‘ Getting back to the top is what I find really interesting’
Four- times champion Alain Prost is back at the heart of Formula One with a mission to revive Renault. ‘ Maybe it will take more time than we think,’ he tells Giles Richards
It is striking how short silences punctuate Alain Prost’s replies in conversation , pauses during which it is impossible not to be caught by the steely gaze of his grey- green eyes. Behind them, sharp as ever, he considers every answer. Here, then, is “the Professor”, bringing the same thoughtful analysis to the table that he brought to the track and his four world titles – experience from which the Renault team are now benefiting after they presented Prost with a challenge he has enthusiastically embraced back at the heart of F1.
“When I fi nd an interesting challenge with an objective and it’s good for you, your personal life, the brain, why not? I am very happy,” he says.
The 63- year- old Frenchman remains instantly recognisable. Lean and fi t, only the absence of the shock of brown curls betrays the 25 years that have passed since he won his last title and retired in 1993. Prost is quietly spoken and considered. He has, after all, nothing to prove. Yet there is an unmistakable determination when he discusses his role as a special adviser to Renault in their attempt to become world champions again.
Prost took his titles in 1985, 1986 and 1989 for McLaren, with the final championship for Williams. His career is often perceived through the narrow prism of the rivalry with Ayrton Senna , a narrative that usually fails to acknowledge the growing friendship between them in the months leading up to the Brazilian’s death. Besides which it is but part of the story.
Among the competitors in his 51 grand prix victories were five team mates who had won or would win world titles. As well as Senna, Prost went up against Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg and enjoyed magnificent rivalries with Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet.
His thoughtful approach to racing, always looking for the best way to extract the most from his car, earned him the “Professor” sobriquet. He remembers how Senna would be working on qualifying and so he focus ed on race set up. Repeatedly on Sundays he would have the quickest car and the skills to use it . While driving he did not like the nickname but the character it reflects is just what Renault need.
They won constructors’ and drivers’ titles in 2005 and 2006, with Fernando Alonso. In 2010 they sold their majority stake but returned as a full manufacturer in 2016. Last year they brought in Prost with a remit to take a broad view, contributing to the team’s growth and reorganisation. As he puts it: “Every time I can see something that is needed then I am there.”
When the manufacturer took over Lotus F1, the team they had once owned were struggling to survive. Renault, however, were aiming at podiums within three years and to be fighting for the title by 2020, a target that was appealingly difficult for Prost. “I like a return,” he says.
“If it was going to Mercedes today – they’re at the top – I don’t think I would have the motivation. Now it’s so difficult to get back to the top that I fi nd it very interesting.”
The team are fourth in the constructors’ championship and Prost admits their goals may take
longer to achieve than hoped but also asserts his belief it is a journey intended to put the manufacturer back at the top for good. “What is the real target? Is it to be champions in year five and go away because we have achieved the goal? Or is it we want to build the team to be one of the top teams and always a top team in the future of F1? That’s my perspective – long term. Knowing the business and the structure of the top teams and knowing where we are, it takes time and maybe it will take a little more time than we think.”
The process is well under way, including, Prost explains, having almost built a new facility at Enstone, in Oxfordshire, and at Renault’s Viry- Châtillon factory, near Paris – part of a series of considered, careful steps.
The pace has been interpreted as reflecting the team’s relative lack of financial weight in comparison with Mercedes and Ferrari. But it is an approach Prost believes has been an advantage. “We are not going to spend money unless we know that it is worth it . Mercedes and Ferrari may have a different philosophy. If we had twice the money that we spend today that would not be better and maybe a disaster. Because we have to go slowly.”
The team made clear how serious they are last month by signing Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo to race alongside Nico Hülkenberg . The managing director, Cyril Abiteboul, described it as “a huge statement”. Prost insists it signals Renault’s ambition and that they are unafraid to spend when required. “Daniel is more expensive than other drivers,” he says. “When you need that to help the team we did it. Money is not a problem but it has to be justified.
“We have two top drivers, maybe one of the best line ups in F1 today. They are Renault drivers, not owned by Red Bull or Mercedes. It shows everybody outside and inside that we want to do the best, the right choices at the right moment.”
The task ahead remains fearsome and is further complicated by the changes F1 is going through – all the more reason to embrace it with the same dedication he showed behind the wheel, the Professor explains with a smile. “Parts of the sport I don’t like, but it doesn’t make me say :‘ Oh it’s not F 1 I like anymore and I will go away.’ The challenge, it is part of life. You can’t have a
perfect day every day.”
Alain Prost says that hiring Daniel Ricciardo sends out a signal of serious intent to the rest of Formula One