Alain Prost disliked his nickname, “The Professor”, probably because it focused on his intellect as a racer and distracted from the elegant and immaculately accurate driving style that won him a place on so many Formula 1 podiums. Ayrton Senna’s nickname as the “Sao Paulo Taxi Driver”(given to him by Nelson Piquet) didn’t quite stick in the same way as Prost’s, and this seems to be the reoccurring theme of Prost’s career whenever Senna is involved. Criticism of the Frenchmen seems to echo on through history whereas jibes and negativity around the legendary Brazilian dissipated the moment his life was tragically stolen from him.
Prost is a divisive figure in Formula 1, despite four World Championship titles to his name many people feel like he won them through calculating tactics rather than through sheer talent. It has even been suggested that at many points his cunning and political manoeuvring held back the universally acclaimed genius of Ayrton Senna. His legacy has not been helped by a number of statements made by Senna at the time, fuelling the opinions that Prost was a race spoiler rather than a master driver. Senna was quoted in a press conference in 1992 as saying: “If Prost wants to come back and win another title he should be sporting. The way he is doing it he is behaving like a coward. He must be prepared to race anybody in any conditions, on equal terms, and not the way he wants to win championships.”
Nigel Mansell sat beside Senna as he spoke and nodded away in agreement. Prost of course had his own side to this story but the problem with the quotes of dead legends are that they tend to gain gravitas with time and stick out as gospel among the chaos of debate. With Senna’s legend hovering over him, people often jump back to these quotes when describing Prost’s career.
But if Senna were alive today, he would likely jump to Prost’s defence and hail him one of the great drivers of his age.
The quote above refers to the Frenchmen having a clause in his contract with Williams, forbidding Senna from ever becoming his teammate. Williams were looking dominant at that point and fans since have used Senna’s quotes to prove that Prost was an inferior driver who, fearing the Brazilian, blocked him from more guaranteed world titles. Prost undoubtedly wanted an advantage over the other great drivers in the world but his reasons for blocking Senna’s move were nothing to do with fear but purely a sensible team based decision.
Senna had proven to be a disruptive, ultra-competitive nightmare as a teammate for Prost when they were both at McLaren. While no one could argue that Senna got the better of Prost as teammates, he also went back on agreements a number of times and showed a ruthless will to win, even if it meant literally barging Prost into a wall to stop him winning (Portugese GP 1988). Straining an already tense relationship further, Senna also took Prost out at the first corner of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, putting both drivers out of the race and winning Senna the title. Senna was then quoted as saying: “I said to myself ‘OK, you try to work cleanly and do the job properly and then you get f**ked by stupid people. All right, if tomorrow Prost beats me off the line, at the first corner I will go for it, and he better not turn in because he is not going to make it’. And it just happened.” With this in mind it was no wonder that Prost was mistrustful of working with Senna again especially when his aim was to regain his World Championship title.
Prost’s decision with the contract was proven wise as he went on to dominate the 1993 season in his Williams without pushing himself or the car very hard. Because of this, Prost is often referred to as a tactical and political driver whereas Senna is seen a high speed racing driver in its purest form, but Prost pushed Senna to his limits and won his fair share of races when the two came head to head. In fact the statistics would hint that Prost actually got the better of his rival in many areas.
This July, the now Renault Ambassador Prost took part in Silverstone’s 50th Grand Prix commemorative parades. He returned there as the most successful Formula 1 driver ever to have raced at Silverstone, having secured British Grand Prix victories in 1983, 1985, 1989, 1990 and 1993. Senna never matched Prost’s record at Silverstone and looking at the statistics he fell behind Prost’s achievements many times. Prost’s win percentage is 25.63% compared to Senna’s 25.47% (despite Prost having a very poor car at the start of his career). Prost’s average points-per-race ratio is also higher at 3.99 compared to Senna’s 3.81. He won four World Championship titles to Senna’s three (plus he should have won a further three earlier in his career) and won more races than anyone in F1 history bar Michael Schumacher.
These statistics are not laid out to prove that Prost was the better driver of the two (there is no doubt that Senna would have improved upon his stats had his career not been tragically cut short). But as history writes itself it seems to be morphing The Professor’s positive attributes of intelligence, racing grace and honesty into the negative characteristics of a man who could not handle the speed, bravery and ruthless will to win of Ayrton Senna. Prost had the intelligence to know where to draw the line and still be a great champion. Prost knew that Senna’s desire to drive flat out in all weather conditions was dangerous, yet time after time throughout their rivalry he found an intelligent way to defeat him. It is often said that Prost couldn’t drive in the rain like Senna, but Prost didn’t see dangerous driving as admirable. After pulling out of the 1989 Australian GP, due to terrible wet conditions, Prost stated: “I don’t start under these conditions, I don’t want to risk my life and the life of others”. Prost was again proven right when Senna went on to crash straight into the back of Martin Brundle in the same race.
These two figures pushed each other on throughout their great rivalry and without each other neither would have risen to the heights that they did. Prost was the man to beat when Senna emerged on the scene and the two of them went on to take F1 to new heights. If the Sao Paulo Taxi Driver is still way out in front as the greatest F1 driver of all time then let’s not forget that The Professor is right behind him, pushing him all the way.
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