One of the Monaco masters with four wins in the Principality, Sir Patrick Head remembers a driver with a deceptively smooth style
Alain is four-time winner of the Monaco G rand P rix, a n umber o nly b ettered b y Ayrton Senna (6), Michael Schumacher (5) and Graham Hill (5).
His Formula One career began with Mclaren in 1980, continued with Renault, the company that brought turbocharging into F1, in 1981/3, before he returned to Mclaren between 1984 and 1989. He went to Ferrari for 1990 and 1991, leaving late in that year after publicly criticising the team for not developing the car, sitting out 1992 and joining Williams after Nigel Mansell’s departure for the 1993 season. There, Alain delivered his fourth World Championship with seven wins – and then retired from Formula One.
His statistics are impressive. Those four World Championships, 51 Grand Prix wins, 106 podiums over 12 seasons of racing, and all that while there were usually no more than 16 GPS in each year (now there are 21).
His 51 wins came from 199 GP starts, a remarkable return in days competing against many legends, including Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell.
Alain’s driving style, most particularly in the turbo years with Renault and Mclaren-porsche, was deceptively smooth. In those days of more limited data acquisition and analysis, engineers would often go around the track to observe their cars, and it was not unusual to think that Alain was on a slowing lap into the pits only to find that he had just set his fastest time.
I think this was, in part, a legacy of his early turbo involvement with Renault, when throttle response was slow. He developed his smooth style, his trajectory through the corner was unlike that for the normally-aspirated cars, with light braking and a long, curved rolling entry into a late apex, and a gentle pick up of the throttle maintaining corner speed until he could see the exit, and add more throttle. It was silky smooth, but very deceptive.
Alain specialised in strength in the race, where the points were won, racing in times when the cars were fuelled for the full race, very heavy due to high fuel consumption of the turbo engines and usually ran through the race on a single set of tyres. His 33 pole positions and 41 fastest race laps testify to his speed.
Alain competed against the best. A staged shot in 1986 with Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. Between them they have 11 World Championships, 146 GP wins,
154 pole positions and 113 fastest race laps.
He would be carefully looking after the tyres in the early stages, when the car weight was highest, and then start pushing strongly from mid distance, often some way behind the leaders, but start inexorably closing, taking the lead towards the latter stages of the race.
Having worked with him during his final championship year, his last driving in F1, I also saw how meticulous he was in optimising the car for the race, often sat in a corner with his Williams race engineer, David Brown, agonising about even the smallest change to his car’s set up. Although he was not naturally an antagonist, inevitably Alain’s career is marked by his battles with Ayrton Senna, both at the Mclaren team and then after he left to join Ferrari. Senna was more the young upstart and was prepared to take more risks than Alain, but I don’t think that any experienced participants thought that there was any difference in skill. At the time, both were considered ‘masters of their art’.
As has been the case with many before and after him, Alain was disappointed with politics and lack of focus at Ferrari in 1991, but was unwilling to remain silent, his criticism leading to a departure from the team before the end of the season.
After a 1992 season away from the track, Alain joined Williams, and with Damon Hill alongside him, won his last F1 World Championship. Alain was challenged at times by his team mates, but mostly by Ayrton Senna in the Mclaren, yet had the ability to step up a gear if challenged to achieve his aims.
Alain was, and is, a thinker, and sometimes won races that his equipment did not deserve. He was not so interested in the plaudits in testing, or in qualifying – his thinking was all towards the race position on the final lap. Yet he still managed 33 pole positions and 41 fastest race laps – his speed was never in doubt.
Following his retirement from driving, Alain had a short period as a consultant to Renault, but sought a closer involvement, and eventually bought the Ligier team from Flavio Briatore, which became Prost Grand Prix from 1997. Initially the team used the Mugen-honda engine, but Alain signed a three-year agreement with Peugeot from 1998, however the engine proved too heavy and unreliable.
After a final year in 2001 with Ferrari V10 engines, branded as ACER 01A, and poor results, Alain was disappointed to find that, despite France’s historic strength in Grands Prix, raising financial support for a French GP team proved impossible.
After finishing with running an F1 team, Alain won three Andros Trophy championships, ice racing with Toyota and Dacia, was centrally involved with Renault’s successful seasons in Formula E, now passed to Nissan, and is now very much involved in the programme to raise the Renault F1 team into the uppermost echelons of Formula 1.
On the podium in Monaco in 1985, his first WC year with Mclaren
First F1 win in the Renault RE30 in the French GP at Dijon-prenois in 1981
A dominant year for Mclaren brought Alain’s first WC, here at Adelaide in 1985.
Leading his team mate, Damon Hill, on his way to his fourth WC, with Williams in 1993