Senna and Prost

Twenty years from now racing fans will look back at the late 1980s and early 1990s as a great when two huge talents Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna met head-on in Formula 1. In other eras each would have dominated as Jackie Stewart or Niki Lauda did, but the fact that their careers have been so closely intertwined has made them a double-act which will not be forgotten.

It is always difficult to put drivers into historical perspective but the Senna/Prost rivalry will probably be compared to that of Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi in the 1930s or to the Stirling Moss/Juan-Manuel Fangio duel in the 1950s.

The difference is that the sport has changed and the nature of modern F1 creates a world where drivers can rarely be friends. The sport has grown to become an extraordinary business with enormous coverage - largely thanks to television - and the global awareness has created huge funding. This has created extraordinary pressures on the leading names, but at the same time has made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Senna and Piquet have probably made as much as US$60-70 million apiece with Prost, Mansell and even Gerhard Berger not far behind. The result of all this is that the stars have lived in very rarified worlds, divorced from down-to-earth reality. This has often created a sense of paranoia that the world is out to get them. Prost and Senna have both suffered from this and it has often fuelled misunderstanding which in past years would have been settled with a quiet chat. Once, in Hungary, the pair sat down in the Elf motorhome and had a long chat and realized that they were very alike. Perhaps too much so, but the entente could not survive the aggressive competitiveness of the race track.

At the same time both Senna and Prost can rightly claim to have been victims of media hype which has often whipped up their fights.

In an age where winning is everything and the paddocks of F1 are full of people who are not trustworthy, drivers have to be sharp and ruthless to make it to the top. Both Senna and Prost have proved that they were willing to do what was necessary to succeed. Things were not helped by the fact that advancing technology meant that more than ever being in the right car was what really mattered.

And so after their falling out in 1989 they never drove together again, which is a shame because their talents, so finely-balanced, produced some great races before the split.

The ruthlessness and darker sides of both men has too often been allowed to submerge the nicer sides of Alain and Ayrton. Both have done things over the years which they probably regret. Both have fervent fans and bitter critics.

They have always been very different characters. Senna is a Latin with a tendency - seen most recently in Suzuka - to flare up, while Prost, the Professor, thinks before he acts and weighs up the pros and cons of his actions. Senna is explosive, Prost inexorable. That shows up in their driving as well: Senna is the ace qualifier and big risk taker; Prost collects fastest laps in races and pressures his rivals into mistakes.

The incident which started outright war between them was at Suzuka in 1989 when Prost deliberately drove into Senna and won the world title. A year later Senna took his revenge, returning the compliment.

But it is nice to see that their competitive relationship has ended on an upbeat and dignified note. Too often in the past they have not behaved like champions when perhaps they should have done but, ironically, in the modern F1 world to become a champion there are times when you have to play dirty.

They are both great champions and as the years pass, much of the bitterness they feel may slide away and it is not impossible that they will even end up as friends - as they were back in 1988.

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