‘ 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

The Observer - Sport - - Formula One Singapore Grand Prix -

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

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