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Senna and Prost in Formula 1: Back to the Beginning
In 1984 when the Brazilian, Senna, made his Formula 1 debut, he would have witnessed a particular French driver always in the front. The driver was touted as the fastest man on track and was driving an excellent McLaren alongside two-time world champion, Niki Lauda. That driver was Alain Prost, who ended up second in the 1984 championship by a mere half-point. Prost then went on to win the 1985 and 1986 world titles. Senna, with his indomitable spirit, was watching closely the man he had to beat. That observation soon turned to obsession, that set up the most significant battles in Formula 1.
Senna was already on the watch list of several teams, as he notched up the fourth spot twice in 1985 and 1986. He was the only newcomer ending that high in the drivers' table. The three lead drivers belonged to the McLaren or Williams stable, which had the best cars for the two mentioned seasons. So, not a bad achievement by any stretch of the imagination. But still, it was far from what Senna was designed to be – a winner.
Now, most of the fans of the F1 era where both Prost and Senna went head-to-head would lean towards Senna for his excellent driving skills, ruthless perseverance and dogged determination. The liking towards Senna would turn to hatred towards Prost because, at times, it appeared that the mighty FIA boss supported Prost.
Let's get to know what shaped the relationship between Prost and Senna and why a different perspective on the rivalry would do justice to both the drivers. It is best, to begin with, to look at the two collisions which shaped the limit to which F1 drivers thought they could go, before Schumacher's disqualification in the 1997 season put an end to such extremes.
What are we talking about?
Let's find out.
Alain Prost's and Ayrton Senna’s Historic Crashes
Here we will look at two crashes which were the talk of the town when they happened. Not only did the incidents bring disrepute to Formula 1, but also pushed the limits of acceptable behaviour which certain younger drivers were watching, closely. Yes, Michael Schumacher is the young driver that we are talking about.
Anyway, let’s start with the 1989 crash.
Prost Turning into Senna: 1989 Japanese GP
For those of us who didn't know, Senna rejoined the race after a nose wing replacement and went on to win the Japanese GP on the last turn of the final lap. Had this been the outcome, the world would have soon forgotten the incident. However, it was the politics after the race that caused the situation to sour.
The then FIA boss, Jean-Marie Balestre, ruled that Senna cutting the track was illegal and disqualified him. That led to outrage when people believed that the FIA boss had favoured Prost. That was the first instance of public empathy for Senna and hatred for Prost.
Of course, years later, Jean-Marie did admit that he had favoured Prost. We will come to this part in a moment, and we will likely see this favouritism as a balancing act rather than a blatant act against Senna.
There was pay-back to this incident, and it came at the same track but in 1990.
Senna Crashing into Prost: 1990 Japanese GP
Note: First part of the video not in English.
Senna was leading the drivers’ championship by one point over Prost, and this incident gave him the championship. Here again, the FIA boss had a role in the conflict. Senna was on pole and had requested the pole position be shifted to the cleaner side of the track, which was done but later reversed at the behest of Jean-Marie. This action angered Senna, and he took it out on Prost. Of course, this Senna himself admitted to having caused years later.
So, can we call it quits and admit that both drivers erred in their behaviour? I think we can. But let’s understand the favouritism part a little better.
Prost, the McLaren Driver, And Senna, the Honda Driver
For those who followed F1 back then: if Prost and Senna raced for McLaren-Honda, then how could one be called a McLaren driver and the other Honda? Well, there’s a story behind the perception of the two drivers.
The story goes something like this. Prost was with McLarens since 1980 and effectively a successful McLaren driver. Honda, on the other hand, was associated with Senna when he was with the Lotus team in 1987. There was mutual respect between Senna and the Japanese engineers. The Japanese ethos of hard work and dedication matched Senna’s natural inclination. As such, the team and Senna grew closer. That was the beginning of Senna, the Honda driver.
In 1988, when Senna signed up with the McLarens, it was incidental that Honda too became the engine providers for the team. The association of the past continued where the Honda engineers saw Senna as their own, while McLarens coveted Prost as their own. That was the emergence of the Senna-Honda and Prost-McLaren perception within the same team.
And here’s where the favouritism started, not for Prost but Senna. Let’s see more of that.
Senna the Samurai and Prost the Computer
The Honda team worked closely with Senna much to Prost's disappointment. In one of his interviews at the turn of the century, Prost mentioned how he felt left out. Senna would have twenty engineers working with him while there would be four for Prost. He was sure that there was no equal treatment within the team.
Once, while talking to the Honda boss, Prost wanted to know if there was a difference in the way the team worked with Senna and himself. The boss agreed that there was such a difference, because the Japanese engineers saw Senna as a Samurai while they saw Prost as a computer. Interestingly, Prost was happy after the interaction as he knew that he wasn't over-guessing the situation, and he had read it well.
Now, coming back to favouritism, which one was better or worse? Senna being favoured race after race by the Honda team, or the pair of races where Belastre favoured Prost? Those questions don't need an answer but fans should consider them.
Just to show what Prost meant, take a look at the 1989 Japanese GP qualifying run. The screen is split showing Senna's (reader's left side) and Prost's (right side) run side-by-side.
Obviously, Senna out-qualified Prost, but did you know that the difference in time was 1.7 seconds? For perspective, Michael Schumacher's qualifying time difference with his teammate in some cases would be more than a second. But none of Schumacher's teammates were world champs.
In case of the above video, we are talking of Prost, a double world-champion, qualifying 1.7 seconds slower. These vast differences between similar cars were what led to Prost having questions on Senna's pace. Prost always wanted to know how fast Senna was, as opposed to how much better the Honda engineers configured Senna's car to go that much quicker. Of course, Prost did admit that Senna was fast, but wasn't sure how fast vis-à-vis him.
These were factors which led to Prost feeling left out and possibly to his decision to leave McLaren at the end of the 1989 season.
Senna’s Dangerous Manoeuvre
While the 1989 and 1990 seasons put to rest the argument of dangerous driving, it was surprising that Senna was the one who started being aggressive around Prost. Well, to be honest, we like Senna that way, don’t we? Yes, but aggressive against your own partner? Hmm, that we will have to think about.
Even by 1988 standards, where weaving in front of the rival car was allowed, Senna pushed it a bit too far at Estoril. Take a look at this video:
Note: Watch from 1:30 minutes.
See that? That was a dangerous manoeuvre about which Prost later said that had he not moved, the cars could have collided. This incident was at a time when the so-called rivalry didn't even exist yet.
Beating Prost: Senna’s Motivation
We spoke about this part at the beginning of the article where Senna's primary motivation was to beat Prost. The circumstances took the situation so far that both became rivals laced with hatred. Not so much hate from Prost, the computer, as much as from Senna, the Samurai. That part is easy to understand. Prost was never motivated to beat Senna and had, in fact, shared a great relationship with his teammates, before Senna. Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg were all friends; there was absolutely no hostility.
Their relationship did return to normalcy, the day Prost drove his last race in 1993 and Senna no more saw a rival in Prost. They were friends again in 1993 but were bitter rivals even when they were in the same team.
And that’s where the rivalry died for good.
Ayrton Senna: Prost’s Friend
In one of his interviews, after Senna’s heavenly departure, Prost mentioned that Senna confessed to a friend that he did miss Prost on track. Senna realised that how much of a motivation Prost was for him to motor on, race after race.
The 1994 F1 season saw Senna and Prost becoming good friends, as Prost was anchoring for a French channel, and Senna was on track. Here’s Senna’s friendly message to Alain Prost during a practice drive around Imola.
Note: Watch from 0:35 minutes where Senna greets Prost.
Prost also mentioned that around that time, Senna had spoken to Prost a lot many times. Each of the time, the topic revolved around driver safety, requesting Prost to join the GPDA, and of course, his suspicion that Benetton was cheating. Those interactions and conversations, were sadly, the last ones that Senna had with Prost.
In Imola on race day, Senna had a massive crash, leaving his fans and Formula 1 bereft.
Some Things Live Forever: The Senna Magic
While Prost went on to own an F1 team, Senna was never forgotten. The Japanese had a special place for him; after all, he was the Samurai!
The Japanese have recreated Senna’s 1989 lap around the Suzuka track. How do you do it without a Senna in an F1 McLaren Honda? Well, you use the sound of the car buzzing past and light up bulbs to show where the car was on track.
Take a look:
How cool was that? But you do feel a moment of sadness that there is no Senna with us today. Memories of Senna will live forever, and so will innovations in technology continue to recreate his magic!
Back to the Pits
So, the Prost – Senna battle, no matter which side you belong to, was all but over in 1993. The friendship flourished but for them running out of time. So, when we now look at the Senna-Prost rivalry, we can do so with a sense of appreciation for two great drivers who eventually became friends!
As a parting shot, another testimony of the Honda-Senna relationship was Honda looking at Senna’s expertise in testing their under development NSX. Have a look at the drive and the excellent music:
And cheers to Prost and Senna’s eventual friendship!!
© 2020 S K