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Ayrton Senna and Gilles Villeneuve
Rivalries
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Senna and Prost

Most people who think of Ayrton immediately think of Alain Prost. Prost was a wily, cunning and careful driver who never drove his car too hard yet somehow always managed to get a great result. Prost actually started his F1 career in 1980 after winning the French F3 championship. He moved to Renault for 3 seasons, and came close to winning the title in 1983, losing out to Piquet through and under developed car in the later part of the year.

Renault made Prost the scapegoat for faliure and fired him at the end of the year, but he was almost immediately picked up by Ron Dennis of McLaren and from there, he brought the team back to the top in the mid-80's. Senna always had his sights set on Prost from day one. Ayrton saw him as a target to beat and someone he could learn from.

Senna was stuck with the Toleman in 1984, but almost managed to win in torrential rain until a driver persuaded the officials to stop the race just as Senna passed him. That driver was Prost.

From that moment, Ayrton was absolutely determined to beat him, and started his road to doing this by joining Lotus in 1985. The racing was competitive and exciting to watch during the time, with Prost, Piquet, Mansell and Senna all fighting for the top spot. However, Ayrton felt that although the Lotus team was good, it wasn't capable of helping him win the world championship, so he signed for McLaren for 1988.

At first the partnering of Senna and Prost proved to be a good one. McLaren won 15 out of 16 races in 1988, with Senna winning the championship in Japan, but already, Senna and Prost were on the road to falling out. In Portugal, Prost had tried to pass Ayrton, but the Brazilian refused to concede, almost causing a major accident. Prost told Senna afterwards that if he wanted the championship that badly he could have it. The following year wasn't a great one for Ayrton. His car was not as reliable as Prost's, while Prost was by now openly accusing the team and Ron Dennis of favouring Senna over him. Prost and Senna had apparently made a pre-race agreement at San Marino that whoever left the start line first would win the race. Prost got away first but the first start was aborted after Gerhard Berger had an horrific fireball crash at the very same corner that would later take Senna. At the restart Prost again led, but Ayrton passed him and went on to win. Prost never forgave Senna for this, as he felt he'd broken the agreement.

At Suzuka, there was the now famous incident when Prost took Senna out of the race, claiming the championship for himself. Senna restarted but was disqualified for using a piece of 'illegal road to rejoin the race' according to FIA head Jean Marie Balestre. Senna never forgave either Balestre or Prost for what he saw as French favouritism, and had his superlicence suspended until he apologised to both men. Ayrton refused, saying he would go and drive Indycars to which the FIA backed down, knowing that the fans would not like to see Senna not racing.

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Prost joined Ferrari for 1990, partnered by Mansell. Mansell and Prost quickly fell out but not as publicly as Senna and Prost had. Mansell felt that Prost was swinging the team behind him, leaving him with an uncompetitive car. After retirement from the lead of the British Grand Prix, Mansell announced he was retiring from the sport, but later changed his mind.

Meanwhile Senna was mounting a serious challenge for his second world championship, as was Prost, the two men now openly hating each other. At the Belgian race Senna won, but Prost, who finished second nearly refused to go on the podium. Things came to a head in Portugal, when Mansell swerved in front of Prost, forcing the Frenchman to back off, and allowing Mansell and Senna to dominate the race.

Then in Japan, with Prost needing to win and Ayrton with the title in reach, Senna, knowing that if Prost didn't finish the race it would leave him as world champion, rammed Prost out of the race at the first corner.

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The 1991 Ferrari was not a good car. Prost struggled, leaving Senna to win his third world title from Mansell, now driving for Williams whilst Prost was fired by Ferrari for openly criticising the car and team-an unusual accusation, as Prost was always a team player and a clever negotiator. Prost was forced to sit out until 1993 before he returned to fight Senna, this time with Williams.

Senna now had a Ford V8 engine in his McLaren, and Prost easily won his 4th title and then permanently retired, but not before Ayrton had given him a real run for his money. This time around there were no controversial moments, and the season ended with Senna and Prost shaking hands on the podium in Adelaide. When Senna joined Williams, he was open in his admiration for Alain, saying that he missed him and wished him well.

Would Ayrton and Alain have been as great without each other? It was tragic that the two men couldn't sort out their problems properly before Ayrton died. Alain has since said that of all the drivers he enjoyed driving against it was Senna, which shows that although they didn't get on, they at least respected each other.

Villeneuve and Pironi

After Jody Scheckter's retirement at the end of 1980, Enzo Ferrari decided to take a chance on promising Frenchman Didier Pironi. Much to the Ligier team's annoyance, Pironi left for Ferrari for 1981 and came up against Gilles. Gilles trounced Pironi 10-5 in qualifying and outraced and outscored him totally during the season, leaving Pironi, a calculating, shrewd and methodical driver scratching his head. The 126CK was a dog, but Gilles had managed to drag it to 5th in the constructor's championship mostly through his own efforts.

Pironi was head of the Grand Prix Driver's Association and was heavily involved in the FISA/FOCA political battles that threatened the sport in the early 1980's, organising the driver's and mechanic's strike at Zolder in 1981 and the driver's strike in Kyalami in 1982. Gilles liked Pironi as a driver and a friend, and the two often challenged each other to races in their company Ferraris. However, Gilles' wife Joann felt Pironi was not to be trusted.

The 1982 Ferrari was a huge improvemet over the previous cars, and was the best car Ferrari had produced since 1979. Pironi must have felt in with a chance, but early season form suggested that again it would be Villeneuve that would lead the team, possibly to the championship. Because of this desire, the San Marino race was decided by the Ferrari team that if the race was in a position that Ferrari could do well, Gilles would be allowed to take the win, and Pironi must help Villeneuve in his cause. Gilles again outqualified Pironi, but there were only 14 cars entered, as the FOCA teams had decided to boycott the race because of supposed illigalites found by FISA in the FOCA teams' cars.

Arnoux led until his Renault broke down leaving the two Ferraris out in front, but Pironi was not happy with the team orders. Gilles was driving slowly to try and save fuel, and Pironi took advantage of the situation to take the lead. Gilles thought Pironi was putting on a show for the fans, but was surprised how hard he had to fight to get the lead back. On the last lap, Pironi outbraked Villeneuve, then blocked the no.27 Ferrari to the flag.

Gilles' body language on the podium said it all. He was furious at what he saw as being stabbed in the back by his supposedly trustworthy team mate and left the circuit not saying a word to anyone. Later in the week, Autosport reporter Nigel Roebuck, Gilles' friend rang him to talk about the race, and was shocked at how bitter he was about the whole thing. Most of the telephone conversation ended up as an article in the following week's issue of Autosport and Gilles vowed two things 1) To beat Pironi on the track at all times and 2) To never speak to the Frenchman again ever. Villeneuve talked over the situation with his friends Jody Scheckter and James Hunt who both advised him to take it easy, and to think it over carefully before deciding on what to do properly.

Meanwhile the Ferrari team manager, Marco Piccinini and Pironi tried to say that Gilles had had an engine problem which led to Pironi taking the win, but technical boss Mauro Forgerihi confirmed that Gilles' car had had no such problem. Enzo Ferrari came down on Villeneuve's side saying that Pironi had made a mistake and he was sorry for doing what he did. Gilles seriosuly considered leaving Ferrari at the end of the year and joining McLaren, in the position eventually taken by Prost.

The next race was at Zolder in Belgium, and there was no change in Gilles' mood. Still fuming, he went out to beat Pironi's faster time, but on his flying lap, he came up behind Jochen Mass' March moving slowly. Gilles went to the right to pass, but at the last second, Mass went the same way, and Gilles hit the back of the March, and the Ferrari was launched into the air before smashing into the ground and flying into pieces. Gilles was thrown out and he died later that day.

Ferrari withdrew Pironi's car from the race, but as the season went on, it was almost certain Pironi would take the championship, until at Hockenheim, trying to better his pole position time, he hit the back of Prost's Renault, and had an accident frighteningly similar to Gilles'. His legs were shattered and his racing career was over.

Patrick Tambay and Rene Arnoux took over the cars for the rest of the season. Tambay went out in the same race that had laid Pironi low and won it, giving Ferrari a much needed boost. In 1983 Tambay, driving the no.27 Ferrari won the 1983 San Marino race and dedicated the win to his friend Gilles. Both Tambay and Arnoux were in with a realisitc chance of winning the 1983 championship, but reliability problems in the late season cost them both dearly.

Pironi did have a test in an AGS towards the end of 1986, as a way of getting back into F1 and becoming champion, but the lure of powerboat racing had now taken him, and in early 1987, he was attempting to set competitive times in his new boat, when it hit a wake from an oil tanker and the boat flipped, killing Pironi instantly. A sad end to a very dark story between the two drivers.


Just imagine what Gilles could have achieved had he lived. He almost certainly would have been champion in 1982, and had he stayed with Ferrari probably would have won in 1983 as well, judging by Arnoux and Tambay's pace during that season. Had he joined McLaren, he would have been joining them at the start of their great rise to the top. And eventually he would have had Senna as his team mate. A tantalising prospect of what might have been......

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