FOUR-TIME world champion Alain Prost, one of the greatest drivers of formula one’s greatest era, rates survival as the supreme success of his glorious grand prix career.
Prost won his titles and a then record 51 races during what is regarded as the most competitive and illustrious period of F1 from the early 1980s to the early ’90s.
The diminutive Frenchman, known as ”the professor” for his calm and clinical approach to winning, was the most decorated driver in a decade of intense rivalry between several world champions and untitled aces.
But it was also the last decade of danger, when F1 drivers still ran the very real risk of death or serious injury.
When Prost looks back on what is remembered as a golden age of grand prix racing, it’s the fact that he is still around to talk about it that he nominates ahead of the honour of succeeding in a star-packed era.
”The only privilege I have is to be here and being able to talk to you, honestly, because when I look at the past, I’m not thinking it was good or it was bad,” he admitted in an interview at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. ”It was bloody dangerous and I’m very, very pleased today to be here in good health. That is my privilege.” Prost retired after winning his fourth F1 crown in 1993 before returning as a team owner with his eponymous equipe in 1997.
Prost Grand Prix collapsed before the start of the ’02 season and he shunned any active involvement in F1 until title-winning engine supplier Renault brought him back as a roving ambassador this year.
Sinewy from years of near-pro-level cycling and looking younger than his 57 years, Prost is a legend because he battled and regularly beat a raft of contemporary greats.
His opponents included former or future world champions Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and, briefly, Michael Schumacher.
As well as the sheer depth of talent, the era is notable for the prodigiously powerful turbocharged beasts they manhandled at its peak in the mid-’80s.
Prost’s fame is inextricably linked with Senna, who became his nemesis in the most gripping conflict F1 has ever seen.
Their bitter feud in ’89 as McLaren teammates, which continued the following year after driving Prost to arch rival Ferrari, transcended F1 and remains one of the most infamous enmities in sporting history.
It was Senna’s death at Imola, Italy, on May 1, 1994, just weeks after their rapprochement, that changed the face of F1 by triggering safety reforms that transformed it from life-threatening to life-extending.
”Since Ayrton died, we started to have a different philosophy,” Prost said. ”We talk much more about safety and all these drivers today, they never had a bad accident or a bad injury, and they never saw a bad [fatal] accident of their friends or other drivers … I remember at one stage, every morning you went from your hotel to the track and you were thinking, ‘Oh, shit, will I come back tonight?’ You really had these kinds of thoughts. If you remember in the ’80s, many, many bad things happened and you didn’t know if it was going to happen to you, so the emotions were never very far from the surface.
”Now it’s different. At the end of the day, drivers can be quite sure that they will survive. There is not so much risk in F1, which is a good thing, but the drivers are not so much on the edge.
”Obviously, when you talk about safety, there’s no comparison. If you start at 20 years old, you can race until you are 40 without any risk. It’s so different that way.”
Prost is also convinced that it was the spectre of death back then that helps explain why his generation of drivers had more flare on and off the track than recent and current F1 stars. ”The way you drove, the way you talked, the way you approached people was obviously very different,” he said.
However, he also said his heyday was a less politically correct period that allowed he and his peers to be more colourful and outspoken.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.