Professor speaks his mind
The Frenchman Alain Prost, 57, is the second-most victorious driver in Formula One history, with 51 victories, behind Michael Schumacher of Germany, who holds the record of 91 victories.
Racing from 1980 to 1993, with a sabbatical in 1992, Prost won four drivers’ titles, which is more than any other driver except Schumacher, who has seven, and Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five in the 1950s. Prost’s battles with the Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola in 1994, were among the most famous in the sport’s history.
After he retired from racing, Prost started his own team, called Prost, which ran from 1997 to 2001, without a victory. Although he raced for several teams, and his Prost team used Peugeot engines in the early years, Prost’s most loyal connection was with Renault. In February he was named an ambassador for the company, to help promote and develop the brand.
Excerpts from the interview
How do you describe your job at Renault?
There are several axes: Renault wants to make a new start. There’s a strategy now between what many constructors are doing with new engine technologies, downsizing of the cars, emissions, the electric car. There’s a desire to improve the image of the brand, but at the same time the quality of the product. That’s why there is a renewal, with the new designs of the cars and all that; and I have to help to accompany these changes in several areas, with also perhaps other projects that we will speak about very soon, other vehicle projects at Renault. With all the aspects of sports, with the World Series, that’s very important for Renault, and also Formula One, with especially this new set of regulations for 2014, which is going to place Formula One closer to road cars. So my role is clear. But I don’t like the word ambassador. On the other hand, it describes it well.
Frank Williams, of your former team, said that Renault has racing in the blood. But Carlos Ghosn, the Renault director, sometimes seems unenthusiastic about Formula One. How does this fit?
I can’t judge in terms of a person or a personality. What is true, and I see it every day, is that we have just celebrated the 150th victory of Renault (Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) in Formula One, and I think that Formula One is not exploited enough, well-known enough, or valorised enough for the company or for the image of the company. That is certain.
But does that come from a culture of the company, does it come from a person?
I think it is more a culture of the company, which in my opinion can evolve a little, and
must evolve a little. And perhaps, precisely, this new set of regulations will mean that we will enter an era where there will be an easier communication, an easier link between the product and the sport, with an educating of the public to understand what we are doing.
You drove the 2010 Red Bull and Lotus cars recently. What were they like compared to the cars of your period?
What was interesting was that last year I drove my Formula One Renault car from 1983 at Dijon and at Le Castellet. And when I got into the car I said to myself, “I don’t understand how we could have done what we did in these cars.” And especially, trying to remember Monaco, and places with the gearshift and the heavy clutch, and things like that. It’s very difficult to remember that period. On the other hand, when I got into the Red Bull and the Lotus, I found much more the feeling of what I had of the car of 1993, the Williams, my last year of racing, or the McLaren of 1995-1996 (which he tested).
There we fall into the same philosophy -- much easier in terms of ergonomics, the gearbox, everything works well, the brakes. But without a spectacular revolution. On the other hand, if you compare 1983 and 1993, it is a world apart. But between 1993 and 2012-2013, 20 years, it is an amelioration, a sophistication of all the systems, but not a revolution.
Is having a French Grand Prix important for Renault, France, Formula One?
I think that it is even more important today than it was a few months ago or a few years ago. We have a political discourse in France that is very worrying today, I feel. You cut everything and you do nothing. I think there comes a moment when you are obliged to have projects, obliged to have new things.
The car industry is going very badly in France; in Europe it is not going well either. So Formula One, yes it is a show, a spectacle, an event. But it is also a kind of store window and a tool. It is a tool for communicating. So today it is important because even if there is a bit of public money, it is very little by comparison to what it brings in returns.
What did you think of the documentary film about Ayrton Senna, in which you were portrayed as a villain?
I saw a bit of the film, and I couldn’t even go to the end. The problem is that I spoke about this film with the producers, the actors, etc., for a long, long time. And of course they said, “OK, you will have to do interviews.” So I did, I participated in the film. I did eight hours of recording. But I said one of the conditions for me to do this is that I want in the film not only to be a film of sport, of the war on the track, but to tell a true story. Tell the true story of who Ayrton was before Formula One; when he came into Formula One and the battle against me -- and against me in the different teams -- and say who Ayrton was afterward, once I withdrew, and right up to the weekend of Imola, which was a pretty exceptional weekend.
About the weekend alone, the week before it, I must have recorded one hour or one hour and a half of interviews. Because there were things that happened that were incredible, telephone calls, etc. I tried to tell things that ... On the human level, it was a story that I think was fabulous and that should have been explained to people.
What I regret today -- and that is why I am much more angry today -- is that you can do only one film on a personality like that -- who is, unfortunately, no longer here. But they wanted to do a commercial film showing there was the bad guy and the good guy. It was not the goal in the beginning. But what the film really failed to do was to tell the true story of Ayrton.
If I had known beforehand, I would never have given my authorisation to do anything at all. If you do not show the human side of what happened at the end, etc., that means you have failed. So this film is a failure. And it isn’t important that I am portrayed as the villain. That doesn’t matter. I am alive, and that is the main thing. But for all the fans, it is not the film that should have been made. So that’s why I’m angry.