victory in front of Renault's bosses will make it very hard for Frank Williams to replace Damon at the end of the year, guaranteeing Prost a team mate he can handle in 1994. It may sound Machiavellian, but this is how the top end of F1 works in these cynical days.

Where Prost has not shone this year is in his performances in the wet. Prost freely admits that he does not like racing in the rain, not because he cannot handle the cars, but because it is impossible to see when you are driving in the spray behind another car. This is exceptionally dangerous, as was proved in Hockenheim this year when Derek Warwick run up the back of Luca Badoer. It is a much more personal feeling for Prost because back in 1982 he was involved in a similar incident at Hockenheim which resulted in Didier Pironi suffering crippling injuries to his legs when he ran over the back of Prost's Renault. It is not surprising therefore that he does not like these conditions. Senna, on the other hand, has proved himself willing to take more risks in spray and this, coupled with the Williams not being as good in the wet as the dry, has seen Senna score three startling wins this year.

You cannot fault Prost on his qualifying performances because he has taken pole in 12 of the 13 races and has notched up enough wins to make his title virtually guaranteed.

Where he has disappointed this year is in his ability to start races. According to Williams engineers the Williams clutch needs to be treated very roughly and Prost, who is used to using a degree of finesse in his driving, has had constant trouble with it.

The fact of the matter is that Prost has lost some of the speed of his youth, but has gained form his enormous experience. His performances this year still mark him out as a winner, but a winner who is much wiser than he used to be and one who is not averse to using his very sharply-honed political skills.

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