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Open Warfare

Senna - a study of intensityIn 1985 Marlboro, the primary sponsor for the McLaren team, hosted a press conference shortly before the Brazilian Grand Prix. Senna was invited, but as he was personally sponsored by the rival John Player brand he was seated off on the outer edge of the proceedings. Shortly before the other drivers arrived Senna swapped place cards and managed to arrange himself a seat beside the reigning world champion, Niki Lauda. Prost was later to say that in his mind 'Senna is an arriviste

For some years Prost had been admired for his understanding of the aerodynamics of a racing chassis. This knowledge has earned him his nickname of 'The Professor'. Senna was also recognised as a man with an eye, and ear, for a good engine. With this in mind it did not bode well for the opposition when the two men were put together at McLaren. With such knowledge shared they would be more than a handful. Senna, however, had other ideas. He was not coming to McLaren to play the team game, he was intent on beating Prost and establishing himself as the best driver in the world. He would be aided in that quest by the impressive McLaren-Honda MP4/4 turbo, which stood head and shoulders above the competition. As the 1988 season wore on it became more and more a question of which McLaren would win, and the season ended with eight wins for Senna and seven for Prost. The only race of the year not won by a McLaren was Imola where Berger brought his Ferrari home first.

Senna - Rain Master The first season the two men were team-mates passed without major incident, although it could never have been described as harmonious. Prost often said that he found competing with Senna rather stressful. Senna seemed to revel in the confrontations, using them as a means of polishing his competitiveness. The first serious arguement between them came at Estoril. At the end of the opening lap Alain swooped out of Ayrton's slipstream as they passed the pits. Senna reacted by swinging out and trying to force Prost into the pitwall. Alain kept his throttle floored and got through. After the race strong words were exchanged and the threat of it turning physical was very real.

1989 saw McLaren powered by a less competitive non-turbo 3.5 litre V10 engine. At San Marino Senna suggested that to avoid any incidents that the team should adopt a 'no-overtaking' rule for the first few laps. Senna got away ahead but the race was red-flagged on the seventh lap. At the restart Prost was quicker, but Senna ducked past him going into the Tosa hairpin. Prost considered this to be in breach of their pre-race agreement. Senna dismissed the accusation claiming it was a restart and not the real thing. Such splitting of hairs threatened to deepen the rift between the two men, so McLaren boss, Ron Dennis insisted that he be party to any pre-race deals. He also forced Senna to apologise.

Suzuka 1990 It was in the aftermath of this incident that Prost began toying with the idea of retiring. He was extremely angry with Senna and was all too aware of what had happened to Gilles Villeneuve, who had let his emotions get the better of him some seven years earlier. He resolved to take the bait no more, but his resolve had been weakened and despite holding a commanding 20 point lead in the championship at the half way stage he felt that he could not commit to remaining with McLaren for the following season. Instead he elected to drive for Ferrari. Senna had effectively driven him from his spiritual home. It is perhaps because of this that what unfolded at Suzuka that year ever happened in the first place.

Prost - in happier times Both men qualified on the front row. Despite being a second slower in qualifying Prost, having modified his car for more straight line speed, got away cleanly into the lead. The race that followed was to be one of the epic battle of recent years. Senna attempted every trick in the book, and quite a few that hadn't been written yet. With just six laps left he launched into the fast left-hand bend just before the pit chicane just inches from the Frenchman's rear wing. He then pulled out and attempted to outbreak Prost going into the chicane. Prost assumed that Senna was relying on his good graces to make room for him but after two years of intimidation he was simply fed up of the Brazilian and closed the door on him in emphatic style. The two McLarens slithered to a halt in the middle of the track, their wheels locked together. Prost climbed out of the cockpit convinced that the championship was his. Senna signaled for assistance from the marshals and resumed the race. Unfortunately for him he rejoined the circuit at the wrong place and despite going on to win the race he was disqualified.

At the subsequent appeal he received a damning indictment of his driving style, was fined $100,000 and hit with a six month suspended ban. The disqualification was also confirmed. Ayrton bÉlieved Prost to be the instigator of all this and resolved to never having anything to do with again. He also spent the winter convinced that Jean-Marie Balestre the President of the FIA, had engineering the championship so his countryman could emerge victorious.

As the 1990 season wore on the feud continued. Senna would take his revenge on Prost and once again it was Suzuka that was to be the venue. On the morning of the race Senna hinted that Prost - who had qualified his Ferrari second - had better watch out. He threatened 'If he gets to the first corner ahead of me, he'd better not turn in because he's not going to make it.' True to his word, on finding Prost ahead of him at the turn Senna simply rammed him off the track. Both cars were out of the race and Senna was the World Champion. UnbÉlievably the stewards called it a racing incident and the FIA took no action.

The rivalry continued throughout 1991 and in 1992 Prost took a year off. On his return in 1993 he took the Williams seat recently vacated by Nigel Mansell. One condition he made was that Senna would not be his team-mate. Senna stayed with McLaren for the season and won five races but the championship went to Prost. Despite this he was ousted from the team by his arch-rival - Senna. On the face of it Senna won the final battle.

Prost & Senna - wheel to wheel In light of what had gone before it perhaps seems strange that when Prost arrived at Imola in his capacity of commentator for French television, Senna made time to talk with him. Many observers saw signs of old wounds being healed. Prost thought Senna had become less intense, but sadly their reconciliation would go no further, for during the race Senna was killed, crashing at high speed while leading. At his funeral in Brazil Prost was among the pall-bearers.