Scuderia Ferrari 1991: ‘Annus Horribilis’

Published on Thursday, September 26, 2019.
Updated on Monday, September 30, 2019.
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Let’s start at the end. After the penultimate race of the 1991 season, Alain Prost was fired from the Scuderia Ferrari for criticising publicly his single-seater, saying to the press at the end of the GP of Japan, “a truck would be easier to drive than this car…”. He would be replaced by Gianni Morbidelli for the final race of the 1991 season.

The only Frenchman to ever win the Formula 1 Driver’s Championship, Alain Prost is a four time World Champion: 1985, 1986, 1989 & 1993, 51 career victories to his account, 33 poles, 41 fastest laps, 106 podiums in 13 seasons. He is amongst the greatest drivers of all time.

Granted, 1991 was Prost’s worst season since joining Formula 1 in 1980. He held three World Championship titles already at the time he arrived at Ferrari from McLaren-Honda at the end of 1989 season, having won his third title that year after the acrimonious accident involving his teammate Ayrton Senna.

Their rivalry, that had started as teammates at McLaren, continued into the 1990 season after Prost become the first new driver to be hired by the Scuderia since Enzo Ferrari’s death in August 1988. It is funny to note that Prost was instrumental in McLaren hiring Senna for the 1988 season. He hoped no doubt at the time that Senna’s experience with the Honda Turbocharged motor while at Lotus would reap benefits for McLaren but he also probably felt that having one of the most talented drivers as his teammate would raise the game of the whole team.

We all remember that 1990 saw the repeat of the crash incident at Suzuka. Going into the race, the 15th of 16 that year, Senna with 10 pole positions and 6 race victories at McLaren, was leading Prost at Ferrari (with 5 wins) by only a few points. This time Prost lost out as Senna clinched the title by eliminating Prost from points in Japan, securing a margin that Prost couldn’t make up with only one race left in the season, thus squashing Ferrari’s hopes for even at least a driver’s title that year.

Prost’s pattern of conflict followed him through his whole career. His contentious behaviour with Nigel Mansell discouraged the English driver enough to cause him to return to Williams in 1991 after his year besides Prost at Ferrari, freeing his seat for Jean Alesi to take. The well recounted story that Prost got the Scuderia to give him Mansell’s car for the British Grand Prix because of the obvious speed advantage that Mansell’s car had is comprehensibly discouraging. Mansell was so disgusted by the whole lot, his first instinct was to hang it up and go golfing for good. Fortunately for him (and us) he hung it out and Williams finally picked him up (meeting all of his very ‘impossible’ demands).

Let’s not forget as well the tumultuous time that Prost spent at Renault in 1982 and 1983. Angry that the Renault engineers couldn’t perfect well enough his auto to ensure his title victory, he raked the team over the coals, criticising them openly in the press. He was subsequently asked by Renault to find a new seat to park his rear-end for the 1984 season. Perhaps Prost already had a team in view and his remarks were simply to force Renault to take action against him.

Prost left McLaren because he was out driven and out played by Senna. Honda, McLaren, Ron Dennis, and most likely the whole outfit, preferred the Brazilian’s ability and how he acted as a real team player, winning yes, but putting the team first. Prost expected the team to respond to his needs and demands, the way he saw fit.

His decision to depart to Ferrari had to be based on a belief that he could win the title in 1990 with the Scuderia. Pundits at the time gave him good odds at achieving this. The Ferrari 641 was expected to be a contender. It was up to Prost to drive it to the championship. Obviously, he was at the cusp of executing his plan. But karma got the best of him since he was at a slight point deficit to Senna when Senna deliberately ended Prost’s 1990 season at turn one of the Japanese Grand Prix. Tilt, game over.

Furious that Senna would do to him what he had done to Senna in 1989, he had to make up the loss in 1991. Alesi wouldn’t be a challenging teammate that Mansell was so he could concentrate all his efforts in defeating the outside competition. But the 642 and then the 643 just were not up to snuff. The year started out badly and then progressively got worse. Prost most certainly contributed to the heated, conflictual, internal battles within the Scuderia that year. First, after the Monaco Grand Prix, the sporting director for Ferrari, Cesare Fiorio, left in anger. Apparently already on his way out, Monaco was the last straw. Prost begin to rant about the general lack of competitiveness within the Scuderia as the wheels began to fall off the season.

Keep in mind that Ferrari had not won a constructor’s title since 1983 nor a Driver’s title since 1979…so the pressure was mounting within the Scuderia to win. Prost became available due to the internal leaning within McLaren (where Prost had been since 1984) in favour of Ayrton Senna. Ferrari was making a big bet on Prost. For Ferrari, 1990 was supposed to be a breakout year, yet it ended rancorously in turn number one at Suzuka. Some inheritance!

The other teams were not sitting on their laurels. Ferrari had pushed hard to see the return to normally aspirated engines so that they could return to the V12. By 1991 however the Renault V10 was smaller, lighter, more powerful and more fuel efficient. There was nothing that Prost could do to win. The 642 model was inaffective and the 643, its successor introduced at the French GP, was worse. Ferrari didn’t win a single race; Prost didn’t make a single pole.

Credit should be given (maybe) to Prost for the disruption that he caused. The result of the quarrelling and infighting was the (re)hiring of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. And his subsequent initiative to hire of Jean Todt. The rest we all know.

Some say that Prost entered Ferrari at the end of 1989 with his third title in hand and with plans to win at least a forth with Ferrari and then to become team manager of the Scuderia after 1992. Perhaps all that was in his contract. And apparently he got paid to stay home in 1992 as part of his dispensation for being ‘laid off’. In any event, he came back at Williams in 1993 and had the very best (and last) year of his career, taking home his 4th Driver’s World Championship title. Annus Mirabilis !

Daniel Brooks

Daniel is a contributor for Forbes France writing texts in French language for their daily newsletter and trimestrial print editions.  His articles cover the classic automobile market as well as luxury and lifestyle of classic automobile collectors.

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