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His place in Formula One history as one of the sport's greatest drivers is secure, though a career full of conflict and controversy detracted somewhat from his considerable achievements. He won four championships but also left teams acrimoniously on four occasions. He made winning races - 51 times - look easy but was less successful at the politics in which he was invariably embroiled. His bitter feud with Ayrton Senna brought out the best and worst in them both. And yet among the champions only Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio won more than Alain Prost.
Alain Prost was born on February 24, 1955, near Saint Chamond in the Loire region of central France, where his father Andre manufactured kitchen furnishings. Alain was a busy little boy with a boundless energy that more than made up for any shortcomings he might have in terms of physical height. He threw himself into wrestling, roller skating and playing football with such vigour that his prominent nose was broken several times. Athletically inclined, he thought about becoming a gym instructor or parlaying his proficiency at soccer into a professional career. Instead, his passion turned to kart racing which he discovered at 14 while on a family holiday in the south of France. What began as fun quickly became an obsession and he won several karting championships. In 1974 he left school to become a full-time racer, supporting himself by tuning engines and a becoming a kart distributor. His prize for winning the 1975 French senior karting championship was a season in Formula Renault, a category in which he went on to win two driving titles before moving to Formula Three. In 1978 and 1979 he won both the French and European F3 championships, by which time he was on the shopping lists of several Formula One teams. After carefully considering his options he chose to sign with McLaren for 1980.
In his first Formula One season he finished in the points four times but also had several accidents, breaking his wrist in one of them and suffering a concussion in another. Some of his crashes were caused by worrying mechanical failures and Alain also had misgivings about the way the McLaren team was run. Amidst some acrimony he chose to break his two-year contract and signed with Renault.
His first Formula One victory came at home: a French driver in a French car in the 1981 French Grand Prix at Dijon. For Alain the momentous occasion that marked the beginning of his winning ways was memorable mostly for the change it made in his mindset. "Before, you thought you could do it," he said. "Now you know you can." The victories kept coming - he had nine during his three seasons with Renault - but the winner found himself increasingly at odds with the home team's management, who made him the scapegoat for failing to win a championship, and with the French fans, who much preferred the homely appeal of his ragtag team mate Rene Arnoux, with whom Prost had a running feud. Fed up with it all, Alain moved his wife Anne-Marie and their son Nicolas to Switzerland and went racing again with the British-based McLaren team in 1984.
In his six seasons with McLaren Alain Prost won 30 races and three driving titles and was runner-up twice. In 1985 he became the first French World Champion. In 1986 he became the first back-to-back champion since Jack Brabham 26 years earlier. In 1987, his 28th Grand Prix victory beat Jackie Stewart's 14-year-old record. In 1988, Prost contributed seven wins to his McLaren-Honda team's one-sided season total of 15 victories from 16 races. However, his brilliant new team mate Ayrton Senna won eight races and the driving title. Thus began the sensational rivalry that conspired to push two of the sport's greatest drivers to unprecedented heights of success and controversy.
Alain Prost, nicknamed 'The Professor' for his cerebral approach to racing, needed all his brainpower and driving skill to take on the formidable Senna. Unable to match him in pure speed, The Professor (like his heroes Stewart and Lauda) managed to hold his own by perfecting an economical style: starting a race conservatively, taking it easy on the brakes and tyres and then making a late race challenge. Meanwhile, the Brazilian's tendency to go flat out all the time (even in the rain, which Prost hated) left his French team mate behind in terms of public appeal, which was another contributing factor in what became the most bitter feud in Formula One history.
McLaren's domination continued throughout 1989 and the Prost-Senna struggle for supremacy put them on a collision course. Mutual admiration turned to all-out hatred, with the Frenchman accusing his Brazilian team mate of dangerous driving and of receiving more than a fair share of attention from both McLaren and Honda. Their embittered season ended in a controversial clash in the chicane at Suzuka, where Prost deliberately shut the door on Senna and clinched his third driving title, whereupon he promptly stalked off to join his new employers: Ferrari.
In his first year with Ferrari Prost won five races and again came to the 1990 season finale in Japan with only his McLaren adversary capable of depriving him of the championship. Senna did just that, taking his second driving title by deliberately driving into the Ferrari at Suzuka. "What he did was disgusting," Prost said. "He is a man without value."
In 1991 Ferrari fell off the pace and for the first time in ten years Alain Prost failed to win a race. He blamed the Italian team for losing the plot, went public with his criticism and was fired before the end of the season. With no time to find another ride he took a sabbatical from driving and spent 1992 as TV commentator, before returning in 1993 with Williams-Renault to win seven more races - bringing his total to a then record 51 - and take his fourth driving title. Faced with the prospect of having the hated Senna becoming his Williams team mate The Professor announced his retirement, saying: "The sport has given me a lot but I decided the game wasn't worth it any more."
But he wasn't yet finished playing the game. He went back to TV commentating and worked as an adviser and test driver for McLaren, before buying the Ligier team in 1997 and renaming it Prost Grand Prix. Beset by political and financial problems the team was an embarrassment for the four-time champion, who closed up shop at the end of 2001.
April 8th, 2013
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