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Prost & Senna: The art of war

More than 25 years after the Brazilian’s death, the rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost still divides Formula One fans. Were these two really the best enemies in the world?

Prost-Senna, Senna-Prost, whatever way you turn the terms of the equation, the result is the same: when you introduce, in a closed system, two poles that everything opposes and that seek the same goal, the reaction is inevitable. And, in general, it makes noise. More than 25 years after the death of Ayrton Senna, mowed down in the middle of the race at Imola on May 1, 1994, it is still impossible to mention the name of one without rekindling the flame of an uncompromising rivalry between two exceptional drivers.

To understand this tension, exacerbated beyond imagination between two men driven by the same passion, we can, as has been done a thousand times, compare the similarities between these two gifted drivers. Talk about their parallel trajectories, their beginnings in karting, the innate science of driving of one, the scientific and methodical work of the other ato achieve the best result…

The rivalry is born

But in order to decipher the real reasons for this mistrust, we have to go back to the moment when the tension crystallises. It is 3 June 1984, in Monaco. Prost is 29 years old and races in the best team of the moment: McLaren TAG. Ayrton was 24 years old, competing in his first season in F1 and driving a modest Toleman-Hart. Logically, then, no one should have heard of the man the TV overlay still calls Ayrton Senna Da Silva.

The only problem is that Monaco is not a circuit like the others and, on this day, the gods of the race have a samba heart. The circuit was flooded with water, turning its narrow layout into an elimination trap. Out of the flood, a white car with blue sides driven by a man with a yellow helmet emerges. It climbed from 13th to third place, then overtook the second McLaren driven by Niki Lauda and moved up to second place, almost 30” behind the leader Alain Prost. It’s the 19th lap and the new star is on a wild ride. On lap 32, at the Rascasse bend, a red flag signalled that the race was suspended. At the finish line, another red flag, followed by a chequered flag both signal that it is over. But in these Dantean conditions Ayrton Senna, who was on the verge of overtaking Prost, did not see them. He crossed the line, passed Prost who had slowed down, crossed the line and, thinking he had won, did a lap of honour. When, later, it was Prost who received an embrace from Prince Rainier, Senna felt “betrayed” by the FIA. From then on, he never stopped trying to beat Alain Prost and defy the authority of the FIA: Jean-Marie Balestre. The rivalry was born.

It will be flamboyant, epic, between Prost at McLaren and Senna who moved to Lotus in 1985 before arriving, with Prost’s agreement, in the McLaren star team in 1988. Everyone expects a triumph, it will be war. For if Prost seems ready to play the game of team politics, Senna cannot stand the competition. He wants to be number one, or nothing! At the end of a hard-fought season, Senna won the title.

18 juin 1989, Alain Prost et Ayrton Senna au Grand Prix du Canada à Montréal.
18 juin 1989, Alain Prost et Ayrton Senna au Grand Prix du Canada à Montréal.
25 mars 1984, première victoire d'Alain Prost pour son retour chez McLaren au grand prix du Brésil à Rio de Janeiro.
25 mars 1984, première victoire d'Alain Prost pour son retour chez McLaren au grand prix du Brésil à Rio de Janeiro.

The following year, tensions rose again. At Estoril, Senna overtakes Prost on the straight. At Imola, he attacked him at the first corner despite a tacit “non-aggression pact”. The atmosphere is such that Ron Dennis, the boss, has to readjust his drivers. Senna doesn’t care! He used all the means at his disposal: firstly, the track, where he was regularly faster than his teammate, and secondly, the press, which served as heavy artillery for the two opponents. After every Grand Prix that captivates millions of viewers, people flock to the next day’s paper to find out what is going on underneath McLaren’s red and white varnish. The two of them talk to each other in front of journalists, but no longer talk to each other. Discomfort.

In fact it’s clear, they are too strong and F1 has become too small. There is no room for both of them.

The atmosphere has become explosive. Prost declared everywhere: “Senna wants to humiliate me, to destroy me! Senna, for his part, multiplies his provocations on the track. Even if it means making a mistake. In fact it’s clear, they are too strong and F1 has become too small. There is no room for both of them. And paranoia does the rest. The rest is history… 1989, Japanese GP: Prost collides with Senna and both finish off the track. Prost retires, Senna starts again, pushed by the stewards, and wins. But the FIA disqualified him and Prost, who went to Ferrari, took the title. 1990, Japanese GP: Senna took pole, but found himself on the dirty side of the track, despite his protests. Convinced that the FIA was once again ready to “steal” his title, he literally rammed Prost. And won the title on points difference. Ugly.

The story, however, ends well. On November 7, 1993, in Adelaide, Senna, who had just won the Australian GP, took Prost by the arm and put him on the top step of the podium with him. Marketing manoeuvre? Not at all. Prost – who has just won the title – has announced his retirement. Senna knows that his “target” is now Schumacher. Since Alain Prost is no longer a rival, the Brazilian can stop the all-out war, drop the mask and embrace his best enemy.

After writing some of the greatest pages in F1 history, the two rivals could finally become friends. Unfortunately, on 1May 1994…

Written by

Journaliste automobile et véritable couteau Suisse, Philippe Clément est à l’aise en informatique, photographie, vidéo, gestion de projets, traductions allemand-français et anglais-français. Il contribue à notre rubrique automobile du Magazine.

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