Among the legendary rivalries in auto racing, they don’t get much bigger or more venomous than what Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost generated in the Eighties and early Nineties.
Four races into Ayrton Senna’s F1 career and he was already proving a mighty inconvenience for Alain Prost. Senna was in the mid-grid, unrated Toleman; on Prost’s side was the cutting edge of mighty McLaren, its mega-bucks Marlboro backing, its bespoke TAG turbo V6 tailor-made by Porsche to aero-enhancing dimensions set out by the car’s creator John Barnard and with trick electronics two steps ahead of anyone else’s, allowing it more race day horsepower than any other.
But it was raining and the course was Monaco, so there was room for improvisation and genius to make a difference. Prost might have imagined that he had those qualities covered too, as he circulated at the front, having glided up there in that inimitable and apparently inevitable fashion once the five-lap heroes were spent. But if Prost had been able to see anything in his mirrors amid the spray, he’d have seen a speck, an irritating speck getting bigger.
Up until this point, Prost’s race at Monaco ’84 – his whole career, in fact – had been progressing beautifully. Everything was planned. “There are drivers who think a lap ahead, or a race ahead or even a season ahead,” asserted Mike Knight, co-proprietor of the Winfield Racing School which Prost, already a successful karter, attended in 1975. “But Alain, even in the junior formulae, was thinking a whole career ahead. He applied so much thought and so much guile.”
Guile: on the day of the competition to decide who won the Volant Elf Award that would launch Prost on his way, he’d arrived hours early to watch the heats of the others. He wasn’t so much tracking his rivals as trying to observe if any one car looked better than the others – so that he could choose that one when it was his turn. That guile was regularly called upon during his rapid rise through the junior categories; he’d completed four years of car racing when McLaren signed him for Formula 1 in 1980.
He took part in a shootout test for the drive, up against Formula Atlantic star Kevin Cogan. Prost got his stint first, lapped Paul Ricard faster than incumbent driver John Watson had ever done, then – out of sight of the pits – subtly flat-spotted the tires on his in-lap. Cogan headed out of the pits with the same set of tires, but would complain of a severe vibration and got nowhere near Prost’s time…
Prost’s guile was applied in and out of the car; his huge gift behind the wheel buying him plenty of time to apply that brain power on-track. He took an interest in all aspects of performance, wanted to understand everything. That understanding informed how he chose to drive and race – the smart way, with minimal effort, maximum feel, minimizing stresses on the car and tires. A smooth operator in and out of the car, a superficial mischievous sheen hid an iron will and the default always of looking out for number one. He preferred harmony and ease, was not a “difficult” character, but had a willingness to be as ruthless as the occasion demanded when key decisions had to be made. But so refined was that sheen that when he pulled strokes, people around him were disbelieving or shocked.
The intensity of Ayrton Senna’s ambition was on much more naked display. His temperament could hardly have been more different. What his early karting mentor, a Brazilian guru from the favelas known only as “Mauro,” saw in the introverted child kart racer was an angry refusal to accept failure, to an extent that Mauro believed bordered on insanity. Senna’s tantrums when he was beaten were unreal, as they were after it had rained and he’d invariably slid backwards down the pack. Yes, in those earliest days, he just did not have the experience or the understanding needed to be quick in the wet, and would just attack more, making his problems yet worse.