One of the cornerstones on which Chinese philosophy is based is the well-known concept of yin and yang. They can be represented by black and white, night and day, water and fire. To put it simply, these are two completely opposite flavours, but which at the same time have their own roots within each other, and therefore, are interdependent. One cannot exist without the other.
Here, after having immersed myself in the history of Formula 1 for months in the 80s and 90s, I think this is the best way to describe Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Two opposites, but without the presence of the other, they probably would not have achieved the same successes they have instead. Two completely different personalities, two different driving styles.
The first, Senna, aggressive to the core and with a talent out of the ordinary, who, thanks to feats that sometimes logic alone could not explain, has earned the nickname The Magic. The second, on the other hand, Prost, strenuous calculator, kinder in taking his car to the limit, after being the eternal second in his years in Renault and his first in McLaren, who over time became The Professor.
Before venturing into writing this unique story, I knew no more than the bare essentials of the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. I kept to what was the general vision of those who had lived or studied it.
As a result, I have also often heard of a kind of party game, where there were even good and bad, and specifically Senna played the hero loved by all, the pilot who had to counter the villain, that is Prost, accused of take advantage of the help of FISA and Balestre, and that for a pure question of internal Formula 1 policies and probably for a less heated personality than Ayrton, earned this uncomfortable title.
Alain himself confessed that he found himself in quite paradoxical situations in the relationship with the fans:
"I have never felt the tension or aggression of the Brazilians towards me, despite the great enthusiasm there was for Ayrton, and in previous years for Piquet. Paradoxically, I felt aggression in France, during our years of battle. People cheered for Ayrton, and not me, in my country. Ayrton was different. I was the boring one, it was him that people preferred".
When, together with Fulvio Conti, I embarked on this journey back in time, I was determined to try to steal every single detail regarding their rivalry, their personalities and their unique talent.
Race after race, interview after interview and thanks to the wide range of background that I came across during the various searches, without even realizing it I was bewitched by those years, finally managing to understand the reason why people talk about it with so much nostalgia, and because there are those who are indignant at every slightest comparison made between today's pilots and the two of them, Senna and Prost.
Those two drivers who previously represented a glorious past in Formula 1 but unknown to me, have become an essential part of me and my routine.
I could not help it, I started to devote myself almost exclusively to them, going so far as to neglect today's Formula 1, to the point that while watching the races dominated by Lewis Hamilton together with his Mercedes, I was reflecting at the same time about whether the next race would be like that I would have watched with Prost and Senna on the track, the possible emotions that they would have continued to offer me, regardless of the fact that I already knew perfectly the final result of the race.
Curiously, while I myself began to see them as Gods, as someone who already had the good fortune to admire them, I was also able to know the other side of the coin, the less divine one, because in the end, although they were special, we are still talking about human beings. I saw their mistakes, in some cases even trivial, their imperfections, their doubts, anger, insecurity that gripped even them, the best for detachment from the rest of the grid.
Impossible not to be surprised in front of a Prost who did not sleep at night to try to understand how Senna could keep up with him in qualifying with that gap that was often too great. In particular, once in Belgium, in Spa-Francorchamps, one of the Professor's favorite tracks, where Ayrton was once again faster than him. Alain looked at the telemetry, but did not understand:
"Beat me where you want, but not here".
He would have said to Jo Ramirez, while on the other side of the box Senna gloated at having managed to trigger that reaction of pure frustration. Ayrton for his part attached importance to every little detail to keep himself motivated in his obsessive mission to beat Alain.
In 1988, on the occasion of the Geneva Motor Show, which they also attended to sponsor Honda, Prost invited Senna to lunch at his house, which was not far from there. For over two straight hours, Ayrton didn't say a word to his teammate. Why? Yes, it is a question that Prost later posed to a Honda employee and his confidant.
The answer was:
"Simple, he didn't speak to you because he doesn't want to become your friend. He has to fight with you, so he can't build a friendship".
This obsession of the Brazilian towards Prost was already evident in 1984. I am not talking about the already well-known Monaco Grand Prix of that season, but about their first meeting ever, which took place in the spring of that same year, during an exhibition organized for the reopening of the historic Nurburgring circuit. It so happens that Alain was right to give Ayrton a lift from the airport to the circuit.
On the way, the two chatted amiably.
A circumstance that would not have happened again for quite a while. The race, run aboard Mercedes street cars, saw Senna throw Prost out after just half a lap. In short, an encouraging start, which was nothing more than the prelude to what would happen in the years to come.
"Losing was painful for him, but losing to me was even more painful. It was the worst thing that could happen to him. The motivation he had in being in front of me was unique".
Prost summarizes in a few words but more than enough what Senna's state of mind was during their battles.
"When I retired we talked about the race held in Japan in 1990, and Ayrton admitted, as he had done with the press and therefore publicly, that the maneuver was done intentionally. He also explained to me why. He was furious with the president of the FIA, Balestre, because he had expressed his disagreement with the idea of changing the order of the pitches on the grid, so as to allow him to start on the left. He told me that that time he was really determined to throw me out because I dared to go in front of him".
"What happened in Japan in 1990 is something I will never forget, because not only Ayrton was involved in the affair. Some of McLaren, or even among the FIA executives, a lot of people, fans and the press, all were absolutely in agreement with that maneuver of his, and it was this that I could not accept. To tell the truth after that event, after that season finale, I felt such a feeling as if I had retired from racing, as if in the years to come only raced my shadow. As I have always said, he didn't just want to beat me, but metaphorically he wanted to annihilate me, humiliate me, and this was his greatest motivation from day one".
"Already in that Mercedes exhibition race way back in 1984, I realized that he was not interested in beating an Alan Jones or a Keke Rosberg or anyone else at random. It was me he wanted, only Alain Prost, for some reason I don't know".
One of the elements on which I focused the most was trying to identify with those who witnessed their rivalry, to understand specifically why Senna was the most invoked name by fans, while Prost, as already mentioned before, was seen by a large part of the cheering as the villain of the situation, if you pass me the expression.
It may be for a purely psychological-personal question, or my tendency to take the side of those who are battered by the press, criticized by public opinion, or in general are not particularly loved by everyone, but precisely for this assumption my preference has been shifted slightly in favor of Prost.
And I'll explain why.
Despite the adversity of Honda towards him, who sided without too many worries alongside Senna, despite the media power acquired by the Brazilian, obviously without ever neglecting the great handle that the latter had, Prost held out, did not give up the challenge and that title in 1989 he went to take it with force, also thanks to that desperate defense maneuver, dirty or not, returned with interest the following year from Senna, in Japan.
As Honda president Nobuhiko Kawamoto openly confirmed during a conversation with Prost, the Japanese manufacturer chose to support Senna for simpler reasons than they might seem: Ayrton embodied in all respects the spirit of the samurai, the fighter who never gives up until the end, always aggressive and spectacular. Prost had inherited McLaren leadership from Niki Lauda; Senna arrived in 1988 with the intention of appropriating it.
"I've always thought that Prost is a McLaren driver with a Honda engine, and Senna a Honda driver on a McLaren chassis".
A phrase uttered by an employee of the team's technical staff, and which perhaps perfectly reflected the situation.
Those feats that cannot be explained by logic, like so many of his Pole Positions, above all the historic one in Monte Carlo in 1988, or his sling starts, with which he left his opponents baffled, Prost above all.
However, there is one aspect that deserves at least the same attention among the countless skills possessed by Senna, namely the great ability to take cars over the limit that in the meantime, driven by other drivers, were struggling to enter the points consistently. Emblematic for me are the seasons in which McLaren's dominance was interrupted by the Williams spacecraft, which represent the full maturity of the driver Ayrton.
Probably the same cannot be said of the Prost seen in 1993. After the sabbatical spent waiting for a competitive car following the disastrous 1991 with Ferrari, Alain returned in '93 signing a two-year contract with Williams. Although he won the World Cup and became the protagonist of extraordinary performances, which rightly earned him the title, these were alternated and obscured, by a few too many errors, which public opinion was not so kind to neglect.
Prost is no longer what it used to be; Prost wins only because he has the fastest car, these are just some of the accusations made against him, in my opinion, all unjustified.
Criticisms that have brought me back to the present day, where too easily we tend to belittle the exploits of the drivers, guilty of winning only and exclusively for their car. Opinions that leave the time they find, because since the birth of Formula 1, the team with the fastest car has been looking for the fastest driver.
Therefore, it is a logical consequence to have seen Senna and Prost at the wheel of that extraordinary Honda-powered McLaren, or Alain himself being chosen by Williams to be able to continue to dominate in Mansell's place. The same goes for the Kaiser Michael Schumacher in the years of Ferrari domination, up to the Mercedes of the hybrid era that relied on Lewis Hamilton to give life to his undisputed dictatorship. All of these pilots have been, and are, the best of their time, regardless of whether their detractors, past or present, may or may not like it.
It is then up to the team itself to evaluate what to do, whether to combine the champion with another first striker, as McLaren decided to proceed in 1988, or turn for a squire, as was Gerhard Berger later, or to make a leap again to the recent days, Rubens Barrichello in Ferrari or Mark Webber in Red Bull.
Learning that it was Prost himself who recommended Senna as his teammate, tacking a promising young driver rather than veteran Nelson Piquet, brought me a wry smile. Imagine if Alain had decided otherwise (and could have done so, given his position within the team at that time), and had opposed Senna's arrival. Maybe now we would be here talking about something else, or this magnificent rivalry would only have developed with a slight delay, who knows.
"Today if I think about it I can't help but say…Oh my God, but why did we do this? Why did we let ourselves go like this? Sometimes it felt like I was living a nightmare. Perhaps because we were two top drivers, and it was inevitable that there were disagreements between us, due to the desire to excel. Competition leads you to be blind, not to look anyone in the face, but despite this we have exaggerated. The pressure was high enough, maybe even too much".
"Thinking about it, with a little imagination, if only we had the chance to go back to the beginning and do it all over again, I think I would have talked to Ayrton something like this: Look, we're the best, we can pay to everyone if only we wanted to".
"Even if things went differently, it was still a legendary era, don't you think? That's life. Years later, we can also regret those times that are gone forever. Today nobody says Ayrton's name without saying mine too, and at the same time nobody can talk about me without mentioning Ayrton's name".
Don't worry Alain, the paradox of life wants it to be the imperfections that make it perfect. This also applies to your rivalry, full of imperfections, if we want to call them that, but which have made it the most beautiful and compelling story that Formula 1 can boast. Yes, we regret and remember the times gone forever, but maybe that's the beauty of it, isn't it?
Davide Scotto di Vetta