Among the legendary rivalries in auto racing, they don't get much bigger or more venomous than what Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost generated in the Eighties and early Nineties.
RACER's series on Great Rivalries continues with one of the most memorable head-to-heads in Formula 1 history, with renowned F1 reporter Mark analyzing the similarities and differences between the Brazilian and Frenchman, and how each driver's weaknesses were exaggerated by the other's strengths:
Four races into Ayrton Senna's F1 career and he was already proving a mighty inconvenience for Alain Prost. Senna was in the mid-grid, unrated Toleman; on Prost's side was the cutting edge of mighty McLaren, its mega-bucks Marlboro backing, its bespoke TAG turbo V6 tailor-made by Porsche to aero-enhancing dimensions set out by the car's creator John Barnard and with trick electronics two steps ahead of anyone else's, allowing it more race day horsepower than any other. But it was raining and the course was Monaco, so there was room for improvisation and genius to make a difference. Prost might have imagined that he had those qualities covered too, as he circulated at the front, having glided up there in that inimitable and apparently inevitable fashion once the five-lap heroes were spent. But if Prost had been able to see anything in his mirrors amid the spray, he'd have seen a speck, an irritating speck getting bigger.
Up until this point, Prost's race at Monaco '84 – his whole career, in fact – had been progressing beautifully. Everything was planned. "There are drivers who think a lap ahead, or a race ahead or even a season ahead," asserted Mike Knight, co-proprietor of the Winfield Racing School which Prost, already a successful karter, attended in 1975. "But Alain, even in the junior formulae, was thinking a whole career ahead. He applied so much thought and so much guile."
Guile: on the day of the competition to decide who won the Volant Elf Award that would launch Prost on his way, he'd arrived hours early to watch the heats of the others. He wasn't so much tracking his rivals as trying to observe if any one car looked better than the others – so that he could choose that one when it was his turn. That guile was regularly called upon during his rapid rise through the junior categories; he'd completed four years of car racing when McLaren signed him for Formula 1 in 1980.
He took part in a shootout test for the drive, up against Formula Atlantic star Kevin Cogan. Prost got his stint first, lapped Paul Ricard faster than incumbent driver John Watson had ever done, then – out of sight of the pits – subtly flat-spotted the tires on his in-lap. Cogan headed out of the pits with the same set of tires, but would complain of a severe vibration and got nowhere near Prost's time… (continued)