Great Rivalries: Racing's Best Rivalries

Getty Images The Cahier Archive
Sean McCabe

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost

Foyt and Andretti were never friends, but neither were they enemies. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, by way of contrast, were oil and water. Or maybe gunpowder and a match is a more apt characterization. Their relationship was contentious enough while they were on separate teams, but paired together at the height of McLaren's F1 supremacy, they formed the ugliest - and most perversely compelling - rivalry in motorsports history.

They came from very different places, Prost raised in modest circumstances in France and Senna born to privilege in Brazil. Senna embodied the Latin temperament, passionate and introspective, prone to outlandish outbursts and contemplative soliloquies. The oh-so-Gallic Prost, nicknamed "The Professor," was stone-faced and phlegmatic. Yet it was their similarities that were the primary source of the friction between them: They were ruthless in their determination to win. (Both of them broke contracts to move to better teams, and both were accused of playing politics to marginalize their teammates.) And they were the most talented drivers of their generation.

Prost was a throwback. He was a master of racecraft, he knew how to preserve machinery and save fuel, and he was faster in races than in qualifying. (Both he and Senna averaged one win for every four races, but Prost earned half as many poles while posting twice as many fastest laps.) Prost already had two titles to his credit when Senna joined him at McLaren in 1988. This was the year of Gordon Murray's MP4/4, the most dominant car in grand prix history, and McLaren won fifteen of sixteen races. Prost scored more points, but thanks to an anomaly in the scoring system, Senna won the championship. The next season, relations between the two drivers were poisonous. Earlier, acrimonious words had passed between them when Senna nearly ran Prost into the pit wall at Estoril, but they stopped speaking to each other altogether after Senna reneged on a prerace agreement and won at Imola.

At Suzuka, Prost secured his championship by running into Senna as the Brazilian tried to pass him near the end of the race. Did Prost turn in too early to prevent Senna from passing? Did Senna make an overly ambitious maneuver that was bound to end in tears? Even now, the jury is still out. The next year, the championship was again decided at Suzuka. Again, Prost was leading, now racing for Ferrari, but this time Senna secured his championship by purposely spearing Prost and then admitting it, matter-of-factly, after the race.

Senna's death at Imola in 1994 cast him as a saintlike figure, martyred by the lax safety regulations of the day. But his most lasting legacy is his win-at-all-costs attitude. It was no coincidence, surely, that Schumacher crashed into his championship rivals, seemingly on purpose, in the final races of the 1994 and 1997 seasons. And today, the tactics that Senna practiced - the starting-line chop, the lunging pass, the psychological warfare - have percolated all the way down to go-karting.

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