GRAND PRIX INTERNATIONAL, 28.10.1981
ALAIN PROST - FACE TO FACE
This interview is also available in French!
--- by Eric BHAT ---
It's rare for team managers, drivers and press to agree on anything in Formula 1. Yet for everyone who's watched him in 1981, there is no argument that Alain Prost has emerged as Grand Prix racing's Rookie of the Year, even if technically this has been his second full season of F1. His maturity and intelligence, coupled with an outstanding talent for driving consistently quickly under all circumstances, mark him out for future fame. But since an interview is not an opportunity to flatter a driver, I took the opportunity to ask him some contentious questions. And Prost, as usual, provided some fascinating replies.
At the beginning of the year, you said that you would be World Champion. You haven't won the championship, so don't you think it was conceited of you think that you would win it?
That's a tough start! No, I don't think it was conceit. I really thought it was possible. Look at my results in the second half of the season. I could have won the championship. I led at Silverstone, at Hockenheim and at Österreichring. If I'd had some luck and won those races, I would have been World Champion, even though I had such a bad first half to the season. We had a lot of bad luck in the first few races, and when the new car arrived, we had to make it competitive. Once we'd done that, I won some races, but I also lost some that I could have won. I finished the season in the top six, and I think that's good.
Throughout this season, you've said "we didn't win this one, but we'll win the next." Was this optimism or confidence?
It was confidence, not optimism. I find it quite logical to say that we'll win the next race when we've just lost the previous one. Of course, you can't win a championship talking in "ifs" all the time, and counting on good and bad luck. Even so, René and I had a lot of bad luck at the start of the year. We were often involved in other people's accidents. I call that bad luck. But when you talk about luck, there are times when you have to take good luck into account too. For example, Jacques Laffite has had quite a good year, but he's also had a lot of good luck. He was only tenth in practice at Montreal, but circumstances dictated that he won the race, even though the Ligier wasn't a winning car that day. That's good luck. I was unlucky enough to have trouble on three occasions when I was leading a race. If I'd had those problems at the start of the year when I had no chance of winning, that would have been much better.
So do you feel that Renault lost the World Championship rather than Alain Prost? Some people say that the team is unbeatable.
No, I think Renault have had as little luck as I have. I made a mistake in Spain, and that cost me at least four points. Otherwise, I don't think I've made any mistakes this year. But the team hasn't had any good luck. What I said before concerns Renault as much as it does Alain Prost. Only one team wins the title at the end of the year. We didn't manage to put together a winning combination this year, and bad luck played its part. We'll try to put things right next year.
You seem to be very conscious of the team when you're talking. Are you involved with the team to the extent that you've lost some of your own individuality?
No. Firstly, I have a good working relationship with the team members in that I am grateful for everything, the maximum, they do for me. Secondly, I've never felt so close to a team. With McLaren last year, I always spoke of myself, because I felt left out. The car was not competitive, and it was often dangerous as well. I felt that I could have done a lot better, but the car wasn't good enough. I never talked about the team, that was of secondary importance. My efforts weren't reciprocated. This year, I'm part of the team, and I feel that they're doing what they can for me. When I talk of myself, I talk of the team. It's no hassle: it's natural and sincere. I think of the car, the mechanics and the team. I don't think I could win Grands Prix without their back-up, and I hope they think the same of me.
Might it be a fact that you have to think like this because you're driving for a major car constructor?
No, not really. As I said a moment ago, it comes quite naturally, without thinking about it. Before I joined Renault, a lot of people said that it would be difficult. I'd have to check myself and make sure I didn't say anything I shouldn't. But that hasn't been a problem. Quite simply, I don't bad-mouth them because I don't think badly of them. The day I feel badly about them, I'll say so. I've always been straightforward. There's no problem at the moment. I feel part of the team.
When Ferrari won two races in a row, at Monaco and Jarama, was your confidence shaken? Didn't you feel that Renault might have been the wrong choice?
No, I never felt that. I'll be honest with you. Obviously, when Ferrari won those two races, I began to wonder. But my conclusion wasn't the same as other's. Some people said that Renault had been in Formula 1 for four years. Ferrari had just brought out their turbo engine and had won on two tight circuits. That, they said, showed that Renault couldn't build an engine, or a car, or both. My own view was different. I admitted that Ferrari had succeeded in making a reliable and competitive engine in a short space of time, but that certainly didn't mean that they were eclipsing Renault. At that time we were running a new car. Very soon afterwards, we proved that our car was more competitive than the Ferrari. You have to appreciate that Villeneuve's wins at Monaco and Jarama were achieved in unusual circumstances. Villeneuve drove well, but he had a certain amount of luck. You can't say the same of my three wins.
Let's talk about the winter of 1980/1981. McLaren had brought you into Formula 1 and you had a contract with the team for 1981. But you decided to break that contract. Was that the right way to behave?
It wasn't a moral thing to do, but it was thanks to Marlboro, not McLaren, that I was in Formula 1. I must say that I still have a good relationship with McLaren. That, in itself, is a surprise even for me, because at the end of last year I thought we'd never be on speaking terms again. I'm happy as well as surprised. But having said that, I repeat that is was because of Marlboro that I first drove a McLaren. And I'm still sponsored by Marlboro, so I didn't behave badly in breaking the contract.
Your first win in the French Grand Prix was under rather strange circumstances. Do you think it was a genuine win?
Yes, it wasn't complicated, because a win is always a win. Gilles's wins in Monaco and Spain may have been achieved under strange circumstances, but I never said that they weren't real wins, almost the opposite. I think my win at Dijon was similar. I didn't win because luck was on my side. I was second when the race was stopped. Piquet wasn't going to finish the race, that was obvious. First of all, his front left tyre had gone off, and he was going to have to stop to change it. Herbie Blash, Brabham's team manager, told me that. Everyone in the Brabham team knew it, and Gordon Murray was the first to realise it. Nelson would have stopped a few laps later. Secondly, he had problems with his throttle cable. The battle for the lead would have been between John Watson and me, as it was during the second half of the race.
Yes, but you would have had less turbo pressure, surely?
The mechanics adjusted the turbo pressure because we always try to run with as much turbo pressure as possible, but we couldn't turn it up too much for 20 laps. You break engines that way. You can turn up the boost for a couple of laps, but not for 20. The most important thing we did was to fit softer tyres, as did Watson and most of the other Michelin drivers.
The British teams are always saying that it's quite easy to win with 600 bhp.
I don't know how much power we have. If we do have 600 bhp, then we have more problems trying to set up our chassis than the British: if you have a power advantage, it's nothing unless you can put that power on the road. We do have an advantage on quick circuits. But it's not fair to reproach us for our extra power. When Renault first came into Formula 1, everyone - and the British were the first - said that it was crazy, a dream. Now they're saying that it's easy to win with a turbo, and that they should be banned. But they won't take the same risks and undertake the long development task. It doesn't seem to matter to our critics that we win on quick circuits, but the Ford-powered cars win on the tight ones because they're lighter and more manoeuvrable. Each type of car has its advantage. Should the turbo be banned for that reason?
You just failed to pull off wins at Silverstone, Hockenheim and Österreichring. After each race, you seemed more impatient to win. Do you not feel that you'd like to change teams?
No, not at all. I had a relatively minor problem each time I led those races, and they weren't problems that I could blame on the team. The valve fault at Silverstone was a manufacturing failure. The limiter was wrongly adjusted in Hockenheim, and the front suspension gave trouble at Österreichring. Honestly, those problems aren't going to make me want to change teams. At no time did I feel that I wanted to leave Renault. Deep down, I knew that I wanted to stay with the team. The only thing I felt was that my status might have been a little different this year. I wanted to be number one driver, or at least equal number one, in order to feel free of certain problems. Otherwise, everything was straightforward. The proof of that is that I signed for next year early in the season, while I might have waited for a better offer.
Have you had other offers for next year?
Yes, from certain top British and French teams. I think that's a fairly direct answer...
It's said that you have been fairly demanding in your terms to stay with Renault. Does money mean a lot to you?
I don't know who has said that, because I don't think I've been very hard in my bargaining. I don't think any one has been in a position to say that. I think they've been rather hasty in their judgement. I could have earned more by changing teams. But I wanted to stay where I was. At no time did I try to push up the price. I didn't want to get involved in that sort of bargaining. I'm 26 years old. I think I've got a lot of racing ahead of me. I can earn my money in the future.
Apparently you've often been angry during practice because you've felt that you've been held back. Is that true?
I don't think "held back" is quite the right expression. I think that there have been times when circumstances have been against me, which has meant that René has been on pole more times than I have. If I've been angry on occasions, it's because it's part of my character. I could have been quicker and taken pole position in England for instance, if they'd readjusted my rev limiter. But when I thought about it a couple of hours later, I realised that I'd been wrong to lose my temper. Gérard Larrousse was right, and I was wrong. Perhaps I've been slightly unpredictable on occasions, but I analyse my own behaviour. I know that if something like that happens, I will react in the same way. That's the way I am.
Drivers are said to be aggressive, even ill-natured? Do you hide this side of your character?
I'm not ill-natured, but I'm not easy-going either. I'm friendly enough, I like to chat with people, and joke with them, especially when I'm relaxed. But if I have a problem, on the other hand, I don't like people to joke about it. I'm not going to hit someone because of it, although I used to lose my temper when I was karting. I hit people on a number of occasions at that time. I've calmed down since then. I can control myself now. I don't show that I'm aggressive, except on the track. I don't think I'm thought of as an easy driver to race against.
Have you had any trouble getting used to the considerable number of technicians in the Renault team?
No. I knew almost everyone in the team from the time that I was racing in Formula 3. Anyway, that's one of the reasons why I wanted to join Renault. Obviously it's a tremendous advantage, technically speaking, but on top of that, it's a French team. It's obviously much easier to communicate with French-speaking people. I like driving in Formula 1 as a job and as a sport. But it wasn't easy for me last year. I had to push myself, I didn't feel at home, I couldn't communicate easily. Once practice was finished, I didn't feel that I was part of the team. The atmosphere is obviously much better at Renault where I can communicate, and there are other advantages.
Since your wins in Holland and Italy, people have been comparing you to some of the great drivers in motor racing. Don't you feel that there's a risk of you becoming big-headed?
No, I don't think so. I had the same kind of comments made of me when I won 12 Formula Renault races in one year. Even then, people were talking of me as though I was a super-star, but it didn't make me big-headed. And I was only 20 at the time. So this kind of talk isn't going to make any difference now.
Your wife, Anne-Marie, never comes to races. She's just given birth to your first child, a son, yet you don't talk about him often. You seem to be completely cut off from your family when you come to F1 races.
Yes, I live two lives: my professional life, and my family life. I always go to Formula 1 races alone. It's my job, I don't need anyone else. I don't need outside help. I feel better doing the job by myself.
Isn't that very egoistic?
No, I don't think so. Ever since I started racing, I've struggled on my own. I've often needed help, but I've never wanted to seek it from someone else. I still feel the same. I like to be alone when I'm doing something, because it allows me to concentrate harder on the job. Anyway, I don't like to have someone to look after, particularly at Grands Prix. Furthermore, my wife works, she doesn't like to come to the races, so it's a convenient arrangement. As for my son, I think he's going to be in Formula 3 next year!
Will Alain Prost be World Champion in 1982?
I won't be conceited, I'll settle for a place in the top ten!
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