In 1973, the short-wheelbase Tyrrell 006/2 was a tricky little car to handle, but if you knew how to do it you could get a lot of speed out of it. The sweetly progressive Lotus 72 was arguably better – Emerson Fittipaldi still maintains it was the greatest racecar he ever drove, while the McLaren M23 was still being developed but was a more sanitized and stronger version of the Lotus. Taken across the season, they were the three most consistent pacesetters, with cameo roles from BRM, Surtees and the Hesketh March.
The title came down to Stewart versus Lotus, and the myth is that he made hay while Emerson and Ronnie Peterson stole points from one another. That doesn't quite stack up, however, since reliability (and Fittipaldi's bad crash at Zandvoort) ultimately hampered Lotus. Peterson failed to finish in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Canada, should have won in Sweden and eventually did in France, Austria, Italy and America. Fittipaldi, meanwhile, won in Argentina and Brazil, then Spain, and was on the podium in South Africa, Belgium, Monaco, Italy and Canada, but failed to finish in Sweden, France, Britain, Holland and Austria.
Stewart by contrast was consistency itself, in what only he, Ford's Walter Hayes and team owner Ken Tyrrell knew would be his final season. He informed them of that in April, but never drove like a man on a countdown mission. He had recovered fully from the mononucleosis which affected him in 1972, and won in South Africa (despite being charged with uncharacteristically passing under a yellow flag), Belgium, Monaco Holland and Germany, and was on the podium in Argentina, Brazil and Austria.
“I spent the year maximizing what we had,” he admits. “But also I had this tightrope act to play with Francois [Cevert, his teammate]. He was very quick that year, but he was getting itchy feet and Ferrari was courting him strongly for 1974. I knew that I would be retiring and that he would become Ken's number one driver that season, but I couldn't tell him that because I couldn't tell him I was retiring. Even Helen didn't know! I kept gently telling him he needed one more year alongside me at Tyrrell…”
Stewart never had any problem acknowledging his young teammate's speed, or that there were races in 1973 where the Parisian had been faster than him. He was even reluctantly mulling over a request from Tyrrell to let the younger man win at Watkins Glen, should the opportunity present itself.
“At some races towards the end he was quicker than I was, though he wasn't always able to do it on a repeating basis. I knew that I was going to be leaving the destiny of Ken's team in safe hands. I think he would have won the championship in 1974.”
Instead, Cevert died on the Saturday afternoon during practice at Watkins Glen. When Ken Tyrrell withdrew as a mark of respect, Stewart's racing career came to its end in desperately sad circumstances.
Twenty years on, Prost went into his final season under media attack, portrayed as the man who had snatched away Mansell's winning ride while keeping poor old Senna out of the team.
“After what I had gone through with him alongside me at McLaren, could they really blame me for that?” he asked, amazed that so many took Senna's side in the argument.
Then there was that massively embarrassing defeat in the changeable weather at Donington, on one of Senna's greatest days. As Alain sat relating his litany of woes at the end, a beaten third in the best car in the field, Ayrton had sadistically made him a laughing stock with the comment: “Perhaps you should change cars with me…”
There were many who felt that, while he wasn't exactly going through the motions, Prost was not pushing the limits in 1993. They pointed to rookie partner Damon Hill's speed in the FW15, and to an extent that was true. Alain was following his diktat of driving just as fast as he needed to. Ayrton, meanwhile was driving his heart out in a slower car. Guess who the hero was?
Alain was unfairly penalized in Monaco and Germany and robbed by mechanical failures of wins in Hungary and Italy. He did deliver victory in South Africa, San Marino, Spain, Canada, France, Britain and Germany, and was on the podium in Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Japan and Australia. However, despite such success, his final title is largely dismissed as the season in which he was shooting fish in a barrel while Senna was “unfairly” forced to race an inferior car. But one of the arts of a champion is to get himself into the right car at the right time, and unquestionably Prost did that and did enough with it to justify his final success.
“We did find it a little difficult to adjust to a driver who did not feel the need to be fastest in every session,” admits Patrick Head, who had always championed head-down chargers, “but after a while we realized that Alain had his own way of doing things. And that it could be pretty effective…”
So why is it that the man in the street frequently fails to accord either Stewart or Prost their due respect as pure racers, and tends to pigeon-hole them instead as artists while decrying their lack of raw speed? Certainly, Prost got his backside into some great cars, notably the 1983 Renault, the Dennis-Barnard era McLarens, the Ferrari 641 and the Williams FW15, but the same can hardly be said of Stewart. The 1965 BRM P261 was as much a jewel as the P83 H16 was a truck, the March 701 was awful, and the Tyrrells, while quick, were never the best cars. The one outstandingly great machine he drove was the Matra MS80 of 1969, in which he won the first of his three World Championships.
Perhaps it's as simple as Stewart's safety crusade upsetting some who have long memories, and Prost's low profile and defensiveness in his Senna period created images that insiders know to be unfair. Certainly, Stewart is as charismatic, albeit in a different way, as Mario Andretti, and both he and Prost were gentlemen at all times in the way they performed on the track (Suzuka 1989 notwithstanding). Maybe it's just that sports fans often prefer those perceived as underdogs which, once they had hit their stride in decent machinery, Stewart and Prost most assuredly were not.
Both were sensational in the early stages of their careers when they were still rising stars. Jackie won at Monza in his first season, 1965; Alain won with Renault in his second, at Dijon in '81. Stewart was as fast as Clark and Rindt, or later Fittipaldi, Peterson and Jacky Ickx. But where he wisely quit while he was on top, Prost bravely accepted Senna into McLaren at a time when he had reached his peak and the young Brazilian was ready to do to him what Prost had himself done to Niki Lauda in 1984/'85. The biggest difference between Prost and Senna was that when they were teammates, one was hungrier – and therefore more inclined to take massive risks – than the other. Prost at his best versus Senna at his? There'd be nothing to choose between them, in my opinion.
Both Stewart and Prost could certainly match the pace of their rivals. Remember that fabulous British GP in 1969 when Stewart traded fastest race laps with Rindt as they fought for the lead, or how Prost stunned Senna in the opening laps of their fated duel at Suzuka in the 1989 Japanese GP. No, there was never a case for this pair lacking speed. It's much more about their subtle manner of delivery and the fact that they went flat out only when they deemed it necessary; their one-in-four victory rate and seven World Championships would suggest they struck the right balance for success.
Most of all, though, we should rejoice that they're still around today to talk about it.