Alain Prost retires

It may not have been a surprise to hear Alain Prost announce his retirement, but still there is always some incredulity when a great racing driver bows out. I felt the same at Zeltweg in 1985, when Niki Lauda told us this was it. The news was not unexpected, but there followed shock at the thought that a driver central to Formula 1 would not be there the following season

Alain Prost retires

So it is with Prost. I have been covering Grand Prix racing for Autosport now for 17 years, and for 13 of them Alain has been at the core of the sport. It was back in July of 1981 that he won his first Grand Prix; since then 50 more have followed.

Prost was in the points in his first race, and also in his second. From the beginning he outpaced John Watson, his McLaren team mate, and the message was writ large. As with Senna, Schumacher and Alesi, an exceptional talent was apparent from the outset.

Given that Alain is these days considered the cautious fellow, mocked for avoiding risk, for thinking only of points, it is wryly amusing to hear Lauda recall his McLaren team mate of the mid-eighties: "In qualifying, particularly, you need that extra something, a mixture of enthusiasm and madness. Prost - six years my junior - was more capable of it than I was. At Monaco, in particular, I couldn't believe how he went through traffic..."

The key words, surely, are "six years my junior". As Jackie Stewart says, "Alain is very easy with the car, isn't he? I doubt he's ever been at ten-tenths this year, because I don't think he likes that any more. That's inevitable in anyone of true intelligence who's been at the top for so long. Some, of course, never mature.

"Prost this year has done exactly what I expected of him. Of course, there are still days when you have to pick the thing up and carry it - as Alain did, for example, in qualifying at Barcelona, where his car wasn't working well, yet still he took pole position. But because he's been doing it so long, and because of his mentality, he will back off if he feels it's not appropriate to go quickly - and he's courageous enough to do so, without fearing what people will say.

"Of course some will deem that a weakness, but I admire him for it. And the other thing, of course, is his style, which is uncannily smooth and precise. To some, that's boring; to me, it's artistry - and so much more difficult than just throwing a car about.

"Alain doesn't have this need to show an enormous advantage, as Mansell did, and even Senna sometimes does. You know, Fangio always said that the object of the exercise was to win the race at the slowest possible speed, and who ever criticised him for it? Well, for me, that's Alain Prost."

There were good reasons to suspect that Alain might retire at the end of this season. Although his contract with Williams-Renault was for two seasons, and although he has much enjoyed the team, the year has not been entirely satisfactory. In March, he faced a FISA tribunal, and a possible ban, for allegedly daring to criticise the governing body.

I was by no means alone in wondering if some sort of witch hunt was under way, for the remarks he was reported to have made were as nothing compared with the occasional outbursts of some of his colleagues.

At Monte Carlo, Prost slightly jumped the start, and was penalised, whereas, for example, Alesi blatantly jumped it at Monza, and heard not another word. In Germany Alain took to the escape road on the opening lap, to avoid being clobbered by Brundle's spinning Ligier. Again there was a stop/go, yet in the same race, examples of dangerous driving went unpunished.

'It didn't surprise us,' Patrick Head observed afterwards, 'because it was, let's say, consistent with the rule makers' behaviour. They've just got it in for Alain, haven't they?'

Whether these, and other, apparent anomalies were rooted in an unspoken campaign against Prost, or were merely the consequence of inept officialdom, I wouldn't know. What matters is that, rightly or wrongly, Alain himself has no doubts. "The rules," he said firmly on Sunday, "are not the same for everyone." It is a view, I might add, widely endorsed in the paddock.

Real or imagined, these events have taken some toll of Prost's motivation. "They've hurt me a lot," he said, "and they can happen again. I'm lucky, because I've always had a life outside Fl, and when I've had problems in my professional life, the next day I've had something else to think about, which is good for your head.

"I don't say that in Fl everybody has been beautiful - it was absolutely not the case! But, even with enemies, I always wanted to make peace. I've done my time, done the best I could, and sometimes my image has been bad. I really think I didn't deserve that, but life's like a race, you know. Sometimes you win, and lose, when you don't deserve it."

Keke Rosberg, a former team mate, has felt considerable sympathy for Prost this year. "I think he's been terribly undervalued. In my opinion, he couldn't win the title; he could only lose it. Because he was Alain Prost, and he had a Williams-Renault, it was assumed he was going to be World Champion. When he's won, no one has said he's fantastic - just that it was expected."

There is surely another factor in Prost's decision, too. It has been no secret in recent weeks that, while some factions in both Williams and Renault wished to keep the team unchanged for 1994, others were obsessed with the recruitment of Senna. I never believed there was the slightest chance that Alain would partner Ayrton again. "The ambience in the team has been wonderful this year," he said, "and that's what I want to remember."

Initially, I was depressed after Alain's announcement, but now I find myself glad. For one thing, he must have achieved everything he could have wanted from motor racing. For another, he has remained his own man, holding to a code of race track ethics which have become outmoded. In an era when the 'professional foul' is cynically accepted throughout sport, Prost - like Bobby Charlton - had his name taken but once.

"You could tell Alain had never done anything like that before," laughed Rosberg, after Prost had shut the door on Senna at Suzuka in 1989, "because he did it so badly!"

Everything else you would have to say he did pretty well. Bernie Ecclestone may see fit to deride Prost at every opportunity, but I speak as I find, and prefer Stewart's assessment of the man and his ability. He, after all, is one who has been there, one who knows.

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