Prost vs. Senna: The top 10 moments of F1's defining rivalry
Thirty years ago, two white and red McLarens sat dumbly alongside one another at Suzuka, Ayrton Senna willing the marshals on as Alain Prost resignedly climbed out of his car. It’s one of Formula 1’s most iconic images, from the sport’s most enduring rivalry. Three decades on, we celebrate the stand-out moments of Prost vs. Senna…
10. Senna lights the blue touch paper with Imola pass – 1989
Having lost his nose cone in a first-lap crash in Rio, Senna hatched a plan with Prost for the ensuing San Marino Grand Prix to not race each other until they got beyond Tosa (then Turn 3). Prost duly accepted, with Senna getting the better start from pole to lead. However, with the race stopped and then restarted after Gerhard Berger’s fiery crash at Tamburello, Prost made the better getaway the second time around, only for Senna to dive-bomb him into Tosa and snatch back the lead – which he subsequently failed to relinquish until the chequered flag.
Prost was livid, reportedly threatening to quit the sport and leading McLaren boss Ron Dennis to host an emergency summit between the two drivers at the Pembrey Circuit in Wales. Prost would later spill the beans about what was said at the Pembrey meeting to a L’Equipe journalist, who splashed the story all over the paper, leading to a rebuttal from Senna against Prost. And just like that, the simmering unease at McLaren had flared up into a full-on civil war.
9. Prost wins in Monaco after race cut short – 1984
Was this the moment where a grain of resentment against Prost was sown in Senna, when that most cerebral of drivers’ mind began spinning up a web of Francophone conspiracy against him? Senna’s drive at Monaco in 1984 had been stupendous, as he splashed through the Principality’s sodden streets in his underpowered little Toleman, reeling in the start-of-the-art McLaren of Prost.
With a deluge falling on the Cote d’Azur, race director Jacky Ickx – himself a genius in the wet – called the race on Lap 31, saving Prost from an almost-certain swallowing up by Senna, ensuring a French victory and denying F1 of one of the great underdog wins. Senna’s smile on his first-ever F1 podium was wan – well, he thought he’d won the race after all – and the first spark of F1’s greatest ever rivalry, it seemed, had been lit.
8. Prost outwits Senna in France – 1988
The 1988 French Grand Prix witnessed Prost delivering a devastating psychological smackdown to Senna. He’d delivered one in qualifying, too, denying Senna pole for the first time in 1988 by nearly half a second. Then in the race, with Senna having got ahead after their pit stops, the fast-lapping pair came up to overtake a bunch of backmarkers.
Nelson Piquet in the Lotus was first, and as he dived out of Senna’s way down the Mistral straight, Senna followed, desperate for a tow to escape Prost’s clutches. But the dart right cost Senna momentum. Once past and having then soared through the fast Signes right-hander, Senna then appeared to allow his focus to rest myopically on the rear wing of Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi in front of him. Prost didn’t need a second invitation, and as Senna lulled, the Frenchman swept through to take a lead that he wouldn’t relinquish.
7. “There can only be one winner” – 1988
Knowing what we now know about how the Senna/Prost dynamic would go south, the awkward, crackling atmosphere in this exchange becomes impossible to ignore. This fabulous joint interview came from after the 1988 German Grand Prix, where Senna had beaten Prost to close within three points of the Frenchman’s drivers’ championship lead.
It may only have been round nine of the season, but it had already become patently clear that one of the pair would win the championship. “Is it possible to be equal?” asks Prost, hunched meekly, his body turned away from his team mate. Senna, his arm draped possessively behind Prost, fixes his rival with a malignant look and shakes his head. “No,” he says pointedly, before the awkward laughing breaks out again. “There can only be one winner.” Gulp.
6. Senna stands his ground – 1991
Following the agonies of 1989 and 1990, 1991 was light on flashpoints between Senna and Prost – helped by the fact that Prost’s Ferrari drove, to use the words that would get him sacked before the end of the season, “like a horrible truck”. But that year’s German Grand Prix witnessed a scintillating late-race battle between the pair as Prost tried in vain to find a way past Senna for fourth place.
With eight laps to go, Prost moved to get alongside Senna going into the Clark chicane. Unmoved, the wily Brazilian deftly opened his steering just enough in the braking zone to spook Prost, the Frenchman locking up, squealing into the run-off and then stalling as he tried to re-join. He was out, while Senna would eventually be too, as his more powerful new Honda engine ran out of fuel on the penultimate lap, with Senna eventually classified P7. “A bit naughty,” was how BBC commentator and 1976 champion James Hunt called Senna’s move at the time… and that was probably about right.
5. Senna calls Prost “a coward” – 1992
Senna was the master of leveraging a press conference for his own ends, and did so with devastating effect at the 1992 Portuguese Grand Prix. The focus of his ire was Prost’s impending move to Williams – and return to F1 – the following season, and the reported vetoes in his contract against having Senna as a team mate.
“He’s behaving like a coward,” spat Senna, egged on by race winner Nigel Mansell sat next to him, who’d be driven to Indy Car the following year by similar contractual issues at Williams. “It’s like you go in a 100-metre sprint, and you want to have running shoes, and everybody else should have lead shoes. This is the way he wants to race. This is not racing.” Senna’s disgust was clear to see (as was the giggling Gerhard Berger’s delight). But if you’d just been consigned to a season in the Ford-powered McLaren MP4/8 rather than a Williams-Renault FW15C, you probably wouldn’t be very happy either…
4. Senna beats Prost to title – 1988
The summit of the 1988 season witnessed one of Ayrton Senna’s most spine-tingling drives. After disastrously stalling his engine on the grid, Senna used the slope of Suzuka’s start-finish straight to get his MP4/4 rolling again, getting underway in 14th place as Prost commandingly led the field.
Prost’s jaw must have fallen open, then, when after just 25 laps, the day-glo yellow helmet of Senna began to appear in his wing mirrors, the Brazilian having clawed his back up to second. Then on Lap 28 it happened, Senna braving the squeeze of Prost down the straight to sweep into the lead, before going on to claim his first-ever drivers’ title, with one race still to run in Australia. Magic.
3. Sharing the podium in Prost’s final race – 1993
The wheel had come full circle by the time Prost and Senna drove in their final race together in Adelaide in 1993. Prost’s fourth title had been something of a formality, although Senna’s genius had allowed him to haul the weedy MP4/8 to five victories that year to Prost’s seven.
When they reached Australia, the game was up though, Prost having been crowned two races earlier in Portugal. And as they stood on the podium together for the last time, Senna having won as Prost finished second, the enmity appeared to drain out of the pair. They shook hands, Senna twice pulling Prost up to the top step with him, before they sprayed each other with champagne.
Okay, so Prost had proposed a public burying of the hatchet in Japan the race before, only to be stonewalled by Senna – but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story…
2. Prost and Senna collide in title showdown – 1989
Debate still rages to this day about who was at fault in arguably Prost and Senna’s most famous crash. Prost fans would claim that Senna’s lunge on his McLaren team mate into the Casio Triangle chicane was suicidal. Senna’s fans would claim that their man, already alongside Prost at the turn-in point, had the corner (most racing drivers, it would seem, side with Senna…).
In fact, deciding who was at fault in the actual crash itself is technically immaterial, as Senna, despite winning the race, was later disqualified – not for his part in the coming together but for the heinous act of cutting the chicane as he re-joined the race. The title was Prost's, and for good measure Senna's adversaries at the FIA heaped insult upon injury by fining the Brazilian $100,000 and giving him a suspended six-month ban for having the temerity to appeal the decision, also labelling him a 'dangerous driver'...
1. Senna and Prost collide in title showdown… again – 1990
The sickening, spellbinding images F1 fans witnessed at the start of the start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix really stemmed from one simple directive – that the pole position grid slot, which Senna had earned the day before, be kept on the dirty, less grippy side of the track, handing Senna a distinct disadvantage off the line in his title showdown with Prost, now driving for Ferrari.
After 12 months of being on the receiving end of some questionable F1 politicking, Senna had had enough. He’d later explained his train of thought heading into the race. “If on Sunday, at the start, because I’m in the wrong place, Prost jumps the start and beats me off the line, at the first corner I’m going for it. And he had better not turn in ahead of me because he’s not going to make it.”
Senna executed his plan to the letter, and with clinical sangfroid. His driving that day would lead Prost to later confess that he’d considered retiring in the immediate aftermath of the crash, so sickened had been by it. Senna was champion – but at what price?