CREDIT SUISSE, 01.02.2005

Alain Prost: "My biggest mistake? That I tried."

From the Credit Suisse Bulletin magazine, February 2005.

Interview: Andreas Thomann.
Photo: Pia Zanetti

As a racing driver, a living legend; as a team boss, a spectacular failure.
Alain Prost's Formula One career reads like a Charles Dickens novel - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Mr. Prost, You won the world championship four times, but also finished runner-up four times. When you look back, does it sometimes bother you that your trophy case isn't bigger?
Well, you can replay the past over and over and ask yourself what could have been if only... Certainly, some defeats were painful. In 1983 I finished only two points behind Nelson Piquet. A year later, Niki Lauda edged me out by just a half a point. And when Ayrton won the world championship in 1988, I had 11 more points than him - but at that time, only the 11 best results counted. To me, more important than the victories is the fact that from 1981 I was in contention for the title in just about every season, often with the last race deciding the championship.

Piquet, Lauda, Senna: These three drivers were also your greatest rivals over the course of your Formula One career. Who impressed you the most?
In the beginning, Piquet was the benchmark - a very tough competitor. Niki was impressive in terms of his consistent performance. When he beat me for the world championship in 1984, I was actually faster in the races most of the time, but he put his strengths to better use. I learned an important lesson from that. But if there's a driver who stood above the rest - both for his driving and his mental abilities - it was Ayrton Senna.

The duels between you and Senna have long been a part of Formula One history. Here, the cool, calculating "Professor", there, the impulsive Brazilian. How much substance is there behind this cliché?
As with all clichés, there's a grain of truth in it. The fact is, however, that in the course of his career, Senna gradually changed his driving style to become more like mine.

The media played up the rivalry. How great was it in fact?
Of course we were rivals. For two seasons we even drove together for the same team, with the same material. And there's a saying in Formula One: your teammate is always your biggest rival. That's because you can directly compare only those drivers who drive for the same team.

Unless there is a team hierarchy.
Yes, but McLaren didn't have any at that time. The team deliberately set up a competitive situation. And the fans were delighted. A lot of people started to become interested in Formula One thanks to our rivalry. Of course the media and sponsors actively pitched in. Despite our rivalry, we never lost respect for each other.

Then why did you change to Ferrari for the 1990 season?
To be honest, I'd had enough of doing Ayrton's work for him. While he was taking three months off for winter holidays, I was doing hundreds of kilometers of testing. So, I informed the team during the season that I didn't wish to extend my contract. At that time, I had no idea where I'd end up.

The two years with Ferrari weren't anywhere as glorious as the previous six years had been with McLaren. Do you now regret having made that decision?
Not at all. The first year was fantastic, possibly the most enjoyable of my career. The team did a fantastic job, and the atmosphere was sensational. Had the management been more far-sighted, I would have been world champion again. In contrast, the following season was a disaster - we failed to pick up a single victory and wound up a dismal third. Accordingly, the atmosphere turned sour. I've thus experienced both sides of Ferrari: both fire and ice.

Your adventure as a team owner also wound up a disaster. What went wrong at Prost Grand Prix?
To begin with, the expectations were too high. We started practically from square one, and aside from Minardi we had the smallest budget in Formula One. In such a case, it takes years for you reach the top. And it takes solid partners, which we didn't have. Above all, our engine supplier Peugeot lacked the motivation right from the start to establish a long-term presence in Formula One. On top of that, the economic crisis made it harder and harder to find sponsors. For example, we signed a deal with South American TV network PSN, but they went bankrupt shortly after. We also had an agreement with Yahoo, but then the internet bubble burst. There was no way to stop the downward spiral.

In retrospect, what would you do differently today?
Actually, there's only one thing I'd do differently: I wouldn't get into it at all. I often didn't have any choice at all in the decisions that resulted. Financially, I had my back up against the wall.

Besides Prost, the Arrows team also disappeared from the scene. Are the private teams a lost cause in the face of the powerful works teams?
Today, the best a small team can hope to accomplish is to develop a competitive car over the season. But there's no chance anymore of competing at the front over several seasons. The mighty works teams have a clear advantage there: They can adapt to rules changes much more quickly because they've got special teams set up to deal with just those types of issues. Today it's no longer possible to get right to the top in Formula One with sponsorship money alone, particularly since sponsor interest is dwindling somewhat as Formula One becomes more and more monotonous.

Today, the big teams have budgets of about 500 million swiss francs. How can the exploding costs be stopped?
First and foremost, all the parties responsible have to be interested in reducing costs. This is where the main problem lies.

Let's assume that everyone agreed. What specifically would have to happen?
In order to really change anything, the number of tests would have to be reduced drastically. In doing so, you have to bear in mind that a lot of jobs would be lost. Some teams currently have between 800 and 1,000 employees. The only way to drive down costs is by laying people off.

What do you think about standardized tires?
I don't think it's a good idea. If you introduce standardized tires, why not standardized engines? From there it's just a small step to standardized cars. Formula One has always been a parallel competition between drivers and technologies. I wouldn't challenge this basic premise.

How do you rate the chances for Sauber Petronas in a Formula One dominated by the works teams?
In my view, there are basically three categories of teams in Formula One: the big works teams, the private teams, and somewhere in the middle there's Sauber. Peter Sauber has truly done a superb job in the last few years. At the beginning of last season he even had McLaren in check, and finished ahead of Toyota and Jaguar in the Constructors Championship.

So, is Sauber the exception that confirms the rule?
Probably. Peter Sauber's greatest advantage is that he could line up two big sponsors, Petronas and Credit Suisse, for long-term deals. They give him the stability required to be successful. There's also the good relationship with engine supplier, Ferrari. However, I doubt whether Sauber can ever make it all the way to the top on its own. That would require a deal with an automobile manufacturer.

In the meantime the team appears attractive enough for former world champion Jacques Villeneuve to agree to terms. What do you think he's capable of?
Jacques is an excellent driver, with a lot of charisma. He was the last driver to challenge Michael Schumacher. But I never really understood his move to BAR. A driver of his caliber should have always driven for a team with which he could have competed for the world championship. He certainly won't be granted that chance with Sauber either. But he could well have a successful season with a few podium finishes.

Villeneuve's comeback brings back memories of the 1993 season when you, too, returned from a year off to sit in the cockpit again and went on to win your fourth and last world championship title. How tough is it to find the racing rhythm after a break?
An interruption is always a risk. You lose your stride quickly, both physically and mentally, and you lose touch somewhat with technological developments. Fortunately, in my case the break lasted only nine months, and I switched to the best team of the day, Williams-Renault.

Every year the fans hope for an exciting season. Are the chances good that we'll see an end to the Ferrari domination this year?
I think it'll at least be harder for Ferrari. The new generation with Button, Räikkönen, Alonso and Montoya are pushing for a changing of the guard. Let's imagine that Ferrari no longer manages to build a car as outstanding as those in the past, and that Michael Schumacher has to battle to win in every race. Will he still have the motivation to hold off the attack of the "young guns"? Perhaps we'll get an answer to this question in the coming season.

Is there any similarity between today's dominator and four-time world champion Alain Prost?
Of course there are always parallels between champions. But I think his driving style is quite different from what mine was, and his career path has been different too. Moreover, he's the number one driver with Ferrari - I was never the number one driver on a team, but several times the number two.

And still: just like you were, Schumi is a good tactician who coolly weighs all the options during a race...
Today, tactics are determined more by the team than the driver. Today's cars are also much more reliable, so a driver isn't as concerned with how much he has to take it easy on the tires, the transmission, or the engine. That's what makes it difficult to compare drivers from different generations.

You turned fifty in February. But you still race regularly - sitting at the wheel of a Toyota Corolla in the "Trophée Andros" ice rally series. Are motorsports a drug?
Well, if you enjoy doing something, why should you quit? When I was a team owner, I never dreamed of getting back into the cockpit. But then the old passion was rekindled. Ice racing is something completely new to me; that makes it appealing. It's also absolutely safe. At my age, I don't take risks anymore...

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Alain Prost-Infopage © by Oskar Schuler, Switzerland