– You have to choose Ayrton, he is the most talented pilot.
Ron Dennis, McLaren’s crew chief, was meeting with representatives from Honda, his engine supplier from 1988, to define who would replace Stefan Johansson when his team’s star, Alain Prost, told him to lean towards the Brazilian and discarded Nelson Piquet, despite the fact that he was the champion of that 1987 Formula 1 season.
“For me the team came first. If I were to start my career again right now, I would act differently, I would focus more on myself and my work. One of my virtues is that normally, when I make a decision, I do not regret it, but from my point of view, I was definitely wrong on that occasion”, The Frenchman confessed to the journalist Nigel Roebuck in 1998. A decade of that new partnership had already passed at McLaren and four years since the death of Ayrton Senna.
The rivalry between the two, one of the most ardent between teammates, was not born during that first season. Not even when Senna was champion – achieving the first of his three titles – and Prost was second by the discard system, in which only the best 11 results of the 16 races were taken. “It was not a problem that he won; I had already done it twice before. What worried me was Honda“Acknowledged Prost.
Senna had come to McLaren driven by the Japanese giant, with whom he had established a great relationship when Honda provided its engines to Lotus in 1987. And, as Prost could see, they were determined to favor him. “Before the 1989 season I was at a meal at a golf club in Geneva with the then president of Honda, Mr. Kawamoto. And he admitted that he was correct in believing that Honda was more for Ayrton than for me. I thought: ‘At least I’m not stupid, something was really going on’”, Revealed the four-time champion.
That favoritism, however, was not what motivated the confrontation. The relationship between Prost and Senna was good until it stopped being so on April 23, 1989 in Imola, the cursed circuit in which the Brazilian would die five years later. The San Marino Grand Prix marked the beginning of the rivalry for a tacit agreement that was broken for the French and not for the Brazilian.
With a month ahead of the disappointing first date in Brazil – Nigel Mansell won with Ferrari, Prost was second and Senna, 11th – McLaren rehearsed for eight days at the Enzo and Dino Ferrari track, which was evidenced by the 1- 2 of its drivers in the classification of the second GP of the season.
Tell the story that then Senna proposed to Prost that whoever reached the hairpin first Tosa would secure the position without being attacked by the other. And so it was: the Brazilian, who had taken pole, kept his place and the Frenchman was relegated to second place.
But on the fourth lap, behind them, the battle for fourth place between Ricardo Patrese and Gerhard berger ended with a serious accident. The Austrian’s Ferrari continued straight into the Tamburello curve, collided with the wall, the chassis broke and the 190 liters of spilled gasoline caused a fire with the pilot trapped in the cockpit. The immediate action of the firefighters allowed to remove an unconscious Berger but with only burns on his hands.
When the race was restarted, with the McLarens leading the pack, it was Prost who won the position and got ahead of Tosa. Then, he saw that on his left who was overtaking him was Senna. “There was a lot of space and I thought everything was fine. I took the usual trajectory to make a better exit from the curve … and he overtook me ”, he reflected then.
“Later, he argued that this was no longer the way out, so the initial agreement was no longer applicable. As I was saying, he had his own rules, and sometimes these were very … well, let’s just say weird. It had been Ayrton’s initial idea and I hadn’t raised any objections. But after this, I said it was over. I would continue to work with him, when it came to technical aspects. But when it came to our personal relationship, that’s how far it had come. And the atmosphere in the team obviously got a lot worse, ”he recalled nine years later.
Senna finally won the San Marino Grand Prix and Prost accompanied him on the podium, as did Alessandro Nannini, who the following year suffered a terrible accident that would end his rising F1 career. “My maneuver started on the straight and when I got to the corner, we were hand in hand,” the Brazilian defended himself before the press, who began to write about the rivalry of his teammates.
Asked by journalists in the conference room of the Italian circuit, Ron Dennis claimed to be unaware of a private agreement between the drivers and asked them to stop promoting a confrontation between their drivers. But it was evident since the relationship had been broken. “My psychology was based on being the bad guy and making them have problems with me, then they wouldn’t have problems with each other. They would join forces and agree that he was being tough. My message, as always, was that no driver is bigger than the team“The McLaren boss later acknowledged.
However, their strategy did not work, nor did they convince them that the important thing was the team and thus avoid friction or collisions between them on the track. “Until then, I had never had a problem with anyone at McLaren, but 1989 was different,” Prost analyzed. My contract expired at the end of the year, but Ayrton’s did not. Ron knew that the future of his team lay with Honda, and therefore Senna. He seriously tried to persuade me to stay, but he couldn’t really support us both, and in July I told him I would be leaving the team at the end of the season. “
By then, Senna had chained three victories (San Marino, Monaco and Mexico) and Prost had won in the United States, France and Great Britain. Although the Brazilian won again in Germany and Belgium, Prost reached the Italian Grand Prix with 62 points in the championship, 11 more than his partner.
“But that race was really the lowest point in the relationship between McLaren and me. Senna had 2 cars, with 20 people around her, and I had only one car, with maybe four or five mechanics working for me. In official practice, Ayrton was almost two seconds faster than me. He was certainly better than me in training, but two seconds? That was a joke. Honda was against me. I was absolutely alone, and it was perhaps the hardest weekend of my sporting career ”, acknowledged the Frenchman.
Despite that, Prost won and Senna dropped out at Monza, widening the gap between the two and prompting what would happen in the penultimate race of the season. In Japan, the Brazilian needed to win to get to Adelaide with chances but the Frenchman was fed up and did not plan to give him a meter at the Suzuka circuit, which caused the touch that left them both out. “I know everyone thinks I did it on purpose. I didn’t want to end up like this, I had been going forward from the start and I wanted to win it ”, explained who was helped by the sanction to the Brazilian to win the title with 14 points of advantage.
Although the partnership was broken, the battle continued – it added a historic chapter in the 1990 Japanese GP when Senna crashed Prost’s Ferrari – and it lasted until the Frenchman’s retirement, at the end of the 1993 season. Australia, who won the Brazilian with Prost as a guard, the hug between the two took all the flashes. It seemed that now that Alain would not be a rival, Ayrton could put down the hostility and strike up a friendship.
-What are you going to do now?
-I do not know yet.
-You’re going to get fat.
With Prost out of an armchair but involved in Formula 1 – to this day as a non-executive director at Alpine – they nurtured a relationship: They spoke on the phone frequently, usually to discuss safety issues, something Senna wanted them to do. the French will get involved.
“I always say that he did not want to win me, but wanted – metaphorically – to destroy me, that was his motivation from day one. He wasn’t interested in beating Alan Jones or Keke Rosberg, or anyone else; It was me, only me, for some reason, ”Prost later said. His theory was supported by a friend of Senna, to whom the Brazilian had confessed, after the Frenchman’s retirement, that most of his motivation came from having to fight Prost.
That fateful weekend in Imola, where on Friday Rubens Barrichello suffered a serious crash in which he was “dead for six minutes” and Roland Ratzenberger and Senna died in the subsequent days, Prost had noticed that the Brazilian was trying to “be nice , friendly”. He thought he “needed help” but did not want to bother him prior to the race. Besides, they had already arranged to see each other the following week.
On May 5, 1994, four days after Senna’s death, the Frenchman attended the massive funeral in São Paulo. It was difficult for him to decide whether or not he should go because he feared that his presence would annoy the Brazilians because of that rivalry they had on the track.
“Now I know that if I hadn’t gone, I would have been regretting it for the rest of my life,” Prost confessed. There was no hostility of any kind towards me, in fact it was the opposite. Y I think it would not have been impossible that over time we would have become friends”.
Imola, the cursed circuit
Ayrton Senna’s death at 2:17 p.m. on May 1, 1994, marked the end of the saddest weekend in F1 history. But that mountainous environment in which Enzo Ferrari built his “little Nürburgring” had already seen other serious accidents.
In 1980, Gilles Villeneuve hit the curve that later would adopt his name. The explosion of the left rear tire caused the Ferrari to crash into the wall and bounce off the track. The Canadian remained immobile for a few moments and was stunned by the lateral whiplash but fortunately he saved his life, the one that he would lose two years later in the classification of the Belgian Grand Prix.
With Senna on the track, in 1989, the one who suffered the Italian layout was Gerhard Berger, who could not take the Tamburello corner or brake, so he ended up against the wall. Unlike what happened with Villeneuve, his Ferrari caught fire and only the quick action of three rescuers allowed him to get out alive and with just a few burns on his hands, which only prevented him from running the next Grand Prix, in Monaco.
The changes in Tamburello only came in 1995, when a previous chicane was added. The works included modifications in Tosa, Villeneuve and Acque Minerali, although without modifying the essence of a circuit inaugurated in 1953 and whose complexity continues to generate adrenaline among the pilots.
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