McLaren ’50 in 50′: Alain Prost

Alain Prost was McLaren’s fourth world champion, winning it on three occasions for them. Following Emerson Fittipaldi (1974), James Hunt (1976), and Nika Lauda (1984) Prost was their first multiple world champion. The Frenchman also won a world championship in his final year in Formula One, driving for Williams.

Prost, like many other racing drivers, cut his teeth racing in karts. He won a number of championships after starting aged 14, and it wasn’t long before he progressed to single seaters. He won the French Formula-Renault championship in 1976 and 1977. He then went on to win the French Formula 3 championship in 1978, coming ninth in the European series.  He was then invited to a test with McLaren, which took place at the Paul Ricard circuit. He made his Formula One debut in 1980 with McLaren, scoring in his first two races with credible fifth and sixth positions. He ended the year in 15th place but left the team to go and sign for Renault, under somewhat of a cloud. During the year he suffered a number of mechanical failures and this apparently played a part in him deciding to leave his contract two years early.

Prost’s Renault career did not get off to the most positive of starts, but it did not take him long to reach the podium. His year consisted of either DNF or podium positions, including his first (and subsequently second and third) wins. His first win was particularly important as it came at his home Grand Prix and featured a Frenchman driving a French car. He said afterwards: “Before, you thought you could do it. Now you know you can.” He won again in Holland and Italy and finished the year in fifth place. He remained with Renault through 1982 and 1983, winning six more races and finishing on the podium a further five times. Once again, Prost found himself having difficulties with his team so left at the end of 1983 to return to McLaren.

His return to McLaren signalled the start of a highly successful period in Prost’s career. He finished second in the 1984 world championship with seven wins and two further podiums. He missed out on the championship by the narrowest of margins, however – just half a point between himself and team-mate Niki Lauda at the end of the year. The following year, however, he was successful in taking the crown. Prost once again partnered Lauda, but out-drove his more experienced team-mate. He finished on the podium 11 times, including five wins. Despite what appears to be a commanding performance, however, the team were unhappy that Prost did not take many risks and accepted results when he could have pushed for more. “I’ve lost the championship at the last moment so many times,” he explained. “I’m not taking any chances.” Given the proximity of his loss in 1984, it was a commanding 23 point cushion that he had over Michele Alboreto at the end of the season. And his form didn’t end there.

Prost became the first back-to-back World Champion since Jack Brabham in 1960 when he won the championship again in 1986. It was a closer margin, but he still beat Nigel Mansell. The pair were matched on victories (four each), but it was Prost’s seven further podiums to Mansell’s four that swung the pendulum in his direction. A dip in form for McLaren saw Prost drop to fourth in the 1987 championship, but he came second in 1988 to his new team-mate Ayrton Senna. This proved to be a turning part in one of Formula One’s most iconic rivalries, and featured heavily in the Senna docu-film. Despite Prost having more points at the end of the season it was Senna who clinched the championship due to the ’11 best results’ rule.

1989 proved to be Prost’s last year with McLaren. With Honda appearing to favour Senna, Prost informed the team of his decision to leave mid-way during the year. Despite taking only four victories, Prost beat his team-mate by 16 points, albeit in a slightly controversial manner. The rivalry came to a head at Suzuka, the penultimate race of the season. Prost lined up on pole with his team-mate beside him. Senna had to win the race to be able to win the championship. The pair had a coming together as Senna lined up Prost for an overtake. The former was able to continue and won the race, while Prost retired. Senna was later disqualified, however, due to the way he had returned to the track. This gave Prost an advantage that could not be overtaken and he therefore won the championship.

And then he left for Ferrari. He spent three further seasons racing in Formula One, taking his fourth and last championship in 1993. Following his retirement from racing The Professor, as he was dubbed, became a pundit for French TV as well as joining Renault’s PR department. He returned to McLaren in 1996, although not as a racer. He worked as a technical adviser before taking ownership of his own team when he bought Ligier. This led to the formation of Prost GP. The team was on the grid from 1997 to 2001, featuring familiar faces such as Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and fellow Frenchman Jean Alesi. The team’s debut year turned out to be their best in the championship when they finished sixth with 21 points.

He now competes regularly in the Andros Trophy (a French national ice racing championship) and has also taken part in a number of bicycle and mountain bike races. He became an OBE in 1993

He left an impressive legacy in Formula One: 51 race wins (a quarter of the races entered), 106 podiums, and 33 pole positions. He has won four world championships – only Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio have more, although Sebastian Vettel looks set to join him on four. He is second to only Schumacher in terms of races won (51 to Schumacher’s 91) and second only to Senna in terms of most consecutive pole positions (seven to Senna’s eight). 86 of his 199 starts were from the front row of the grid and finished 128/199 races in the points. Of the 107 races he started for McLaren, 74 were points finishes. 63 of these were on the podium and 30 were wins. To put it simply: he is a McLaren legend.

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