During this 13 years of formula one racing, Alain Prost was considered a master strategist on the racecourse and a cunning opportunist off it. So it must have raised a few eyebrows in the paddock before the Australian Grand Prix last week when Prost attributed 80% of the reason for his retirement from the sport to the politics of F/1. "It is full of hypocrisy," he said. "You never know if the hand slapping you on the back has a dagger in it."
Prost certainly has his share of enemies. "He's devious and utterly two-faced and will do anything to assure himself of getting what he wants," said the head of one of the five teams for whom Prost drove during his career.
All the same, a good case could be made that Prost, a 38-year-old Frenchman, has retired as the greatest driver in Grand Prix history. On Sunday, six weeks after having clinched his fourth world championship, he closed out his career with a second-place finish at the season-ending event, in Adelaide. Though his four world titles left him one shy of the record set by Juan-Manuel Fangio, the great Argentine who won 24 races in only 51 starts in the '50s, Prost's 51 F/1 career victories (including seven this year) are 10 more than those of any other driver.
Prost had announced that he would retire in September, just before he sewed up the '93 title. His announcement came simultaneously with the news that Ayrton Senna, Prost's longtime b�te noire, would join the Williams racing team in '94. Prost had signed on with the Williams team for the '93 season with the explicit understanding that Senna would not be on it.
Prost and Senna, who have won seven of the last nine world F/1 titles, have been at each other's throats since they were teammates in 1988 and '89 with McLaren. "When you have two people who believe themselves to be the best, you have a time bomb ticking when one beats the other," says McLaren owner Ron Dennis, who suffered through the two seasons of behind-the-scenes paranoia.
Prost left McLaren to drive for Ferrari in 1990, only to tangle with Nigel Mansell, who blamed Prost for his own departure from Ferrari in 1990. Prost won five races for Ferrari before he was fired following the '91 season for publicly criticizing the team. Prost then took a year-long sabbatical before joining the Williams team. After he learned of Williams's decision to sign Prost, Mansell, who had won the '92 world title for Williams, announced he would leave F/1 racing for the Indy Car circuit.
Max Mosley, the president of FISA, the governing body of the sport Prost had dominated, bitterly opposed Prost's return to the circuit. Over the years Prost has criticized the sport for everything from being too concerned with money to being too lax on safety. "He will probably find a way to poison the atmosphere just when we most need to improve it," wrote Mosley in a letter to team boss Frank Williams. "He thinks he should be running everything."
Still, Williams gave Prost a graceful send-off in Australia. "He is not only a great driver, but a great gentleman," said Williams. And three-time F/1 driving champion Jackie Stewart has credited Prost with having better technical skills than most. "One of Alain's great strengths is that he doesn't have this need to show the extent of his advantage, as others do," Stewart said earlier this year.
Prost's ability to make winning look easy was mocked in racing circles as showing that he lacked verve and, worse, nerve. "We have a running joke," Williams once said. "I ask him to radio when he's going for a really quick lap. Otherwise I may not notice. He can go stunningly fast without looking as if he's trying." That cerebral style earned Prost a bloodless racing nickname: the Professor.
Though Prost surely wanted to end his career with a win over Senna, who was the victor in Australia last week, he departed with a shrug. "I'm happy to leave with a good record and a good race," Prost said. "Altogether, it was very strange for me. I feel tired now."