Motor Racing: Remembrance of things Prost: The professor of the grand prix is back at the front of the pack. David Tremayne in Monte Carlo reports on skill at high speed

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THERE may be mixed feelings among motor racing aficionados if Alain Prost regains his Monaco crown this weekend and scores a fifth victory to draw level with the records of Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna. Once again, he has become for some the man they love to dislike.

In his Renault days in the early 1980s, it was fashionable to deride him because many feared that the monolith Renault would come into Formula One and dominate, and Prost was seen as their lackey. When he returned to McLaren in the mid-1980s he achieved a measure of popularity that only waned again upon Senna's arrival in 1988.

The two have always struck sparks off one another as the Formula One town is barely big enough for both of them. They are the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of their generation. If the other did not exist, each would be the unquestioned king. Recently Prost was asked whether, despite their rivalry, he felt that they nevertheless need one another.

'Definitely,' he responded immediately. 'Looking at the situation sensibly it would not be healthy to have us both in the same team. Frank Williams and Ron Dennis are aware of that. But as long as our relationship is proper, both on and off the track, our sporting rivalry is good for the cause of Formula One. It is also good for both of us, as a victory can only be judged according to the calibre of the opposition.'

Since the start of the season they have indeed got on well enough, but it has not always been so. In their McLaren days they clashed publicly on several occasions. Prost remains convinced that Senna deliberately took him out of the 1990 world championship struggle when Senna crashed his McLaren into the back of Prost's Ferrari at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.

The latest round of unpopularity for the Frenchman, however, has been propagated mainly by the reigning world champion Nigel Mansell, the George Foreman figure in the titanic Senna v Prost contest. Mansell, who won only one race to Prost's five when they were at Ferrari together in 1990, and who departed in dudgeon to IndyCars after losing his Williams drive to the Frenchman for 1993, has suggested that Prost is devious, deceitful and untruthful. Within a markedly more relaxed Williams team, however, you sense a definite air of content with the current driver line-up of Prost and Damon Hill, balanced in some quarters perhaps by an underlying current of concern at times that Prost is not like Mansell in his need to be fastest on every lap. This is, after all, a team that loves overt racers.

'I never lie,' counters Prost of some of the criticism levelled at him. Back in 1989 he was hauled before Honda to explain comments he had made in an interview with Motoring News. Prost had questioned whether his team-mate Senna was being given more powerful engines, and Honda had duly underlined every critical word. Had he been misquoted? It would have been the easiest thing to denigrate the interview, to agree that his words had been distorted. Instead, he replied: 'Every word there is written exactly as I said it.' You can only speak as you find.

For a three-time world champion he is surprisingly thin-skinned. That is perhaps one of his more irritating features, and certainly it is one reason why some have branded him a whinger. If a situation makes him unhappy, he simply cannot avoid speaking out. Yet on the human level, it is one of his endearing facets. A sportsman with his heart on his sleeve.

Speak with those who have associated closely with him, and myths are punctured. The picture emerges of a dedicated artist. Says Williams' commercial director, Richard West, who also knew him at McLaren: 'He is one of the most analytical, professional people I have ever worked with. And, when you get to know him, one of the most loyal and straightforward. As a team player, he motivates everybody. He's not so much selfish, as firm. But that firmness ultimately benefits everybody.'

As their relationship of mutual trust has grown during the season, his race engineer David Brown (an unashamed Mansell devotee) has come to appreciate that 'all the positive things I have heard about him are true. And remember, I worked with Nigel for years. I find it just as enjoyable with Alain, but in a different way.'

Senna and Prost are regarded as two of the greatest racing drivers in history, nonpareils who have created their own art form. Critics say a vital difference is that Prost is frightened of rain, citing his withdrawals from the British Grand Prix in 1988 and Australia a year later. Yet behind his distate for the wet lies the memory that his countryman Didier Pironi's career was curtailed in 1982 when his Ferrari smashed into the back of Prost's Renault in such conditions at Hockenheim.

'Didier simply could not see,' Prost says. 'That is what I find unacceptable. No skill on earth can save you if you cannot see where you are going. It is that lack of visibility that I find so stupid.'

Who is the greater, Senna or Prost? On qualifying performance, certainly the Brazilian has a clear advantage with 61 pole positions to Prost's 27. On wins, however, Prost has 47 to Senna's 38, both well clear of Mansell. Interestingly, Prost also has the greater number of fastest race laps, indication of his preoccupation with speed on race day.

Jo Ramirez, of McLaren, has worked closely with both men: 'Alain is very good to work with, he has a very good understanding of the problems. He is extremely quick when he likes the feel of the car. But he likes it to feel right while Ayrton will be quick however it feels. Ayrton is quicker in qualifying because he puts more into it, but Alain's biggest strength is his speed and his ability to avoid making mistakes. That's why, on the odd occasions when he does, people notice them more.'

That was the way it was with Jim Clark, too, a great from a bygone era and the driver whom Prost most resembles with his classical style, economy of effort and rigid code of driving ethics.

(Photograph omitted)