French race car driver
Formula One auto racing (F1) is the most elite, well funded, avidly followed, and competitive sport in the world. The drivers of F1 are among the most talented racing car drivers in the world, and Alain Prost retired in 1993 as the greatest driver in F1 history. Known for his seemingly effortless ability, Prost won a recordbreaking fifty-one races in his career, with a style so understated that it was joked he lacked verve. "He can go stunningly fast without looking as if he's trying," Frank Williams, head of the Williams F1 team once said, according to Sports Illustrated. He was considered "a master strategist on the racecourse and a cunning opportunist off it," according to Sports Illustrated, a reputation that earned him his nickname, "The Professor."
Prost was born in 1955 in Lorette, France, to Andre and Marie-Rose (Karatchian) Prost. He aspired to becoming a professional soccer player until he began kart racing as a teen. He quickly emerged as a competitive talent by winning the 1973 Karting World Championship. After graduating to cars, Prost clinched the 1976 European Formula Renault series, and the 1979 European Formula 3 championship. His impressive win that season at Monaco—one of F1's most prestigious circuits—foretold his bright future in the F1 series.
Built Reputation in Junior Formulae
It wasn't long before Prost's success in the junior series earned him the attention of a leading F1 team. Prost was on a losing streak when McLaren team director Teddy Mayer offered him a chance to test in a McLaren car. After just three laps, Prost's talents were obvious; Mayer was ready to offer the young driver a contract to drive in the most prestigious auto racing series in the world. He actually offered Prost a ride in the final race of the 1979 series, but Prost turned him down—had no interest in racing F1 without adequate preparation. It was a move that would become characteristic of the calculating Professor. Prost debuted in 1980 as McLaren's
second driver alongside British F1 veteran John Watson at the Argentine Grand Prix. He drove flawlessly, finishing in sixth place, and followed up two weeks later with a fifth place in the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Prost's sunny picture began to cloud before the third race of the season. The suspension broke in his McLaren during practice before the South African Grand Prix, resulting in a crash. He suffered a broken wrist and missed the next two races. Car failure led him to crash again that season, during practice for the United States Grand Prix. Prost was disgusted with McLaren team management. They had a falling out over his lack of confidence in the team's engineering standards. He broke his contract with McLaren to join Renault, France's national racing team. He challenged McLaren to sue, leaving the two teams to settle the matter legally.
High Hopes for Frenchman on French Team
The pressure was high for Prost to become the first French World Champion driving a French car. He won his first F1 Grand Prix in France in 1981, and finished the season in fifth place for the World Championship, a respectable finish for a second-year driver. Prost began the 1982 season with impressive back-to-back wins, but the season quickly disintegrated for him. He took the top spot on the podium at the South African Grand Prix. He was third crossing the finish line at the Brazilian Grand Prix, but won the race when the first and second-place cars, driven by Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg, were disqualified. His winning streak ended in Brazil. Renault's turbocharged engine technology was quickly becoming eclipsed by that of the Ferrari and Honda teams. Prost's most searing disappointment of the year was personal. He was second behind teammate René Arnoux in the French Grand Prix when it was agreed that Arnoux would give Prost the lead, as Prost was closer to a Championship than his teammate. Arnoux reneged and held Prost in second, leaving him to finish third in the 1982 World Championship.
In the highly competitive world of F1, the deal made on the track in France between Prost and Arnoux was not an unusual one. When a race comes down to being won by one of two teammates, it is common to let the one who has scored the most Championship points during the season move ahead. In a fickle turn of publicity, however, Prost was villainized, and was characterized as a poor sportsman. Arnoux, in comparison, was depicted as the hero. Furious at the turn of events, Prost was fed up and even considered retiring from F1. He moved his family from France to Switzerland not long after.
After his strong performance in 1982, Prost was a legitimate contender for the 1983 World Championship. He finished "in the points," or in the top six, in nine of the first eleven races. The Brabham team became a serious threat halfway through the season, however, after engineers improved the BMW engine. Prost clearly saw that Brabham's Nelson Piquet could succeed in upsetting him on the points table. He stressed to Renault engineers that an immediate improvement was necessary to remain competitive, but Renault did not consider the Frenchman's pleas seriously. Prost's fears played out. He was the points leader until the very end of the season, when Piquet and his new engine narrowly edged him out. Feeling Renault had miserably mismanaged the season, Prost again found himself in an adversarial position with an F1 team. In an unforeseen turn, Renault responded by replacing him.
|1955||Born February 24 in Lorette, France|
|1973||Wins Karting World Championship|
|1976||Begins racing professionally and wins Formula Renault Challenge series|
|1977||Wins Formula Renault Europe title and begins racing the Formula 3 series|
|1979||Wins French and European Formula 3 titles|
|1979||Signed to race the F1 series for McLaren team|
|1980||Places sixth and fifth, respectively, at first two Grand Prix races; breaks wrist before third|
|1980||Returns in May to score points at British and Dutch Grand Prix|
|1980||Frustrated by McLaren car failures, breaks contract to drive for Renault Sport; challenges McLaren to sue|
|1981||Finishes fifth in the 1981 F1 Championship|
|1982||Finishes fourth in the 1982 championship, but is plagued by car reliability problems|
|1983||Loses World Championship by two points; is fired by Renault|
|1984||Returns to drive for McLaren|
|1984||Loses World Championship by one-half of a point to teammate Niki Lauda|
|1985||Wins five Grands Prix and first World Championship|
|1986||Wins second World Championship, over Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet|
|1987||Finishes fourth in World Championship|
|1988||Loses World Championship to teammate Ayrton Senna|
|1989||Wins World Championship, but tension with Senna leads Prost to defect to Ferrari team|
|1990||Loses World Championship after controversial crash with Senna|
|1991||Fired from Ferrari for criticizing team|
|1992||Sits out 1992 season|
|1993||Returns to drive for Williams-Renault, wins fourth World Championship, breaks world record with fifty-one Grand Prix wins|
|1993||Announces retirement when Williams hires Senna|
|1994||Works for French television and as representative for Renault|
|1994||Works as consultant for McLaren team|
|1997||Buys Liegier team, renamed Prost Grand Prix|
|1998||Debut chassis proves unreliable, team has disappointing season|
|1999||Peugot engine proves too heavy too win|
|2000||Sells share of team after third losing season|
|2002||Begins liquidation of Prost Grand Prix team|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1973||Karting World Championship|
|1976||Formula Renault Championship|
|1977||Formula Renault Europe Championship|
|1979||French and European F3 Championships|
|1981||Fifth place, F1 World Championship|
|1982, 1987||Fourth place, F1 World Championship|
|1983-84, 1988, 1990||Second place, F1 World Championship|
|1985-86, 1989, 1993||F1 World Championship|
|1993||World record for 51 Grand Prix wins|
Nasty Rivalry With Teammate
In the years since Prost had abandoned the team, McLaren had taken on new management and was fast becoming a competitive force in F1. Teamless, Prost had little bargaining power to resist an offer from the team's ambitious new director, Ron Dennis. Dennis hired Prost as partner to Niki Lauda for a reported $500,000 season retainer, a pittance in F1. McLaren's new turbo V6 engine by Porsche proved to be a competitive move for the team. Prost had accumulated six wins and Lauda five coming into the final Grand Prix of the 1984 season, in Portugal. Prost went into the race knowing that even if he won, and Lauda came in second, Lauda would win the World Championship by one-half a point. Prost took an early lead in the race, while Lauda got caught behind in the middle of the pack. Lauda was persistent, however, and managed to finish the race in second behind Prost, winning the Championship. Prost was near tears when he took the podium. In a show of incredibly good-natured sportsmanship and compassion, Lauda remarked to Prost, "Forget it. Next year, the Championship is yours," according to Grand Prix Champions by Alan Henry. Even Lauda knew the Championship could just as easily have gone to Prost.
Lauda was right. Prost won both the 1985 and 1986 World Championships, becoming the first driver to retain a title since Jack Brabham in 1960. Prost won his twenty-eighth career race in 1987, beating Jackie Stewart 's 1973 record, but falling short of the Championship. McClaren came back the next year with a more competitive turbo engine, and Prost found himself driving alongside Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, whose mission to best his teammate fueled one of the bitterest rivalries in motorsports. There was no friendly competition between the teammates. Senna was aggressive and impulsive on the track and beat Prost to the 1988 World Championship with eight wins to seven. While Senna thrived on the confrontational rivalry, Prost did not. The fire was stoked further when Prost won the 1989 World Championship after the two McLarens collided during the penultimate race of the season, in Suzuka, Japan, taking Senna out of Championship contention.
Retired With World Record
Prost was driving for Ferrari a year later when Senna returned the favor upon their return to Suzuka. Senna deliberately ran Prost off the track going into the first corner of the race, taking the 1990 Championship from him. Prost raced with Ferrari until one race before the end of the 1991 season, when he was fired for publicly criticizing the team. The driver took the 1992 season off, but returned in 1993 to take a seat with Williams-Renault. Prost won the 1993 World Championship, but announced his retirement when Williams announced its intention to sign Senna. Prost cited the politics of F1 as his motivation to quit. "It is full of hypocrisy," he told Sports Illustrated. "You never know if the hand slapping you on the back has a dagger in it."
Prost took home his fourth and final World Championship in 1993, and retired as the winningest F1 driver in history, with a career fifty-one race wins. He held the title until it was broken in 2002 by Michael Schumacher . His long-standing win record is testament to his careful strategies on the track. To this day, the Professor is legendary in F1 as one of the most calculating and cunning drivers in the sport's history.
Where Is He Now?
Prost tested for the 1994 McLaren team, but decided not to race. He appeared as a commentator for French television and represented Renault in an attempt to secure an F1 engine deal for the manufacturer. Unable to sell the Renault engine to an F1 team, Prost quit the company to work as a consultant for McLaren F1 team. During this time, he was trying to organize his own F1 team, and negotiated a deal with Peugeot to build engines for him from 1998-2000. He purchased the Ligier team, renaming it Prost Grand Prix, but the first Prost chassis, which ran in the 1998 season, proved unreliable. By the next year, the Peugeot engine had become to heavy to be competitive, and Prost had another disappointing season. The 2000 season was an outright disaster. The team's relationship with Peugeot had fallen apart, and Prost ended up running with Ferrari engines, which were not successful. In an attempt to keep the team afloat, Prost sold a share of the team. "Prost as a team owner was not in the same league as Prost the driver," according to GrandPrix.com. The team went into liquidation in January 2002.
Address: Alain Prost, Federation des Sports automobiles, 136 rue de Longchamp, Paris 75116, France.
Laushway, Ester. "Paris: From cockpit to pit wall." Europe (June 1997): 36-37.
"Sports people: Alain Prost." Sports Illustrated (November 15, 1993): 88.
"Alain Prost." Formula One Database. http://f1db.com (October 30, 2002).
"Grand Prix drivers: Alain Prost." GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com (October 30, 2002).
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez