Prost vs Senna: A real insider’s perspective


For many years the climax of the Formula 1 season has frequently had its fair share of drama. A blend of many of the fascinating strands that makes the sport so compelling, which even could be called a soap opera! The duel, with all its intrigue, of watching two team mates battling for the world championship.

It is said that one of the best ways to understand the future is to look back at history. Twenty five years ago, the 1989 World Championship had the lot – the season long feud between the top two drivers, heavy rain at the final race, with treacherous conditions bringing out the red flag not once but twice! Adelaide 1989, the season finale and my first Australian Grand Prix.

Whilst I had already worked in the marketing department at McLaren for four years, 1989 was the first year that I regularly attended all of the races – and what a year! The ingredients of the two best drivers in the world competing in the two best cars, had been simmering nicely the year before, with McLaren winning 15 out of 16 races, 15 out of 16 pole positions and leading 97% of all laps, with Ayrton Senna claiming the world championship for the first time with 8 race wins to 7 wins from his team mate, double World Champion Alain Prost.


If you think that double points at the final race in 2014 is a bizarre way to conclude the championship, 1988 in retrospect now seems equally strange! Only the best 11 results counted towards the championship. Alain Prost had scored 105 points during the year, but only 87 of those points were counted toward the championship.

Ayrton Senna meanwhile had scored 94 points, 90 points of which counted towards the championship by virtue of winning more races. Thus, Senna became the World Champion, even though he did not score the most points over the course of the year.

Therefore from a simmer, the following year was perfectly set to come to the boil!

My first race of the season was the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the start of the races in Europe. My role was to look after the sponsors, plus I also carried the team media pass although all of the press releases were actually issued by Honda. I also had to liaise with the drivers on their promotional commitments with the sponsors and at the start of the race weekend I had to sit down with the drivers to brief them.

Both drivers had different styles. Alain would be relaxed and agree, provided that you continued to remind me. Ayrton was much more precise. You had to go through the details, what was required and most importantly for him, how long would it last, or rather, how little of his time would it take.


You had to be very correct with him and deliver on what you said, because once he accepted what he had to do then there was no room for deviation from the schedule.

It was fascinating to watch the transformation of his character as the weekend unfolded. On Thursday he was fairly open, but as the race weekend progressed that degree of openness progressively narrowed until it was almost closed when he was sitting in the car on the grid on Sunday, totally focused waiting for the lights to go out, with all that stored, built up energy and adrenaline ready to explode into the race.

On the track at Imola, with both drivers on the front row, the perceived logic was that it made no sense for them battle against each other at the start, so they agreed between them that whoever made the best start would be untroubled by the other and they wouldn’t race each other until after the first corner, Tosa. Ayrton made the better start and held a 2.7 second lead over Alain after three laps.

However Gerhard Berger had a spectacular accident at Tamburello where his Ferrari caught fire. Standing in the pit garage watching it live on the TV it looked horrendous and the race was stopped to rescue Gerhard, who fortunately escaped with minor burns and a broken rib.

Before the restart Ayrton and Alain again agreed to hold to the agreement. This time Alain made the better start and believing that he would not be challenged, held the racing line as they approached Tosa, only for Ayrton, who was slip-streaming behind, to pass him before the first corner to take the lead, which he would never relinquish. Alain was furious.


Although he finished second, he was so angry that he left the track and missed the post race press conference, which cost him a $5,000 fine.

The following week the team were testing at the Pembrey circuit in Wales and Ron Dennis summoned both drivers to attend to attempt to heal the rift. Eventually under enormous pressure and on the basis that it was for the good of the team, Ayrton made a formal statement of apology, although he was not happy about doing this.

When Ron returned to Woking by helicopter he believed all was well. However a few days later Alain did an interview in the French press where he called Ayrton a dishonest man who couldn’t keep his word. Ayrton was so furious and regretted even more making his reluctant apology and decided not to speak to Alain again. From Monaco they hardly spoke to each other, which didn’t make life easy within the team!

However, having said that, I do recall occasions when they did attend functions together and did have to communicate, albeit awkwardly. In Mexico at a Marlboro press conference, there was the unique opportunity to observe the two world champions share the podium with five times world champion Juan Manual Fangio, who didn’t speak English, so his words were translated by a young interpreter.

What made it fascinating was that if you closed your eyes and listened, not just to the voices, but also to the opinions and the way they were expressed, you would have thought that Fangio was the youngest!


I also remember that weekend going to a dinner with both drivers and the team management where Alain bet Ron Dennis $1,000 to eat a whole bowl of hot chillies. Never one to turn down a bet, RD duly accepted. Whilst he went a colour similar to the Marlboro red, drank numerous pints of water and went very quiet for a quite a long time, he duly demolished the whole bowl! I, having always liked hot food, would have duly done the bet for half the money!

I seem to recall Ayrton’s words about it not being a good idea to bet against Ron. No doubt mindful of the occasion when on their original contract negotiation when they reached a stalemate, Ron proposed that they toss a coin to decide the difference. Once explained Ayrton agreed, Ron tossed the coin and won.

It was only afterwards that Ayrton realised that the difference was not one year at $500,000, but three years at $500,000 per year. He never made that mistake again and this information was duly computed to be used as added ammunition when they next came to negotiate!

The following weekend was the USA Grand Prix in Phoenix, which in June was approaching the hottest part of the year. From the large crowd in Mexico, the street circuit in Phoenix was quite a contrast and it was rumoured that a local ostrich race attracted a larger crowd than for the Grand Prix! We were fortunate to stay at the Phoenician Resort, a spectacular hotel on 152 acres in Scottsdale.


Another of my other duties was settling the hotel bills for the team management and drivers, and I can clearly remember the cold sweat as the clock ticked by with the flight departure time getting ever closer whilst still sorting out the endless bills, which I seem to remember giving a hammering to my company American Express card to the tune of $25,000!

That weekend was Ron Dennis’ birthday and a party was held at yet another Mexican restaurant, complete with the band members of ZZ Top amongst other American celebrities.

That weekend also showed me a demonstration of the more gentler side of Ayrton Senna. As it was the American Grand Prix, present were a number of senior executives and guests of Philip Morris and we had a number of Marlboro promotional activities for the drivers to do.

Whilst Ayrton was never a great fan of going to these functions, once there he always performed well, albeit with one eye on the clock ready to make an early exit. At that time there was an ongoing debate as to how long a driver should appear at a function. Marlboro were of the old school of keeping the driver as long as possible, however the McLaren view championed by Ron, under pressure from the drivers, principally Ayrton, was to keep the time to a minimum.

Actually as we subsequently proved you can achieve more with a driver with a short punchy appearance than with something long and drawn out – leave the crowd wanting more as they say. However this was in the early days of the debate and being the US there was lots of demands on the drivers time.


On this particular occasion we had two Marlboro functions back to back, but held on opposite ends of the hotel. My job was to make sure that Ayrton went to both. After the first function we walked the vast empty corridors of this huge hotel, just the two of us. Suddenly we became aware of a young girl coming towards us.

Now the awareness and interest in F1 in Phoenix was not great, but this lady was a fan and more particularly a fan of Ayrton and to come face to face with him in a hotel corridor left her speechless. Much as she wanted to converse with her hero, she was frozen to the spot, with tears welling up in her eyes.

This is when you saw the very gentle and humble side of Ayrton. Seeing the state she was in, he put his arms around her, calmed her down and gave her his autograph. As we walked away onto the function, she still remained frozen to the spot, but with a great big smile on her face!

On the track the tension between the best two drivers in the world was intensifying. Alain was becoming increasingly convinced that Ayrton was receiving better engines from Honda, claiming that he had more speed on the straight.

McLaren took this very seriously. Whilst the collection of car data through the telemetry was in its early stages, especially when compared to today, I do remember having the data explained to me that the reason Ayrton was quicker on the straight was that he was quicker coming out of the corners!


The battle increasingly intensified throughout the season and then we came to the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the penultimate round of the World Championship with Alain leading the championship by 18 points. By now it had been announced that Alain was going to leave McLaren to join Ferrari and the atmosphere in the team was tense to say the least!

From pole position Alain made the better start and started to pull away, however after the pit stop for new tyres Ayrton found more speed and progressively closed the gap. Somehow you knew that this would not end well! As they approached the chicane on lap 47 Ayrton saw an opportunity and determinedly went for the gap.

However Alain wasn’t prepared to give way and shut the door. Inevitably they touched and both cars came to a stop in the middle of the chicane. If both drivers were out Alain was World Champion. Thinking it was all over Alain undid his belts and got out of the car. However Ayrton, ever determined as always, got the marshals to push start him and got back on the circuit.

We watched this unfold on the big screen in the pit lane. Ayrton headed for the pits to replace the broken nose. It was like watching a film in slow motion as the Japanese marshals under orders tried to prevent the mechanics from changing the nose, but were ceremonially disposed of.


Once unleashed, Ayrton accelerated hard down the pit lane, as there was no pit lane speed limit then, in pursuit of race leader Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton who he duly caught and overtook to take the chequered flag. However Ayrton was not credited with the race win as he was disqualified on the grounds that he had cut the chicane and didn’t rejoin the track at the point at which he had left it!

There then followed weeks of drama which F1 has become known for. Alain was the new World Champion to take the coveted Number One to Ferrari, Ayrton was excluded, which was appealed and then upheld with the added bonus, to the FIA, of a $100,000 fine, and he received a six months suspended ban. And then there were the press conferences and media briefings.

The week following the appeal we did two press conferences to explain the McLaren position. The first at the Penta Hotel at London’s Heathrow airport and the second in Adelaide at the Hilton Hotel. Ron made it very clear to the assembled media that he thought that the exclusion was unjust, based on Ayrton’s manner of rejoining the track.

This was supported by a series of video clips, which featured some historic footage of driving through chicanes unpenalised, which humorously demonstrated just how farcical the ruling was. In Adelaide, as the marketing person, I was volunteered to be operator of the video machine and press the buttons when required.


Ron had arrived in Australia earlier on the Thursday morning and I went to his room to show him the video tape which had been prepared for Adelaide. After looking briefly at it on the video player in his room, he then went to get changed.

“Shouldn’t we rewind the tape for the conference?” I enquired. “No it will be alright” he replied. When it came to the conference it wasn’t and guess who publicly got the blame? However to be fair, Ron did apologise later saying that he blamed the technical operator to hide his embarrassment.

As the holder of the McLaren media pass, I was the one who usually escorted Ayrton to the press conferences. He clearly was very upset, but focused and I can clearly remember his delivery when talking to the assemble media with watery eyes:

“They are treating me like a criminal … I never caused the incident. I am aggressive, I am determined and dedicated to my profession .. but the version given to you about the Suzuka incidents … presented me as a lunatic who was breaking the rules”.

In Adelaide he was determined to emphasis his point. Australia is famous for being known as the land of sunshine, which it normally is, with the possible exception of Grand Prix race days. In fact I became known at the Shell Hospitality suite as the man who said that “it always was rains in Australia”, which was often my opening line when giving race day briefings to the guests.


In fact in later years, at the 1992 Grand Prix I can remember the race being red flagged because of the wet conditions, followed by the race restart being repeatedly delayed until the race was finally abandoned.

Gerhard Berger, who was by then driving for McLaren had even changed into his normal clothes and was sitting in the hospitality area, when his engineer Steve Hallam in a panic came telling Gerhard to put on his overalls and get up to the podium.

If you look closely at any of the podium pictures of Adelaide in 1992 you might have thought that Gerhard had put on a few kilos. In fact his more Michelin man appearance was due to the fact that his overalls were squeezed over his normal clothes!

Coming back to race day in 1989 there was torrential rain which never looked like easing. This caused the race start to be delayed by 30 minutes, during which time debate raged, with Alain at the forefront, as to whether the race should indeed be held, with some of the drivers believing that the conditions were bordering on the suicidal.

As all this drama was going on, Ayrton remained resolutely sat in his car on the grid in the pole position slot, demonstrating that he was prepared to race, come what may. Trying to get the drivers to all agree not to race was akin to trying to herd cats and eventually all 26 drivers went to the grid.


The race started under heavy rain, with sections of the track covered by water. On the second lap an incident blocked the track causing the race to be red flagged, but not before Alain came in on the first lap to withdraw in protest, taking off his helmet and slamming it down onto the work counter in the pit garage.

At the restart Ayrton again stormed into the lead, pushing as hard as he could in the conditions, which was significantly quicker than anyone else could. Even with a huge lead, he pushed hard to extend it even further, despite spinning more than once. Eventually even his luck ran out as he came across the added challenge of overtaking back makers.

As he went to pass a Lotus he ran straight into the back of Martin Brundle’s Brabham which was totally obscured by the spray. As we watched on TV the replay of the onboard rearward footage from Martin’s car, it was like a scene from the movie Jaws as the nose of the McLaren suddenly appeared out of nowhere to attack.

This caused Ayrton to spin three times, before he managed to limp back to the pits where the mechanics automatically sprang into action to change wheels. That is all except those on the front left hand corner, which had been ripped off in the accident.


You could almost imagine Ayrton sitting in the car with a broad smile on his face, watching the mechanics make the change and then seeing them realise what had happened. Ayrton’s race was definitely over!

We flew back from Adelaide to London on the Monday afternoon on a full flight packed with F1 people, which included Ayrton up the front. The British Airways flight via Singapore arrived in London early on an autumnal morning and whilst we sleepily assembled to collect our bags, we were entertained by Ayrton demonstrating his Adelaide spin with a luggage trolley.

True to realism, he got the trolley to spin a whole three times in front of the amused F1 crowd of onlookers who enthusiastically counted the number of spins.

Because my car was at the airport, having only left for Adelaide on the previous Tuesday night after the London press conference, somehow I ended up giving Ayrton a lift back to the factory in Woking.

It was always a daunting task driving with a racing driver as a passenger, especially when it is a World Champion. In my first year in the job I was tasked to collect Alain from London’s Heathrow airport just after he had won the 1985 World Championship, in one of the early edition Range Rovers, which had the tendency to roll around corners like a yacht in full sail!


Driving back to Woking with Ayrton I can clearly remember the words coming from the back seat in the distinctive voice: “Peter, I can’t believe that you, as a member of the Honda Marlboro McLaren team are driving a Renault!”

I know that I have focused more on Ayrton than Alain. This was very much because I had much more to do with Ayrton. Alain was the old boy of the team and from a marketing point of view knew what he had to do, albeit it with a bit of prompting, plus he knew the sponsors much better than I did. Ayrton and I were still in many ways the new boys, so both learning as we went along.

Although I do remember those chilling words: “I know that I am obligated to do it, but I am not going to!” which sent shivers of terror down my spine when thinking of how on earth I was going to explain that to the sponsor!

To me Alain Prost was always a gentlemen, very good natured and friendly, who in typical polite French fashion, would, and still does, always shake your hand.

I feel tremendously privileged to have known and worked with two of the very best ever drivers in the world, in what was at the time, the very best team.

Peter Burns

Inside Line by Peter Burns (above) who spent 17 years in Formula One with McLaren between 1985 to 2002 as Senior Marketing Manager and has over 30 years experience in the global motorsport industry.