There have been many battles in the world of Formula One, such as Lauda and Hunt and Stewart and Hill, but there is one rivalry that has been the most talked about and stood head and shoulders about the rest.
The rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost gained momentum from the moment the young Brazilian took second place in the uncompetitive Toleman-Hart TG184 behind the “Professor” back in 1984 during a very wet Monaco Grand Prix.
This was a sign that this young and hungry talent was one to look out for, and after three years with the Lotus team, he was set to make it to the very top. He could make a car dance on the ragged edge, and showed incredible motivation and spirit to succeed.
The intensity between Senna and Prost, who now were McLaren teammates at the beginning at the 1988 season, was about to reach fever pitch and be very public for the entire world to see. At Estoril that year, they were embroiled in the battle for the lead, which saw Senna almost force the Frenchman into the pit wall in the process. That was just the beginning.
The gloves were off between the pair, as the relationship between them soured as their tenure at McLaren continued. It was the ultimate case of “two roosters in the same hen house,” as a certain leader of Scuderia Ferrari would say about his current line-up.
One of the other sticking points that did not sit well with a lot of the drivers, particularly with Prost, was Senna’s religious beliefs that helped to give him that extra motivational boost, and did not hold back when talking about it to the media. Prost even said in the documentary about the driver’s life until those tragic events in Imola that “Ayrton thinks he can’t kill himself, because he believes in God and things like this. And I think that’s very dangerous for the other drivers. ”
The four-time world champion was shown as the “bad guy” in the documentary, but it also showed the willingness by both drivers to outdo one another. Prost was always methodical in his approach, being in the right place at the right time. The on-track action between the pair showed no real diplomacy, as would be expected when it meant taking chances to success. The statement made by Senna when Sir Jackie Stewart interviewed him epitomized this: “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you’re no longer a racing driver.”
This is an honest truth that still exists to this day when the visors go down and the lights go out, so it was inevitable that Prost and Senna would come to blows on the track. It was a case of not IF but WHEN that moment would occur, but lighting struck the same place more than once when it came to Suzuka.
On the 22nd October 1989, the Casio Triangle chicane saw the first of two championship-deciding incidents. Senna was clearly the more determined of the two to succeed, until the collision occurred when Prost appeared to turn in on the outside, but it could have been deemed more like a racing incident between them.
Senna was later disqualified for supposedly infringing Article 56 of the FIA Sporting Regulations at that time, which was due to him driving outside the track limits. The McLaren driver was hit with a six month suspension and fined $100,000, especially when FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre had clearly stated in the drivers’ briefing for there to be “no danger for the end of the World Championship” at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Even with Prost moving to Ferrari the following year didn’t fan the flames that were still burning brightly in this heated affair. It saw a reversal of the situation, with Senna knowing that Prost not finishing would mean that he would be the champion again.
Senna was not a happy man when having secured Pole Position for the race, when it was switched to the other side of the track without any reason and gave his French rival a distinct advantage. In the first corner with two highly competitive drivers could only result in one inevitable outcome, as neither wanted to come second best.
Both cars went into the gravel at around 160 miles per hour and Senna picked up his second title in the process, ending the fight on a sour note and left somewhat of a bitter taste in many people’s mouths, including that of his rival. Prost said that he was even contemplating a move to retirement on account of Senna’s actions, but stayed the course until he did retire after the final race of the 1993 season at Adelaide, having won his fourth title.
It was the last time that these two giants of the sport, who had between them won seven world titles, ninety-eight pole positions and ninety-two wins, would ever stand on the podium together. Senna made the move to Williams alongside the third man on that podium, Damon Hill, and on May 1st 1994 the sport lost one of its brightest stars, whose light was extinguished after a traumatic set of events including Rubens Barrichello and the late Roland Ratzenberger.
The rivalry came to a close after Senna’s win in Australia in a car that was clearly uncompetitive, and the resulting loss of each other in different ways, just showed that through a common bond, they may have been rivals, but they were kindred spirits.
After Ayrton’s death at Imola, Alain was one of his pallbearers at the funeral in Sao Paolo, and was also one of the trustees for the Instituto Ayrton Senna, which helps to develop future generations in many different aspects of modern-day living and helps them to prepare for the future.
He continues to be an ambassador within the world for Formula One for Renault Sport, a brand he was racing with back in the 1980s. If the circumstances were different with what happened at Imola, they may have been very good friends, but the rivalry between them has left a permanent mark in Formula One that will always remain in folklore for many years to come.
Images via Wikimedia Commons.