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The Forgotten Friendship of Formula One

Written by Caitlyn Gordon, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Pascal Rondeau, Getty Images

‘The most beautiful legacy of an exciting story’ – Alain Prost on his relationship with Senna.

The late 1980s and early 1990s are regarded as the ‘golden era’ of motorsports for a few reasons. One of them is for the generational talent racing in the sport during the time, the likes of Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, a young Michael Schumacher, and Mika Hakkinen all battling to cement their name in the history books. However, the main reason for this decade being popular is the fiercest rivalry in the history of motorsport, the battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Almost three decades later, it is still recognised as one of the sport's most compelling and aggressive eras. The two title-defining Japanese Grands-Prix in 1989 and 1990 saw the two rivals come together, and their races were cut short. Prost took the title in 1989 with a 16-point advantage over Senna, but Senna got his revenge the following year, winning by just seven points. Yet, away from their hardcore battles on track, a strong and sincere friendship grew between the pair, an oftenly forgettable fact when talking about these two legends.

“There isn’t a day when someone I know doesn’t talk about Ayrton and me: it means that we have done something, that something has endured”.

Pascal Rondeau, Getty Images

Their relationship was always rocky during their time as teammates at McLaren, and even as rivals on opposite teams. Both were hungry for World Championship glory. It saw them clash heads sometimes, but the boiling pot ruptured during the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. Senna collided into Prost, ending both of their races early on the first lap. A year later, Senna confirmed his intentions, and that he did in fact, take Prost out on purpose, previously having blamed the Frenchman for not giving him any room.

Prost was furious, he spoke his mind in a press conference stating that “Whatever he thinks of me, I can’t believe he would risk his own safety on the first lap of a Grand Prix, and with the whole field behind us. He tries to represent himself to the world as a man he is not.”

Senna also refused to address Prost by his name, and the events in Japan only furthered the aversion. It looked like there was no way to mend this.

Senna later won the 1991 championship, before slipping to 4th place in the 1992 standings, paving way for Nigel Mansell to get the title. Prost, driving for Ferrari, dropped down to 5th in the standings, and was later fired for criticising the team. He took a sabbatical and returned for the last time in 1993, this time with Williams.

The Frenchman announced his retirement from motorsport in October 1993. One who’d been significantly impacted by this news was Senna. Years of battles and resentment on the track seemed to wash over him, as he realised he would be losing the driver he enjoyed racing with the most.

The Final Win

Jean-Marc Loubat, Getty Images

A month later, F1 headed to Australia, the scene of the famous final podium featuring Senna and Prost was pictured. Senna, starting from pole, kept his lead for the whole race, only relinquishing it when he came in for his pit stop. He retook the lead six laps later, and went on to take the win, and what would come to be his last in the sport. Heading into his 199th and final Grand Prix, Prost crossed the line for one last time, taking his 106th podium.

On the podium, the moment of Senna’s and Prost’s changed relationship was pictured, Senna took Prost’s hand, and brought him up alongside, on the top step of the podium. They stood, celebrating together. They no longer were fighting each other, they were just two of the greatest drivers of their generation, savouring their last racing memory together.

Prost spoke about this day, and how it turned their perspective of each other around, from foes to friends. “When we were on the podium together in Australia in '93, when I stopped, just a few seconds later he was already a different person. That is the souvenir of our relationship that I carry with me today. That moment actually changed our relationship, and today I can say that ours was a magnificent story.’ Alain told Italy’s La Repubblica.

The Final Six Months

‘I keep the last six months [of his life] in mind. That's when I knew Ayrton much more than ever before.’

During the final six months of Senna's life, Prost got to know more about Senna's mindset, learning why he did some of the things he did, and who Ayrton was as a person. They would have casual conversations about different racing incidents, and voice their opinions on how they both thought safety in tracks needs to be improved. Senna would regularly call Prost for his advice, and they would discuss intimate things about Senna’s life. He was a different person after Prost retired, both in a good way and a bad way. Senna was now starting to show his human side a lot more, but his motivation to race was slowly being lost.

Prost revealed during a podcast with Nico Rosberg, how Senna was losing his motivation without having him as his opponent, and that he begged Prost to reverse his retirement, so as to gain that inspiration again. Prost distinctly remembers Senna calling him after he heard McLaren’s offer to race for the 1994 season. ‘Alain, you have to stay in F1. Nobody motivates me among the other drivers like you do.’

Prost was commentating for French TV during the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994. He was regularly seen with Senna around the paddock, and the Williams garage. Senna sent a radio message to Prost during his first lap of practice saying, ‘a special hello to my dear friend Alain, we all miss you, Alain.’ Prost wasn’t in the commentary box when this was played, and when he heard it after the tragic crash, he broke down in tears.

Looking Back at the Past

Dave Hogan, Getty Images

On the anniversary of Senna’s death, Prost did an interview in 2018, looking back on his career and its links with the Brazilian maestro.

The public was divided between Senna and Prost, and Prost was sometimes portrayed as the bad guy, so fans started taking sides. This was more apparent in Brazil, Senna’s home town. Prost said how he disliked going to Brazil during his career, due to the mass amount of support Senna had at home, with most of the fans were on Senna‘s side. He didn’t like the hostile environment he was put in.

However, he revealed how Brazil is now ‘his second home’, he spoke about his following on social media from Brazil, and how he still keeps in touch with Senna's sister, Viviane. A barrier was broken down when their friendship developed. It was no longer a resentment-filled rivalry with bitter memories, but a legacy worth remembering and talking about for generations to come.

‘The world was either with Senna or with Prost. But how does it end? That our stories were completely connected. Not only my career, but my life too.’

1 comment

1 Comment

Apr 25, 2023

Jean Marie Balestre the then FIA president has a lot to answer for in lots of opinions, such was his desire to see French drivers and teams prevail. Senna felt perhaps rightly that he was fighting both a true great of the sport in Prost and also the FIA over a number of issues, his actions in Japan are regrettable and perhaps unforgivable but when someone has such desire and spirit within them for things they believe they rightly deserve then they can be capable of previously unthought of recklesness. A part of that played a role in Senna's death too when having watched the Benetton at the previous couple of races he firmly believed he was fighting a team…

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