‘Metaphorically,’ Prost reflected, ‘Senna wanted to destroy me.’
There is nothing that drives a sportsman to put his best foot forward more than the appearance of a true rival. In Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost found one. They had very different styles – if Prost needed to come third in a race, he would aim to do exactly that but with Senna it was always all or nothing, second place held little meaning for him.
They raced together in 116 races with the Frenchman, who was also known as ‘Le Professeur,’ finishing ahead of Senna 54 times. Senna bested Prost 50 times and there were 12 races in which neither finished. But the numbers alone didn’t make the rivalry special. In fact, when the two were on track, you wouldn’t even think of the numbers – you would be attracted by the raw, intense animosity that the two drivers felt towards each other.
The enmity came to a head in 1989 when the pair forced each other off the track at Suzuka. Senna, who was trailing in the championship, needed to finish ahead of Prost, tried to dive past the Frenchman only for their McLarens (yes, they were on the same team) to lock wheels and exit the track.
Senna, somehow, rejoined to win the race but was eventually disqualified. It was a no-holds barred rivalry and that’s exactly what Formula One needs right now.
Yesterday, for the first time since the Spanish Grand Prix in May, Sebastian Vettel moved back into the lead in the title race. Fernando Alonso’s bad luck at Suzuka and Red Bull’s overall package have seen the German rise to the top and take a 6-point lead with just four GP’s left in the season. In fact, since Hungary, Vettel has gained 48 points on Alonso.
This seems like the perfect F1 season – Seven different drivers have won races this year (Vettel 4; Alonso, Hamilton 3; Webber, Button 2; Rosberg, Maldonado 1), tyre-wear has meant that even smaller team have had a chance of finishing in the points and with just 4 races to go, the title fight has come down to a battle between two men. Many would argue that it cannot get better but it still feels like something’s lacking.
And that something is character.
But right now the Alonso-Vettel battle seems more like a technical rivalry between Ferrari and Red Bull; between the drivers who can take better care of their tyres. It has been widely acknowledged that the Spaniard is the better driver who can bring out the best in his car. But even then Vettel has the better car and so far he’s winning the battle easily.
With three wins in three races, Red Bull seems to have resolved tyre performance issues and they will be hard to stop now. Eventually over the course of a season, luck ceases to be a factor and the better car wins. That’s how it works in F1 these days.
Sport has witnessed some great rivalries over the years, from Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe in tennis to India-Pakistan in cricket and what makes them special is that the players chose to make it personal – just as Prost-Senna did. If Alonso wants to beat Vettel, he needs to do just that.
The Spaniard has done that before when he joined McLaren in 2007 as the double world champion. He didn’t exactly get along with Lewis Hamilton, the rookie who finished on the podium in his first nine races. The Briton refused to give way to Alonso in qualifying in Hungary and the Spaniard got back by blocking his last attempt to set a time.
So in essence, Alonso just needs to rewind a little more. It’ll add an edge to the season and give Vettel something else to think about.
French dramatist Jean Racine once said: ‘I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him.’ Now, Alonso doesn’t need to do that but a little more animosity can only make him want that win a little bit more. It’s not a bad bargain, is it?