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The Comeback Kings - Alain Prost 07 Jan 2010

Pole sitter and race winner Alain Prost (FRA) Williams at the opening race of the year. South African Grand Prix, Rd 1, Kyalami, South Africa, 14 March 1993. Alain Prost (FRA) Williams Renault FW15C, 3rd place. Formula One World Championship, Rd3, European Grand Prix, Donington Park, England. 11 April 1993. Alain Prost (FRA) Williams celebrates his fourth world title Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, 26 September 1993 Podium and results: Winner: Michael Schumacher (left), 2nd place: Alain Prost, 3rd place: Damon Hill (right). Alain Prost wins his fourth World Championship. Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, Portugal, 26 September 1993. Second place was enough for Alain Prost (FRA) Williams FW15C to clinch his fourth World Championship. Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, 26 September 1993.

When seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher announced plans to return to the Ferrari cockpit last year to replace Felipe Massa, there was overwhelming excitement - excitement that has been reignited by confirmation of the German’s 2010 comeback for Mercedes.

Schumacher is not be the first F1 great to crave a second bite of the cherry. One of the most stunning returns was Alain Prost’s in 1993 following a year’s sabbatical. We look back at the Frenchman’s incredible renaissance…

1991 was a year to forget for then three-time champion Prost. Struggling with a below par Ferrari, he was unable to clinch a win for the first time in a decade. Feeling aggrieved and frustrated, Prost publically criticised the Italian team and was fired before the season was out. Faced with too little time to find a drive for the following year, he decided to call it quits.

Instead of a year in the wilderness, however, the ever-pragmatic Prost took on a commentating job and bided his time. Watching from the sidelines, it became more and more apparent that McLaren’s dominance had been eroded by a resurgent Williams. And by the time the British team had secured the 1992 constructors’ championship, Prost had organised himself a Williams race seat for the ’93 season.

Having orchestrated his return, ‘The Professor’ threw himself into preparing for his first race back in the fold. There was a lot to feel positive about. Not only had the Renault-engined FW15 looked as strong as its predecessor during pre-season testing, but for a man with a reputation for enduring fraught relationships with his team mates, it looked like he was lucky in that regard too, with comparative newcomer Damon Hill in the second Williams.

Not only was Prost a full five years older than the British driver, but he had 183 race starts under his belt to Hill’s two. For the man who had struggled against former McLaren team mate Ayrton Senna for so long, his position as team leader must have been refreshing. But after so long out of the cockpit, it was still a nerve-racking time for the perfectionist Prost.

Arriving in South Africa ahead of his first race back, Prost summed up his emotions, saying: “I feel so much better than I did a few months ago, as I had not been in a car for six months. However, we are all feeling a lot of pressure as we are expected to win the championship. For me, honestly, I have never seen a team with such good relations. It is fantastic, not only for the ambience, but also for working together. Damon is a nice guy, who I and everyone in the team likes. I need him, and he needs me, and that is a good way to start the season.”

An even better way to start the season would be with a win from pole, and at Kyalami Prost did just that. Despite almost stalling on the grid, a broken seat, tyre pressure problems and a late rain shower, he dominated the race. Crossing the finish line over a minute ahead of the McLaren of Senna, he was supreme. He was on pole at the next round in Brazil too, and could have taken another win, but for a collision during a huge rainstorm, which saw him retire early.

A third place at the European Grand Prix was followed by successive wins in San Marino and Spain. The Monaco race proved a rare blip, with a 10-second stop/go penalty dropping him to fourth, but following the Monte-Carlo race he took four consecutive wins in Canada, France, Great Britain, and Germany.

Another hiccup in Hungary saw him stall on the parade lap, start from the back and finish 12th, while engine gremlins ended his race early in Italy. But at the intervening event in Belgium he returned to the podium with another third place, before ending the season with consecutive second-place finishes in Portugal, Japan and Australia.

Despite the drop in performance relative to the pursuing Senna towards the end of the year, it’ll come as no surprise that Prost’s seven victories (and five further podiums) took him to his fourth and final drivers’ title in fine style, 26 points ahead of the Brazilian and 30 ahead of team mate Hill. All told, it was a master class in driver skill, the strength of the Williams, and above all else, the advantage of experience.

If he’d wanted to, he could have carried on racing for another year. But following news that Williams were to hire his archrival Senna for the ’94 season, Prost decided to hang up his overalls for good. Although he’d return to the sport to commentate and also as a team boss of the ill-fated Prost team, the Frenchman would never race in Formula One again.

He’d left at the top of his game. Boasting records for race wins (51), fastest laps (41), podium finishes (106) and points (798.5), it was a stylish exit. And, fittingly, it was left to a certain Michael Schumacher to first equal and then better his record-setting tallies over the next decade.

With Schumacher back in the F1 fold, it’ll make for interesting viewing to see if he can get close to matching Prost’s stunning comeback.