THE PROFESSOR discusses the racing philosophy that has made him the world's most successful Grand Prix driver ever
This interview is also available in French!
ALAIN PROST DOES NOT ALWAYS LOOK LIKE A WINNER, BUT HIS DRIVING STYLE IS DECEPTIVE, HIS DETERMINATION IS CLEAR TO SEE, AND HE HAS WON MANY OF HIS RACES BY INTELLIGENT STRATEGY RATHER THAN DOMINATING SPEED. THERE HAVE BEEN FASTER DRIVERS THAN PROST, THERE HAVE BEEN MORE AUDACIOUS DRIVERS, BUT THERE HAVE NOT BEEN ANY MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN THE FRENCHMAN. AT THE END OF THE 1993 SEASON, PROST RETIRED, LEAVING BEHIND A MEMORABLE RECORD OF ACHIEVEMENTS. IN HIS LAST SEASON HE WON SEVEN GRAND PRIX, CLAIMED 13 POLE POSITIONS, SET SIX FASTEST LAPS AND WAS CROWNED WORLD CHAMPION FOR THE FOURTH TIME IN 13 SEASONS OF GRAND PRIX RACING. AUTOSPORT'S NEWS EDITOR JAMES ALLEN AND I SUGGESTED A BRIEF CHAT WITH ALAIN ABOUT HIS LIFE IN MOTOR RACING. "WOULD 15 MINUTES BE ENOUGH?" HE ENQUIRED. IT WAS OVER AN HOUR LATER THAT HE FINALLY TOOK HIS LEAVE...
JENKS: ALAIN, I FIRST MET YOU AT ZANDVOORT MANY YEARS AGO, JUST AFTER YOU HAD WON THE VOLANT ELF PRIZE. FRANCOIS GUITER, THE HEAD OF ELF COMPETITION, BROUGHT YOU ALONG TO THE DUTCH GRAND PRIX TO LOOK AT FORMULA 1. YOU DIDN'T SPEAK ANY ENGLISH AT THE TIME AND YOU WERE INTRODUCED TO US AS "FRANCE'S FUTURE WORLD CHAMPION". WE ALL LOOKED AT THIS SHY CURLY HAIRED YOUTH AND THOUGHT, "WHO THE HELL IS HE?" FEW OF US WITHIN THE INSULAR WORLD OF FORMULA 1 KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT FRENCH NATIONAL BEGINNERS' RACING. WE ALL SHOOK HANDS WITH YOU AND GOT ON WITH OUR FREE ELF LUNCH! BUT WE DID HAVE GREAT RESPECT FOR MONSIEUR GUITER, KNOWN AFFECTIONATELY TO US AS "THE BIG MAN". SO, WE LOOKED AT THIS ALAIN PROST CHARACTER AND THOUGHT, "MONSIEUR GUITER MUST KNOW WHAT HE'S DOING." DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU WERE THINKING AT THE TIME?
Yes, I remember. I was embarrassed.
JENKS: YOU WERE VERY TIMID AND VERY SHY, IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS FORMULA 1 MADHOUSE.
You know, you are always very shy when you are on the outside. When you're on the inside you're part of it all. For example, when I was not part of it, and it really reminded me of that time at Zandvoort 15 years ago. Except that being part of the whole Grand Prix thing was more of a dream then.
JENKS: YOU DIDN'T SPEAK ANY ENGLISH WHEN WE FIRST MET. WHEN DID YOU LEARN IT?
In my first year at McLaren. I was taught all the bad words to start with, by Paddy McNally of Marlboro. It was difficult at the time at McLaren, because we had a lot of Kiwis and Australians, so I always found it really hard to understand.
JENKS: YOU OBVIOUSLY REALISED VERY EARLY ON THAT YOU WOULD NEED TO BE ABLE TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE TEAM.
Sure. It's always better to speak the language of the team. Not only for the direct contact with everyone - sometimes it also helps you to understand the mentality of the people in the team a bit better.
JENKS: THIS IS A PROBLEM I HAVE FOUND OVER THE LAST 40 YEARS OF COVERING MOTORSPORT; THE INABILITY OF BRITISH DRIVERS TO SPEAK ANOTHER LANGUAGE. PEOPLE FROM BRITAIN WHO SAY, "MAKE THEM LEARN THE QUEEN'S ENGLISH, IT'LL BE GOOD FOR THEM" MAKE ME CURL UP. HOW CAN PEOPLE BE SO ARROGANT AND INSULAR? AT QUITE AN EARLY AGE I DEVELOPED A EUROPEAN OUTLOOK. I'M PROUD OF BRITAIN, BUT ARROGANCE AND INSULARITY ARE NOT PART OF MY VOCABULARY.
It's not only the drivers. I think it's the English in general. All the English people I know don't want to make the effort to speak another language. Maybe they are shy too. I remember at the beginning of my time in Italy I was saying all the wrong things, but I didn't care, because at least I tried. I think maybe the English don't want to try something and look stupid, because they are a bit reserved.
JENKS: YOU'VE SAID MANY TIMES YOU PREFER DRIVING FOR ENGLISH TEAMS.
Yes, I think maybe they are more experienced. I would say that F1 started and grew in England. Technically they are better organised, and I think that there is a more healthy level of competition between the teams.
JAMES: WHY DON'T WE FIND THAT IN OTHER COUNTRIES, JENKS?
JENKS: IT GOES BACK TO THE EARLY 1960S. SPACE AGE MATERIALS AND TECHNOLOGY, AND THE ABILITY TO USE IT, MADE ENGLAND A GOOD CENTRE FOR THE DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION OF F1 CARS. SO IS IT ANY SURPRISE THAT TODAY YOU HAVE TEAMS SUCH AS MCLAREN, WILLIAMS, BENETTON AND LOTUS ALL LEADING THE TECHNICAL SCENE?
In France you have two teams, but they are never competitive at the same time. In Italy you have only Ferrari and some small teams. Also, I think the English have the right mentality. The organisation is very strict.
JENKS: IN THE MID-'80S, DURING YOU MCLAREN YEARS, YOU WORKED WITH PORSCHE. HOW DID YOU FIND THE GERMAN WAY OF DOING THINGS?
I think they have the right mentality. A German team could be quite good. But maybe they are a little bit too convinced that they are the best. It's not too good to have this attitude in F1. It could be a disadvantage.
JENKS: PERHAPS THE ENGLISH TEAMS ARE JUST BETTER AT FINDING A GOOD COMPROMISE.
Exactly. That could also be a part of the Ferrari problem. You can't always have the best team. It's always a compromise. Some Italians are geniuses, but you have to find a balance.
JENKS: HAVING DRIVEN FOR FRENCH, ENGLISH, AND ITALIAN TEAMS, YOU MUST BE CONSTANTLY MADE AWARE OF THE NATIONALITY OF THE TEAM.
Oh yes, it's very different in every respect. That's why I agree with you that it is all about compromise. Sometimes the food was much better at Ferrari... No really, it is so important. I remember when John Barnard went to Ferrari he banned the mechanics from having wine at lunchtime. I think it was right. It's very difficult to say, "Ferrari should have done this or that", because it is always a compromise. You want to have fun but you also want to work well. Sometimes I was quite happy at Ferrari, because we would have fun, but then they could not stop having fun and go back to the real work. It may sound exaggerated, but there is a time for everything and that again is where the British teams find the best compromise. Perhaps they're a bit too strict sometimes, but when you want to win it's much better.
JENKS: AND THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT: WINNING.
Yes, and you can have fun after the race... You know, I was looking at the history of the sport and I couldn't understand why there have been so many good South American drivers, especially Brazilians.
JENKS: IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THAT. IN FACT, UNTIL FANGIO APPEARED IN 1948, FEW OF US EVEN KNEW WHERE SOUTH AMERICA WAS, LET ALONE THAT THEY KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT MOTOR RACING. OF THE SOUTH AMERICAN COUNTRIES, BRAZIL WAS CLEARLY AN EMERGING NATION. SO IS IT ANY SURPRISE THAT THEY HAVE PRODUCED WORLD CHAMPIONS LIKE FITTIPALDI, PIQUET AND SENNA?
JAMES: FRANCE IS CREDITED WITH INVENTING MOTOR RACING AT THE END OF THE LAST CENTURY AND CERTAINLY IT INVENTED THE GRAND PRIX. BUT IT HAS HAD VERY FEW TOP DRIVERS. HAVE YOU AN EXPLANATION FOR THIS? IS IT SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE FRENCH MENTALITY?
The French are a bit like the Italians. A guy might work very hard to become a F1 driver, but once he gets there he's happy. That's enough. He's OK. I have seen a lot of young drivers have a shitty life to get to F1, but when they get there they don't make any more effort. Also the life discipline is too much for them.
JENKS: IT'S A NATURAL FRENCH CHARACTERISTIC. THEY DON'T WANT TO WORK TOO HARD BECAUSE THEN THEY CAN'T ENJOY LIFE. BUT YOU'RE THE EXCEPTION.
Yes, I am. Maybe I am not French, maybe I am from nowhere. I have had some problems because the French don't like people to have success, they don't like the number one. They like tobuild a guy up, then when he's at the top they cut him down. Almost everywhere is like this, except America. I like the mentality of the Americans. It's like when you talk about money. I am not jealous. You see people with no talent, and people who have not studied, enjoying real success. If I see some guy and maybe he's invented something for example, to put on your bread and made millions of dollars from it, I admire him. What I have is a guy who wins the lottery and gets 10 million dollars and then doesn't pay tax on it. That I hate. I have no problem with the people who work hard to get success. But I think people are very jealous about success. I work very hard and they don't appreciate that.
JENKS: CAN WE TALK NOW, NOT ABOUT PROST THE MAN, BUT ABOUT PROST THE RACING DRIVER. I'VE WATCHED MOST OF YOUR RACES. A LOT OF TIMES IN THE PAST, YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN FIFTH OR SIXTH AT THE START , AND I COULD SEE IN THOSE OPENING LAPS THAT YOU WERE GOING TO WIN. I DON'T QUITE KNOW WHY, BUT I WOULD SAY TO MYSELF, "HE'S GOING TO WIN THIS RACE." HERE'S THE WAY I SAW IT: I WOULD LOOK TO SEE WHO WAS IN FIFTH PLACE AND YOU WOULD BE CLOSE UP BEHIND HIM AND I WOULD THINK "HE KNOWS HOW TO GET PAST THIS MAN", AND SO ON UP TO FIRST PLACE. WHAT WERE YOU SEEING?
You're absolutely right. I have exactly the same feeling. I don't analyse only during the race. I always work the same way, starting from the beginning of the weekend, so I know at the beginning of the race, from all that I have analysed during the practice, whether I will win the race or not.
JENKS: YOU CAN READ EVERYTHING IN FRONT OF YOU?
Yes, I can read it, exactly.
JENKS: AND YOU ABSORBED ALL THIS DURING THE WEEKEND. DO YOU DO IT CONSCIOUSLY OR SUBCONSCIOUSLY?
It's a natural instinct. It's the way I worked from the very beginning of my racing career. In Formula Renault everyone had the same tyres, same chassis and same engine. I thought, "Where are you going to do it?" You can't think you are going to win all the races by being quicker, because it's not possible. So you need to find another way. What I did from the first year was to test very often, if the budget allowed, and I would change everything on the car all the time - anti-roll bar, springs, everything; just to understand what was happening on the car. I worked very hard and I played around a lot with the weight. We would prepare the cars maybe 10 or 15 kg lighter than the limit, because then I could have the rest of the weight as ballast and put it where I wanted. I was very interested in that. It is very important to have confidence as well as to build up experience. I always wanted to feel that I had enough knowledge and experience of the car that I could change its set-up on the grid and still win the race. That is an important part of my success. Another big part of my success is that I hated not to finish a race. I would prefer to finish sixth rather than lead and then crash or retire. I have always wanted to finish to get the experience.
JAMES: JENKS, THIS SOUNDS LIKE SOME OF THE IDEAS PUT FORWARD BY FANGIO IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
JENKS: YES. ACTUALLY I WORKED ON THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THAT BOOK. HE, TOO, WAS VERY EXPLICIT AND LOGICAL IN HIS PHILOSOPHY. LIKE YOU ALAIN, FANGIO FOLLOWED THE TENET OF FINISHING AT ALL COSTS. HOWEVER, HE WOULD OVERDRIVE AT TIMES OUT OF HIS SHEER PASSION FOR RACING. IF SOMETHING BROKE, HE'D NOT RETIRE BUT SOMEHOW DRAG IT TO THE FINISH ON THREE WHEELS. I RECALL THE 1954 SPANISH GP AT BARCELONA WHEN HIS MERCEDES SPRUNG AN OIL LEAK. HE WAS COVERED WITH THE STUFF. IT MUST HAVE BEEN BOILING THROUGH HIS T-SHIRT, BUT HE CARRIED ON AND WON. ALAIN, HAVE YOU ALWAYS STUCK TO THIS FINISH AT ALL COSTS OUTLOOK?
Yes. Sometimes I think I could have got some better results if I had a different mentality; if I could have pushed hard and attacked. But then I would have had a good chance of making a mistake. I always thought it was better to be safe and finish third or fourth than to risk a lot and win or come second. I have always had this mentality because I hated to break anything on the car.
JENKS: YOU'RE SYMPATHETIC WITH MECHANICAL THINGS?
Too much! One of my biggest problems this season was with the clutch at the start of the race. I hate to risk the car. I don't like to go over kerbs, because I don't want to be hard on the car.
JENKS: WHICH IS WHY, WATCHING YOU RACE, ONE CAN SEE THAT YOU HAVE A DELICATE TOUCH. I DON'T GET THE FEELING THAT YOU ARE HOLDING THE WHEEL FIRMLY; IT'S MORE LIKE THIS... (JENKS HOLDS AN IMAGINARY STEERING WHEEL WITH THUMB AND FINGER).
I have forced myself to be smooth. I am always concerned about tyres and such like anyway, so actually it's 80% natural and 20% I have forced myself to drive like this. Because that is the way you get the best results, not for a race, but for a season. No driver, except Niki Lauda in 1984, has got more points than me in the same car.
JENKS: SO YOU ALWAYS LOOKED AHEAD TO A WHOLE SEASON RATHER THAN ANY ONE RACE? BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE ONLY LOOK AT THE RACE IN FRONT OF THEM.
For sure. But, you know, that's why sometimes I was not very happy on the podium, because I was thinking about the next race. I would look at Michael Schumacher on the podium next to me and he'd be very happy and I understood how he felt. But very often my mind would already be on the next race.
JENKS: DID YOU EVER HAVE WHAT YOU CONSIDER TO BE A PERFECT RACE?
The best one was Brazil in 1987, with a McLaren-Porsche. I was something like seventh on the grid, about two seconds behind Mansell's Williams-Honda. From the beginning of the Friday, I worked with John Barnard and, without caring about qualifying, we worked on the best race set-up we could possibly find. Everybody was going for high-downforce, because there was a problem with the tyre-wear. We went in the opposite direction and ran very little downforce. So I would have to force myself to go slowly through the corners, and we planned to stop only once. Everybody else was going to stop at least twice, if not more. I remember in the first part of the race I was sixth and I could have gone quicker, but I had to go slow. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I stopped only once and I won the race by 30 seconds, but I'd been two seconds behind in qualifying! When you win a race like this the feeling is very, very good. There have been times when I have been flat-out to finish sixth, but you can't see that from the outside. In 1980 I finished three or four times in seventh place. I pushed like mad, yet everyone was gathered around the winner and they were thinking that I was just trundling around. But that's motor racing. So in fact the only thing you can judge in this sport its the longterm. You can judge a career or a season, but not one race.
JENKS: SO WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE REASON FOR YOUR WINNING A RECORD 51 GRAND PRIX?
First, because I have had competitive cars. Maybe you could say that I had those cars because I was good and people knew me, and knew that within the team I can get the very best from everyone. I was always motivated to do this job. I'm never down, even when I have a lot of shit from outside, from the press and so on. I don't care too much. I had a big problem this year after Brazil and Donington Park. I could have gone right down, but I was better in Imola and then Barcelona. I don't have any sympathy for a lot of the people in F1.
JENKS: YOU LET IT ALL PASS BY YOU...
To be honest, it hurts, but not deep inside. It also helps me to motivate myself. I have really enjoyed doing this job for me. I can see a lot of people doing this job just for their image, for their ego. I think that's a big advantage I've had.
JENKS: YOU'VE MADE IT CLEAR THAT YOU DON'T LIKE TO TAKE TOO MANY RISKS. BUT WHAT DO YOU TERM A RISK?
The best risk is the one you control yourself. The one I hate and would never take is the risk you can't control. I love sports and I have done some dangerous ones, like hang-gliding. But I would never, ever go bunjee-jumping. Why? Because I have no control. That is what I hate. It's like when people talk about driving F1 cars in the rain. I have absolutely no problem with it. People don't understand that it was maybe my biggest pleasure to drive an F1 car when it's wet. But in conditions like we had in the warm up at Hockenheim this year, when there was a lot of water and no visibility, it was like Russian roulette. You were not in control You had no visibility: maybe there was a car in front of you, maybe not. At one stage the car in front was 400m away and I couldn't see anything. People will mumble and say "Prost is not brave". I'm brave. I'm brave to say that I won't take this sort of risk. The people who criticise you will not be the ones taking care of your legs when you are in your wheelchair. People who never drove a car in these conditions, they just don't know.
JENKS: WHEN YOU TEST A CAR IN GOOD CONDITIONS AND YOU'RE GETTING NEAR TO THE LIMIT IN A CORNER, WHAT IS BEING FED INTO YOU FROM THE CAR?
When I test I never go right to the limit. Only because when you are below the limit you can go at the same speed all day, and that's the only way you can be absolutely sure about what you are testing.
JENKS: AND HOW ABOUT IN RACE PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING. DO YOU EXPLORE THE LIMIT?
My ideal is to go as fast as possible without taking any risks...
JENKS: YOU MEAN, WITHOUT TREADING INTO THE UNKNOWN?
Yes. Without going to what I think is my limit. I always say that my ideal is to get pole with the minimum effort, and to win the race at the slowest speed possible.
JENKS: (AFTER ALAIN PROST HAS LEFT) HE COMES OVER AS A VERY WARM AND UNCOMPLICATED MAN WHO DOESN'T RELY ON PASSION OR INSPIRATION. NOR DOES HE INDULGE IN SHOWMANSHIP OR BULLSHIT. HE IS CAPABLE OF A LEVEL OF MENTAL DISCIPLINE BEYOND THE COMPREHENSION OF MOST PEOPLE.
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