The back-seat Professor

Close-up; Alain Prost; A Formula One legend is returning to lead his old team from the wilderness. David Tremayne looks at his new career
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NOT for nothing is Alain Prost known in motor racing as "The Professor", and as a driver there were few who could match his ability to analyse exactly what was right and wrong with his car. When Prostdrove for McLaren, Ron Dennis became intimately acquainted with his skills, and unless you have been on Mars for the past year, his return to the team as technical adviser should have come as no surprise.

The late Juan Manuel Fangio may be history's most successful racing driver, with five World Championships, and Ayrton Senna may have set the most pole positions, but study the number of race wins and number of fastest laps, and at 51 and 41 respectively Prost, with one championship less than the Argentinian and one more than the Brazilian, resides in a class of his own. Such a glittering record should have been enough for any sportsman. But for Prost, demons have occasionally overshadowed the encomiums of victory.

His great career fragmented when Ferrari (stupidly, and as only Ferrari could have done at the time) dismissed him before the end of 1991, less than a year after he had very nearly won their first title in years. There was further angst when Williams signed his old enemy Senna for 1994. Prost had just won the team the world championship, but unless he wanted to go through another psychological drubbing such as Senna had given him as his team-mate at McLaren back in 1989, there was no alternative but to quit. He felt driven out.

In retirement, Prost vacillated. He entered into an uneasy alliance with Renault, who did not appear to have the wit to make real use of his innate talents and simply frittered them on specious public relations duties. He is an affable enough fellow when the mood takes him, but public relations lackey he is not. He tried television commentating, but did not like that either. He came close to buying the Ligier team to give himself something absorbing to do when his active racing days were over. But the writing was on the wall when it became clear that Renault was frustrating his aspirations to run his own team by refusing to supply engines. He liquidated their agreement last summer, and Dennis tried to lure him back to McLaren.

Prost began his F1 career with McLaren in 1980 and returned there in 1984 after three years with Renault. The second partnership, beginning just after Dennis had assumed command, yielded three of his four world titles and 30 of his 51 Grand Prix victories before Dennis's other adopted son, Senna, drove him from the McLaren family and off to Ferrari. This was much to Dennis's regret, and he has made no secret of his desire to see Prost return, either as a driver (he tried very hard to enlist him for 1994 when Senna had departed for Williams) or, now, in the role of technical adviser.

The new development has the hallmarks of logic, though the television commentator John Watson, himself a former partner of Prost's at McLaren, sounds a note of caution: "I'm not sure I know what Alain is going to do. He says he is going to drive and evaluate, but I don't know how you just step in ad hoc and do that if you aren't going to be racing the car all the time." Prost himself has made it clear that his racing days are over.

"You either drive all the time because you need that continuity all the way through," Watson continues, "or you don't drive. But I don't think you can do one and the other and actually provide the kind of feedback the team is looking for. They are looking for somebody to guide them, basically. And Alain can do that, but he's got to be in the car on a regular basis.

"I would call him an interface. He will liaise between the drivers and the technical side, so when David Coulthard comes in and says the car is a heap, Alain will say, 'The problem is that the roll stiffness at the front is too soft, and at the back of the car the pitch change . . .' He'll be acting as a sort of interpreter. The esperanto in Formula One has been pretty consistent, made up of a few adjectives and a few adverbs, and Alain's job is to translate those into a language that an engineer can actually do something with."

McLaren were extremely fortunate between 1982 and 1993 in having the extraordinary testing faculties of Niki Lauda, Prost and Senna, which allowed them to develop a fantastic inter-team rapport, since absent. Bernard Dudot, the man behind Renault Sport's hyper-successful V10 engine, says of Prost and Senna: "I have never worked with drivers who have such a depth of ability to assimilate and recall precisely what their cars - and engines - are doing at any point of any lap, on any circuit. Without question they are the best there have been in my experience." In that respect, they are almost certainly the best there have ever been. McLaren's culture has been shaped on such technical incisiveness from its lead drivers, and the lack of such high-level information is one of the factors behind their recent disappointing form.

Coulthard is the man who is likely to benefit most now that the leadership of McLaren and the responsibility for development testing of the new car that is so crucial to its future has been thrust upon Prost in the wake of Mika Hakkinen's accident in Australia. He has no doubts about the value of the team's new man.

"I'm very happy, because he is somebody whom I admired when I was younger and whose career I followed," Coulthard said. "I know his driving well, and the way he goes about things. To actually work with him and to learn from his experience, I think, will be a very big benefit. He will be involved in all the tests and will certainly come to a few of the grands prix, and will be involved fully in the development of the car. There will be an open exchange; I'm sure he will have 101 questions for me at the end of every test, and it can only accelerate the learning curve. It's a fact of life that you have to learn from experience. You can either do it alone or you can accelerate that working with somebody like Alain."

Prost at last appears to have found the elusive life after driving he has been seeking since his sabbatical year in 1992. Given Lauda's mixed success as consultant at Ferrari, it remains to be seen how rewarding Prost's third spell at McLaren will be for either party.

However, if he looks at what the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears has achieved in so-called retirement with the Penske team in the United States, a genuinely fulfilling second career may be beckoning. After the dip in performance that McLaren have experienced over the past two seasons, Dennis and his sponsors will be fervently hoping that Prost can lead them from the technical wilderness.

From centre stage to backstage

Niki Lauda Left Ferrari in 1978 after winning two world championships, but came back in 1992 as consultant to Luca di Montezemolo, who masterminded his 1975 and 1977 successes. Lauda concentrates mainly on advising drivers.

John Surtees The only world champion on two and four wheels, he set up his own car racing team in 1969. He later spent more time on technical development than racing.

Rick Mears The greatest American oval racer, four times winner of the Indy 500. Retired in 1993 to take on at Penske the sort of role Prost will have at McLaren. A key player in Al Unser Jnr's 1994 IndyCar championship success.

James Hunt The late and still missed 1976 champion was retained by Marlboro to advise their drivers. Candid comments and advice valued even by Ayrton Senna, who said: "He was always capable of embarrassing somebody. But I liked him the way he was."

Rene Arnoux Mercurial former Ferrari driver, involved with DAMS F3000 team before working in a technical capacity with the Italian-Brazilian Forti Corse team in F1 this season.