Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Guile confronts genius on a grand scale: The calculating Prost and the brilliant Senna take one of sport's great duels to Silverstone tomorrow. Derick Allsop reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GREAT rivalries are the heartbeat of sport. Ali-Frazier, Coe-Ovett, Borg-McEnroe; all have inflamed the passions, all have reached out beyond their normal bounds and enraptured global audiences. To this august cast modern motor racing contributes Prost-Senna, a summit meeting featured again in tomorrow's British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

These two drivers have won six of the last eight world championships and one of them will almost certainly claim a personal fourth this year. That man will probably be Alain Prost, since his Williams-Renault remains distinctly superior to Ayrton Senna's McLaren-Ford and, for that matter, any other Formula One car. Lamentably, the protagonists in this sport rarely have equal equipment and only when Prost and Senna were together at McLaren did they compete on a truly level playing field. That two-year duel ended 1-1.

It is to Senna's credit that he has sustained a challenge this time, taking advantage of Prost's misunderstandings, miscalculations and misfortunes. Senna is driven by unflinching self-belief and pride, but also, in this case, by deep enmity and resentment, Prost having exercised his political clout to keep the Brazilian out of a Williams.

The Frenchman has proffered an olive branch on several occasions since hostilities broke out four years ago, yet Senna has been reluctant to accept, the gesture seemingly serving merely to confirm his suspicions and contempt.

Senna feeds off his conviction, and the general consensus, that he is the best. In a recent poll, the other drivers gave him an overwhelming vote as No 1. He was denied a unanimous verdict by a handful of diplomatic abstentions. What no one disputes is that Prost and Senna are the class acts of their generation. Only Nigel Mansell rose to their plane and now only, perhaps, Michael Schumacher threatens to do so.

Many will tell you that, aside from pure talent, Senna's secret is his single-mindedness, that nothing else matters, nothing deflects him from his calling. He is as cool and distant as he is ruthless and fearless. All they know and see of him is the figure in the intimidatingly distinctive helmet: the Golden Vision.

'What is Senna like?' Johnny Herbert was asked. The British driver, who has raced against Senna, on and off, for four years, said: 'I don't know, I've never met him.'

The yearning for respite commonly follows hard on the heels of fame and success, but Prost remains, on the whole, more communicative, apparently more affable. 'Ah, but,' interject the detractors, 'he's a cunning little so-and-so.' That, too, is a consequence of fame and success.

Martin Brundle, another British driver, has monitored Senna's progress with more interest than most. A decade ago, they were engaged in a ferocious battle for the British Formula Three championship, Senna securing the title in the final race. Both then graduated to Formula One in 1984.

Brundle said: 'Senna is a genius. It is not a word I use lightly, but in his case it applies. You can't compare drivers of different eras, but in the years I've been racing I've come across no one to touch him as a complete driver. He doesn't really have a weakness, apart from, occasionally, letting his emotions get the better of him.

'In the car, he is magnificent. He is outstanding at qualifying, in his race strategy, negotiating with traffic and coping with the rain. At Donington this year, for instance, Prost wasn't in the same league. He controls his team operation in just the same way, and that takes strength.

'Even as a young man, new to Formula One, he was able to direct and lift a team. He got Toleman going. He's still doing it. He's got the best, and a little bit more, out of the McLaren this season. At Monaco, a real test, he excels. He's brilliant to watch there.'

But what of the man and those emotions?

Brundle said: 'He does tend to think the whole world is against him. He's strange, really. One day he'll talk to you, another he won't. He never gets involved in small talk. We've never got together and chatted about the old days, in Formula Three. That's not his way.

'He keeps his distance. The ice-cool bit is part of his make-up. He is totally single-minded, selfish even. That partly explains his success. But emotionally he can be caught out. An example was that first corner incident with Prost in Japan, in 1990.

'It must be difficult, though, having the constant pressure he has. He is, let's face it, one of the world's best- known people. I can trade off a relative kind of fame with family life and business interests. He has none of these. His racing is his life and his life is his racing.

'I define genius as just the right side of imbalance. That's how I see Senna. That's why he's special. He is highly developed to the point where he is almost over the edge. It's a close call.'

Brundle, as others, is less effusive about Prost: 'He is surprisingly fast. He doesn't look fast, he doesn't appear to put in the effort, but then you look at the times . . . His work on the set-up is very impressive. The driving comes so easy to him because he makes the car do the work. He has to be one of the most intelligent drivers of all time - and look at his record.

'The downside is that he does seem to have his moments of uncertainty, when conditions or circumstances don't suit. There's the difference. When the chips are down, Senna revels in it. Prost doesn't. Prost is more of a percentage player than Senna. Something else about Prost is that he always seems to leave a team on bad terms and there must be a reason.'

Gerhard Berger had an amicable relationship with Senna at McLaren, but then he was not as good as Prost and he did concede that after leaving for Ferrari he got his 'head together again'. He makes the point that Senna was also good at setting up the car and that he learned from Prost.

Berger said: 'I tried to find weaknesses in Senna, but I couldn't. He is 100 per cent in everything. I learned a lot from him, so for me it was a good three years. And I still like Senna. We had good fun, a good relationship.'

Derek Warwick was denied the opportunity of partnering Senna at Lotus in 1986 by the Brazilian - a stand he was reminded of when frustrated by Prost - yet the Englishman came to accept his argument.

'He felt Lotus didn't have the resources for two No 1 drivers,' Warwick said, 'and, angry though I was, I eventually actually admired him for it because I understood what he was getting at.'

Warwick is one of those who rate Senna the outstanding driver of the age and shares the reservations about Prost. He does, however, put the debate in perspective, saying: 'What we have here are two exceptional talents, and Prost will, barring a disaster, be world champion this year.

'He's made mistakes, but then they've been in freakish circumstances. We have had a lot of freak weather this season. Everyone is quick to load pressure on him. He's only human after all, and I think that pressure has affected him. All these things sort of develop and build up, no matter who you are.

'Everybody thinks that because he's Alain Prost and because he's 'The Professor' and because he's three-times world champion and because he's won 49 GPs etc, he's oblivious to pressure. We all have pressures, we all have feelings. Why should he be different?'

To Prost, then, the title 'world champion'; to Senna the title 'No 1'.

(Photographs omitted)