F1 RACING, 01.06.2001

Professor brainstorm

As a driver, Alain Prost was the most intelligent who ever started a grand prix. As a team owner, he has often seemed to leave his brain in neutral. In the second of an exclusive F1 Racing series of big-name interviews, Murray Walker probes the two sides of le Professeur.

Murray Walker: You were fantastically successful and credited with being the cleverest driver of your day. They called you the Professor. Did all that come naturally?
Alain Prost: I don't think I had to work at it. I thought a lot about how I could improve and that involved not just thinking about driving the car. But it came naturally.

Is it something in the genes?
There is absolutely no reason for it. If you knew my family, you would agree. My parents were completely outside motor racing and sport.

You've driven for two manufacturers (Ferrari and Renault) and two private teams (McLaren and Williams). Can you contrast the two situations?
It's a bit more complicated than that, because I knew Renault as a team and I knew them with Frank (Williams) when they still had quite a lot of influence, but you always have more pressure with a factory team and there are more politics.

Former American president Harry Truman allegedly had a note on his desk saying "the buck stops here". I think of Ron (Dennis) and Frank as more able to make decisions than the complexity of Ferrari and Renault.
Yes. Normally you would say you have more fun in a private team because there is less pressure. When I was at Ferrari, 1990 and '91 were completely different. Until the last two races, '90 was fantastic. The work and pleasure you could get from a win was fantastic. But as soon as it started to go wrong, it went wrong in a bad way.

I've always thought of you as being extremely brave, not just in terms of driving the car but also in your mental attitude. You were extremely outspoken.
I have never regretted speaking my mind. I have always acted the way I felt and I have never changed. Well, maybe I've changed a bit now because I'm talking a little bit less. But I like to say what I think.

When you said to Renault in '83 that the car wasn't good enough...
I have never said that to any team. Never. That's exactly what I would not accept now as a team boss. I would not accept one of my drivers saying that. In racing, the car is never good enough. At Renault in '83, I didn't wait until the end of the year to tell them what I thought; I told them in the middle of the year, when I was 14 points ahead of Nelson Piquet. I said: "We're going to lose the championship because of this and this and this." And, in my opinion, we lost the championship because of what I predicted. The choice of turbos, the decisions on development and the organisation inside the team – all that.

How did Renault react to that?
Well, I had more or less the same situation at Ferrari in '91. It's a funny story. In the week I was fired, I was talking with Ferrari about taking more responsibility within the team in terms of management. Even in Australia, we were talking every day with the lawyers. It was on my mind. How could I race and still do more? I was thinking about how I would reorganise the team when suddenly, at 2.00 a.m., I heard that they wanted to fire me. That was a strictly political decision. What is extraordinary is that, not more than four weeks later, they were talking about having me back! That is the truth. I was the same with Renault in '84. We were talking then about me going back in '85, but at Ferrari it took no more than one month for the discussions to start again. I didn't want to go to Renault because I was pleased with what I had at McLaren. And Ferrari would have been almost impossible because the pressure had been huge in '91. Can you imagine if I had gone back? The good thing about big teams is that you can have a huge fight, yet one month later you can forget everything.

Tell us something about the men you raced against. Nelson Piquet, for example?
A lot of fun. A nice guy. Fantastic ability. Knew the car quite well. Maybe a bit lazy. He didn't always go into all the details.

Niki Lauda?
He was amazing. Very intelligent. Very political when he was racing, but in a good way. I think he was better politically when he was a driver than now. He drove exactly the right way at the right time. In my time (McLaren '84), he was not quick, but efficient. Maybe in '75 and '77, he was quick and efficient, but it is always a problem to compare drivers of a different generation, and when they are 25 and 35.

Nigel Mansell?
Quick very quickly. He could get down to a time straight off. A huge ability to drive the car in difficult conditions. Not a good team-mate, no team spirit. Not very efficient – the opposite of Niki. Not a team player, not interested in set-up. He was good when he had the best car, but not when he had do develop it. Not impressive.

Gilles Villeneuve?
He was one of the most charming men. One of my first friends in motor racing. He was so honest and straight that he lost his life because of it. People don't know what happened in the weeks before his accident, and why it happened. It started just before Imola, then there was Imola, but it was all related. He did not kill himself. He was killed by people. He was so intense. I'm not sure he would have been world champion, but his is the kind of personality we love in Formula 1 and so miss.

I think of him in the same way that I think of Stirling Moss – that it is a criticism of the world championship that neither of them was world champion. Now, what about Michael Schumacher?
I am very impressed by what he has done. His ability to drive a car is probably in the top five of all time. But what has impressed me most is that he has created a situation at Ferrari which is unique. He understood the kind of ingredients that he needed to be successful. Obviously he has been helped a lot by Jean Todt, by Ross Brawn and Willi Weber – who I think has been a big part of his success. I remember seeing Michael on the podium many times when he was third and second, laughing and celebrating. Still enjoying it. Back then, I said to myself: "He will be successful".

The last is the inevitable one, Ayrton Senna. But before you answer, I want to tell you a little story. One year at Monaco, I waited four and a half hours outside the Marlboro motorhome to do an interview with Senna. The two of you were having a debrief. When the door opened, the first person who came out was you. I said: "You've been in there for four and a half hours. What on earth do you talk about for all that time?" You said: "Well, Murray, we talk about this and we talk about that, but I do not like to be the first to leave!" Did that sum up your relationship with Ayrton?
Yes and no. The team were very professional. Everything we could get from each other was important. If you left too soon, you would miss learning something.

But the way you said it, I had the impression that once you left, Ayrton would say, "And put another two pounds in the tyres."
We were very professional. Even when we had the big fight. It was a funny situation because we only talked to each other in the briefings. There, it was like we never had any problem. We were sharing set-ups and things on the car. I promise you – and I don't know whether the same is true for him – that I never, ever lied to him.

As someone who had enormous admiration for Senna, I never forgave him for lying about Japan in '90 (when the Brazilian deliberately crashed into Prost at the start to win the world title).
The only problems I have today are Imola '89 (when Senna broke a pre-race arrangement not to overtake Prost and won the GP) and Japan '90. I really suffered over them. Everybody lies in life, but when you lie for your own benefit... I suffered a lot. I almost stopped at the end of '90. For a few days I wondered whether it was worth carrying on, especially when I saw the comments in the papers that it was almost my fault! I remember one of the Honda engineers coming to me on the evening of the race and saying, "We have looked at the telemetry. It is unbelievable, Senna stayed absolutely flat until the impact." I thought, "Shit." Why didn't the truth come out? Living with that was very difficult. You must understand that Ayrton's motivation was to beat me. All he wanted to do was beat me. Being world champion was one thing, but that was almost second to the challenge of beating me. I was his obsession. As soon as I retired, he changed totally. We talked on the phone as if we had been friends for a long time. After I stopped, our new relationship made me forget about everything else. I remembered only the best of Ayrton and not the worst. It's like in school.

I look at you now and I grieve in a way because you were one of the greatest of all time as a driver. Then you decide to own a team and you seem to have had consistent misery and aggravation. Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, "Why on earth did I do this?"
Not every morning!

Drivers seldom make good team owners. Emerson Fittipaldi didn't, John Surtees didn't. Why did you do it?
It was not for money. It was for the challenge. I had the opportunity to have this team, but I was a bit naοve to think also that this could be a fantastic opportunity for my country. I was about 42 when I did it – very young. I always separate my private life and my business life, and I knew it would be difficult to find something challenging to do after being a successful racing driver.

Did La Belle France have a big input into the team?
Not really, but it felt a little bit like a duty. If I really loved motor racing, I said to myself, I could not leave Ligier to go under. If there was one small chance to be successful, I thought I should give it a go.

Do you think that there need to be F1 teams based outside England?
Yes. F1 must be organised to be successful in the long term, especially with the big constructors coming in. The culture of racing is in England, but it's very important that there are teams elsewhere. In France, we have big manufacturers, we have sponsors, we have everything to create a racing culture – but it's all going down. If all the constructors were working in the same country, it would become less interesting for everyone.

You've restructured your team. Are you now optimistic for the future?
Yes I am, but I have some problems. We have to think first about the short term, which is to improve things to get closer to the front of the grid. Then you have to think about the medium and long term, about linking up with a manufacturer having a better financial position. It's not easy, but I'm quite confident about what we have built. Where we are at the moment and where we were in September and October are so different. If people knew the kind of money we have invested in this car, they would be amazed. We are optimistic because we have now started a new process. I know that there are still a lot of rumours about our financial position. We knew that it would be very difficult, but things can only get better.

Can you comment about the money coming from Brazil?
I hope there is some coming because they (Pedro Diniz and his family) are our partners. They are the minority shareholders and you expect a shareholder to help the team in any way they can. Obviously, the South American part is very important and it was also one of the reasons they became partners, because I needed some financial help.

But it will remain the Prost team?
Yes, for sure.

Moving onto your drivers: has Jean Alesi still got what it takes?
He still has a young, fresh mind – it's incredible. But he's getting older, so he needs a better car more than ever. We saw what he can do in winter testing when things were going well and he was quick. Then he had a difficult time at the beginning of the year because we were facing a situation where it looked like we could not get back what we had done in the winter. The car was always understeering and we had a big problem to make the front tyres work. It's difficult to solve, so, while it's not getting worse, Jean was hoping that the car was going to be a bit better than it is. He still has the capacity to get a result one day if everything is OK.

Everybody thinks that they know why you took Gastσn Mazzacane as a driver – that he was good enough and that he had a big wallet. But he doesn't seem to have been good enough. How difficult was it to sack him?
If I had not signed Mazzacane with PSN over the winter, it would have been almost impossible for me to continue. But I had to make the decision to terminate our arrangement after four races and it was not easy to do from a human point of view.

Did you personally tell him to go?
Yes. To be honest it was not very difficult because he knew that would happen. He knew exactly what we were expecting from him. Being between one and two seconds slower than your team-mate these days, when things are so close, is just not good enough.

Were you hoping when you signed Pedro de la Rosa (as a test driver) that he could replace Gastón if need be?
Yes. I was very cross because the de la Rosa thing came at exactly the wrong time for us. It seemed we were having all the problems all together, and the Pedro situation was maybe the worst thing we had at the time because we knew that he had a contract for this year and the year after, and we could also have had sponsorship with him. It was a perfect situation and we were set. Suddenly this happened.

How come you ended up with Burti? Was it a straight swap?
Yes, but it is a bit more complex than that. When I asked for de la Rosa back, I was also thinking, "OK, we stop the court case if you let me have Pedro until the end of the year." Then I realised that it might be difficult because he already has a contract for the year after and I don't think that it would have been good for us, or him. When they said to me they couldn't give me Pedro, but were happy to give me Burti, I said to myself, "Stop and compromise. Luciano is a good driver and he will be 100% committed to the team." Then we stopped the court case and this is where we are.

How good do you think Luciano is?
From what I've seen Jean and Luciano will work OK. It's very difficult to go into a new team in the middle of the year. What is most important for us is to have two cars, two drivers and two engineers, and have people talking to each other. Also, when the race starts on Sunday, we don't have everybody in the team thinking that, if we have a problem with Jean, we don't have a result. It's maybe sad for Gastón, but that's the way it is.

Do you regret getting involved with the team?
No, and I tell you why. I know myself, and if I hadn't made this decision in '97, I would have regretted it all my life. I've done it, it's been difficult, and I've gone for it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think "Shit!", but, funnily enough, I still want to go on. I know that I need very little to make this team start heading in the right direction. That could even happen in the next two months.

Is what you are doing now the hardest thing that you have ever done in your life?
For sure. It's very tough.

When you go to the great race track in the sky – we all have to sometime! – how will you want to be remembered? As a great team owner?
No, not a great team owner. A great person. That's what I would like.

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