Here at Auto Futures, we don’t typically focus on motorsport. However, when you get the chance to interview a Formula One legend, you just can’t say no. Especially when his name is Alain Prost.
The now-retired French racing legend is a household name, following four championships, holding the record for most Grand Prix victories between 1987-2001 and being considered as one of the greatest F1 drivers ever.
Prost spent his best years in F1 alongside his former teammate, the late Niki Lauda, who sadly passed away just a week before I got the chance to sit down with Prost ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix.
Before the race on Sunday, the historic street circuit stood still as drivers, wearing red hats with ‘Niki’ stitched onto the front of them, bowed the heads in silence, before the small town erupted with the earth-shattering combination of cheers and roaring engines. The sport had lost an icon.
Nowadays, Prost spends his time as Renault’s ambassador and is a part of the advisory board. However, he is still heavily invested and passionate about motorsport. He even politely stopped me mid-interview so that he could watch the start of the Formula 2 race on Saturday. Of course, I gladly agreed.
Once we watched the first lap together, I asked him what his views were on the current state of F1, which has come under fire in recent years. Most notably the strict regulations and abundance of technology.
“In mine and Niki’s generation, F1 was full of passionate people, including drivers, mechanics, engineers and even the press,” he explained, still perched on the edge of his seat. “Everyone back then was interested in cars and motor racing. Now it is a business.”
“Racing in my age was unbelievable in terms of what you had to do yourself. You had to develop into a man by the time you started F1 because you did so much before to achieve your goal and shape your own character.”
Racing in the 80s was a lot more liberal, which allowed more freedom when it came to the technical side, including skirts, turbos and even 6-wheeled vehicles. Teams were given the reins and allowed to do what they wanted, making each race weekend very interesting.
Each time he mentions his past, Prost’s eyes light up and gentle smirk forms. He truly misses the racetrack.
“The next generation of F1 racing saw large constructors such as Renault and Honda, which made everything more professional with more money and bigger teams. This meant that new regulations and safety standards had to be introduced.”
Now, in the new age of motorsport, teams have expensive and complex engines, which is great, but the fans no longer understand them. Over the last few years, the divide between the fans and teams has widened dramatically.
“Back in 1982, I was leading a race but had to stop 9 times for the same problem, which involved smoke coming out the back of my car. This is something that everyone understood back then,” says Prost. “Due to the advanced technology of these engines today, a number of things can go wrong that is extremely difficult for anyone to understand. Even I had to learn a lot of things as it’s so complex.”
Recreating the Element of Surprise
Wading through Monaco’s notoriously busy pitlane, I saw hundreds of mechanics working on racecars, tucked away from the sun in their garages. Behind the scenes, there are almost 2,000 people working on the chassis and engine alone, with each driver having very little say in the process.
For Prost, he believes that this has led to the loss of ingenuity and the element of surprise that was around when the driver’s input was much more important. More often than not, this means that the team with the best car and most money wins the race.
“I want to give more freedom to the people,” he says. “Drivers in the 80s did exactly what they wanted to do. They controlled the race. Now it’s the other way around.”
Prost understands that there is a need for technology, but thinks there is too much of a focus on things such as aerodynamics which, according to the Frenchman, accounts for 80% of the car’s performance today.
“Today, there is almost no decision from the driver. They are given the information from their teams and have 15 people in the engine department and 30 back at the factory who advise them. This is awful, but it is part of the sport now. We have to look to do something a little bit different, although I don’t know if we are going to be successful.”
Back in his day, Prost had a vision of his car. He knew everything there was to know, including the tyres, chassis and engine, because he was doing everything himself. This is impossible today, as the systems are too advance for one person to understand and control completely on their own. It shows how far the sport has come, thanks to the rapid development of technology in motorsport and the automotive industry.
“I never had one engineer tell me what to do to the car. Today it is completely the opposite, making it difficult for anyone to understand everything.”
Although this will never happen again, due to the sheer magnitude of the sport, I think it is important to understand how someone with the stature of Prost feels about the way the sport is going. Yes, he may be frustrated with certain methods being put in place, but he still wants the best for the sport.
Technology is here to stay, but it is now time to explore how the sport can utilise it to assist the driver, rather than replace them.