In Formula 1, pole positions are vanity, wins are sanity and points are king
In the history of Formula 1, Brazilian Ayrton Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost are two of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen. They also participated in one of the most intense and acrimonious rivalries that became life-threateningly dangerous on the track. Their rivalry ended when Prost retired in 1993 and since then their reputations have travelled in different directions.
Their rivalry, particularly from 1988-1990, is infamous in F1 folklore and if you want to learn more about their rivalry then I can fully recommend Malcolm Folley’s excellent book ‘Senna versus Prost’ which includes detailed information of their backgrounds, careers and personalities which are essential to fully understand the reason, nature and intensity of their duel.
The respective fans of these two very different drivers, of course, argue and debate as to who was actually the best. Senna fans, like the great man himself, refuse to accept that Prost, or anyone else, could have been better. Whereas Prost fans take a quieter and more analytical approach, just like Prost did as a driver, and state he was the best overall.
There is no clear cut conclusion and they both were extraordinary drivers in different ways and both had their weaker points. Senna’s driving style and personality was far more vivacious than that of Prost and this drew in more fans. When Senna tragically died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, his already exceptional reputation rose even further into truly legendary proportions. Prost’s reputation, on the other hand, seemed to diminish after he retired as a F1 driver and dropped even further after his unsuccessful turn at running an all-French F1 Team (Prost Grand Prix).
These two great titans of F1 had such different approaches to driving, such different personalities and cultural backgrounds, but yet were evenly matched; it seems wrong and unfair somehow that their reputations in history are not evenly matched? Senna fans must at least accept that Prost was by far his greatest rival and pushed him harder and closer than any other driver.
Beating Prost became an obsession to Senna and their rivalry was so important to him that after Prost retired in 1993, he actually called Prost several times (to Alain’s great surprise) during late 1993 and early 1994 to try and persuade him not to retire and race again! You cannot be a true fan of Senna or Prost without recognising the brilliance of both drivers.
‘There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics’. In the Prost versus Senna debate, statistics have been used in different ways to support the belief of the respective fan. For example, Senna fans point to his 3 World Championships, 65 pole positions, 80 podiums and 41 wins from 161 starts to demonstrate his greatness and superiority. Prost fans state his 4 world championships (3rd highest in F1 history), his 51 wins, 106 podiums and a career total of 798.5pts (all 2nd highest in history) from 199 starts.
Rather than trying to find statistics that support either group of fans, I thought it would be interesting to take the view of a team principal and coldly analyse their relative performances to see which driver you would want to have in your car.
To make the analysis as fair as possible I used the two year period where they both drove for McLaren (1988 and 1989) as this is perhaps the best and only opportunity to really assess their relative performances:
|Pole Positions||Wins||Fastest Laps||Championships|
The above statistics appear to be very interesting. Senna was clearly the better qualifier and won more races than Prost over the two year period. However, Prost produced double the number of fastest laps than Senna which suggests he had quicker race pace. They both won the world championship, but on the above information alone you would pick Senna over Prost to drive on your team.
However, if you were a team principal, the only statistic that really matters in the above table is the number of championships. Here are the statistics that are more telling:
|Av. Qual Pos.||Av. Finish Pos.||Av. Pts||Total Points|
(Averages are per race averages)
This table tells a different story doesn’t it? This does confirm Senna was a better qualifier (qualifying on average over a position higher than Prost) but it demonstrates that Prost on average per race finished over a position higher than Senna and scored, on average over the 2 years, a point per race more than Ayrton Senna did. Not only that it shows that on average per race, Senna lost a position from his average starting position by the end of the race, whereas Prost gained a position from his average grid position.
Prost outscored Senna in both seasons. Ayrton Senna won the championship in 1988 as the rules stated then that only the best 11 finishes counted towards the championship. This was the first and only year that the championship winner had not scored the most points overall (counting all 16 finishes). They removed this rule from the 1991 season onwards.
Senna won the championship on the best 11 races rule, but otherwise Prost scored more points overall for the season and was ahead of him for almost all of the season.
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Prost won the championship in 1989 and was ahead of Senna on points for nearly the entire season
In Formula 1, pole positions are vanity, wins are sanity and points are king. If you were a team principal with the pressure it brings from sponsors and partners, you would pick Alain Prost over Ayrton Senna using the data above. If you expand the analysis to the whole careers then the critical statistics show Prost would be the best guy to drive your car as he would be more likely to help you win the drivers and constructors world title.
|Career Achievements||Ayrton Senna||Alain Prost|
|Av. Pts per Race||3.81||4.01|
From the statistics and analysing their careers, Senna would much rather go flat out to win the race whereas Prost thought more of the championship and points. Obviously it is not quite as black and white as that, but the distinction between the two drivers in this area is clear.
Senna fans often mention in this debate that Senna would have won the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix if they had not stopped this extremely wet race. Senna, in the Toleman, was catching Prost in the McLaren hand over fist but the officials stopped the race before Senna had a chance to challenge for the lead. It is argued that Senna could have had another race victory, but actually it would have been better for Prost if the race continued and to have let Senna by. If he scored 6pts for second place in a full race rather than the 4.5pts for winning a stopped race halfway through he would have won the championship that year rather losing it to Niki Lauda by half a point!
The statistics show you would definitely have Prost driving your car, but they also show you would want to have Senna driving your other car! These two drivers were so closely matched, so exceptional but unfortunately so different in so many ways.
Motorsport fans were very lucky to see these two legendary drivers go head to head as that does not happen very often. If Prost had not been around, just imagine how many race victories and championships Senna might have had? And if Senna had not been around, then Prost would have easily had another two world championships to his name (1988 and 1990).
The above statistics help to show that Prost’s achievements and reputation should be remembered in a way equal, if not perhaps greater, than that of the great Ayrton Senna.