His English has a French twang. Soft spoken and yet composed. Mention Ayrton Senna and his voice is unruffled, but the intensity increases by a decibel or two. Not more. A marked change is the level of excitement in his tone. Hardcore enthusiasts would be annoyed, disappointed even, that he isn’t uncomfortable talking about the late multiple F1 champion from Brazil. Prost, ‘Le Professeur’ is an island of peace. In his late 50s, he isn’t left with anything to prove, only stories to tell. He speaks of them as a matter of fact, which should make anyone’s blood curdle, but your senses freeze. We let the man do the talking, then.
BSM: When did the bug of speed bite you as a child?
AP: The first time was on a go-kart. In fact it was my brother who was interested in motor racing, not me. I was more interested in football. So one day he took me along, but I wasn’t keen. I had broken my wrist, yet I managed to drive with one hand and instantly fell in love with it.
BSM: What is your take on F1 today?
AP: It has changed a lot in the last few years. Traditionally it was in Europe, then it went on to South America, followed by Japan in the ’80s, a little bit to North America and now it is much more global like India, China, Malaysia and soon in Russia. It’s now in almost every important country and that’s the big change. But the culture and tradition is different. If you look at this country (referring to UK, since we are at Goodwood), you can see the tradition of motor racing. India and China are different, but they are very interested in Formula One. In UK, they love the show, the cars, there is a lot to do with regards to motor racing; even technology. But I think it was the right move for F1 since we have a big (economic) crisis here in Europe compared to the rest of the world. If you compare to what I had, if you look at the car now, it’s incomparable. The technology, the evolution – that is important.
BSM: All this technology; is it taking away from the driving? Like in your time the driver had to set the car up while today it is more telemetry and electronic aids. Would you prefer the way it was done your time or now?
AP: Yes, the biggest difference during our time was we as the driver(s) were doing what we wanted with the setup of the car. We had to, because we had very little in terms of telemetry. Even with little bit of telemetry, you may think that there were no problems, but there were. Over time the technology improved, but the work asked of the driver during our day was completely different from those today.
Is it good or is it bad, I don’t think one can answer that question because it is more to do with the evolution of technology. But it’s a shame anyway. If you listen to the work that’s been asked of drivers today, it’s drive fast, turn a switch sometimes and talk about tyre degradation. This is the new Formula One.
BSM: Another bit is safety. During your time, a driver paid heavily if he made a mistake. Today the driver can go into a barrier and walk out of a car and be ready for his next stint. Do you therefore think drivers are now driving beyond their capabilities because they can take more risks?
AP: Today, you see more crashes, more accidents in F1 than ever before between two cars in my opinion. Because the drivers now, with the exception of Michael (Schumacher) who was there in 1994 when Ayrton died, nobody has experienced or seen bad accidents or drivers hurt in nearly two decades. There was a four or five year period where six or seven drivers were killed and two or three were badly injured (referring to the ’80s). The approach you have during racing has to be different, you have to be careful because when nothing happens, you feel you can go beyond a point and that’s when things can go wrong. Can you imagine the improvements that have been done on modern F1 cars in terms of passive safety? It’s unbelievable. There’s a big difference on the cars and a very big difference on the tracks. A lot of it is also down to the involvement of big constructor teams in F1. You can’t imagine the kind of accidents in the ‘80s happening now.
BSM: How was safety during private testing?
AP: Until 1986, everytime we tested, there wasn’t much by way of safety. In ’86, I was testing in Paul Ricard, just the two of us and this was just after Monaco. Me in the McLaren and Elio de Angelis in the Brabham. That was one of my worst experiences. I approached Verriere, a fast corner and as I exited I saw a few parts and tyre marks and I noticed the car had spun (out) but I couldn’t see the car, so I slowed down. I followed the marks going to the right. The car had flipped and the wheel was on a small tree. There was a very small road behind the guardrail as a safety pass, but there was no helicopter and not one person on the track. So I stopped and got out of the car. The car was starting to burn and because of the weight of (his) body I could not open the seatbelt. He was moving but I could do nothing and it was getting warmer and warmer. I tried everything. I was crying. My car had stopped too so I had to wait for the security to turn up. When they saw the two cars, they came over, some five to seven minutes later. I could do nothing. (Elio would later be transferred by helicopter to a hospital but passed away the following day).
In the evening I came to London to meet Max (Mosley) and Bernie (Ecclestone) and with McLaren and two other teams we came to the agreement that there would be no testing without an ambulance and a helicopter and all other necessary safety equipment. After this accident things changed. Even today I often think what I could have done different and there’s nothing. Elio was a good friend and a thorough gentleman. Maybe with two or three persons I could have moved the car, done something! The old days... (chokes up)
BSM: A lot of your career is linked to Ayrton Senna for one reason or another. Do you think you would have been as good a driver had he not have been there?
AP: I won before him (laughs). To be honest, if I am the person I am, I would have probably been better without him. We were just there together at the same time. Sometimes we admired each other but sometimes it put you in a very difficult situation because of the pressure of the media and the overall atmosphere, so maybe it would have been better without him. My image and my history of F1 cannot be the same without him. That is very important.
BSM: So do you think it was a great story to tell (the rivalry) rather than the racing?
AP: It should have been a very good story but no one has told the story in the right way since he died. The film (referring to the documentary Senna) is more commercial as it tries to explain who is the good guy and the bad guy, but the real story isn’t there. The real story is human at the end of the day. It’s a shame that it hasn’t turned out the way it should have when I started working with them (producers) on the movie. I worked a lot with them, trying to explain how he was before F1, when he was in F1, his fight with me and how he was after I left F1, when I retired. That would have been a perfect storyline for the movie. And it was important for me to let people understand what was happening and why we were fighting (against each other).
BSM: You once mentioned, to quote you ‘I think, to be honest, I had made the mistake of winning. The French really don’t like winners.' Do you think that still holds true for you?
AP: I don’t think I said it like that, not in that context at least. In France, it’s difficult to be a winner, that’s for sure. If you had the kind of success I had in Formula One and you were a Brazilian or an American or even a German, you would have had a lot of people behind you. In France when you are a winner, it’s always a 50:50. And it’s difficult to be in that situation for your entire life. Even when Ayrton was there it was a case where 50 per cent loved you and 50 per cent hated you. It’s never balanced. When Ayrton died, almost all the fans of him accepted me. But not in France. Sometimes it was better to finish second rather than win.
BSM: In the first few months of ’94, you had a few telephone conversations with Senna, where he kept calling you, asking you to return to F1. Did you think at some point ‘Maybe I should come back to F1?’
AP: In the film, the ten hours of rushes, they didn’t show this. The day I stepped on the podium in Adelaide (in ’93), we had a new Ayrton Senna. The conference after the race, I was looking at him and it was completely unbelievable. We were smiling, had some nice pictures together. He kept calling me at least once a week after that for different reasons. I had an offer from McLaren and he (Senna) wanted me to come back. He knew that the McLaren was good and it was a development car with Peugeot. Anyway, I told Ron (Dennis of McLaren) that I’d do the three day test and after that I would decide whether I want to come back or not. I wanted to be sure that it wasn’t a mistake. It was good to do it in any case. I don’t want to get into the details but Ayrton seemed to lack the motivation. Immediately after joining Williams he did not enjoy the ambience as he did at McLaren. He had some technical issues at Williams, especially with the driving position. Until he died he kept talking, even until Imola, about quite a few personal issues, including safety, wanting me to take care of the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers’ Association). Which is why I am upset with the movie because they did not show this. You could make a film on the whole weekend at Imola in fact, that would be a story in itself. When someone asked him (the film-maker) during a press conference why he did not show the portion when he (Senna) was in the cockpit saying ‘Alain, we miss you’, he said this wasn’t true and was probably organised by the French TV or something. How can you twist one of the best stories in Formula One? In the film I did claim that weekend Ayrton wasn’t happy. If you remember, at Imola he was at the Williams motorhome and I was having lunch with some guests at the Renault motorhome. He went out of the motor home to meet me alone, but since I was busy I told him I’d meet him at his motorhome. Later, I went to the Williams garage to meet him, where he was doing some stretching exercises and chatted for 10 to 15 minutes. He told me he was convinced that Bennetton was up to some cheating and discussed some other personal matters. But the filmmaker denies this episode ever happened. He should have left it to the viewer to decide who was good or not, because it is important to show what was true.
BSM: Did Ayrton ask you for advice?
AP: We talked a lot about safety, he was very concerned. When we were driving together, he wasn’t very concerned about it. He had a big problem with the driving position in the Williams and even I had it because the car was originally designed for Nigel (Mansell) who has a very strange position where he wanted a smaller and very low steering wheel. I remember I was commentating at the Brazilian Grand Prix (94) and there were 10 laps to go. I said Ayrton will have a problem because I knew of this problem, especially given the nature of Interlagos and the stress it would have put on his neck. Two laps later he spun and he later told me he couldn’t take it any more. Then they changed the position to suit him. But Ayrton wasn’t always like that, telling me things as and when he felt. Once in 1988 we were in Geneva for the Motor Show with Honda and I invited him home for lunch. He came over, headed to the sofa and crashed for about two hours. He just didn’t talk. The next day I spoke to a guy from Honda in Switzerland and told him that I invited Senna for lunch and he didn’t talk and he said, ‘Yes, I know’. I said you do? Yes and Ayrton’s reply was, ‘Of course, because I don’t want to be friends with Alain, I don’t want to talk much to him.’ And I can understand it, because he wanted to go against me, beat me and be aggressive. When I retired, he told me several times ‘I can’t find the motivation to fight anyone else.’ When I think about it, it makes me even proud of what we’ve done. He told me, when he was looking at F1, he always thought about me. He wanted to beat me. He wanted to be World Champion. So once I left, he had no motivation.