Between them, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost accounted for seven World Championships and 78 grands prix victories. So why is it, when we look back, that neither of them was ever regarded as the fastest man of his era? Or that they were overshadowed on that score in their day by Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt, in Jackie's case, and Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna in Alain's. They were the most successful men of their time, yet now that is sometimes dismissed in a derogatory manner by those who remind us, “Yeah, but Rindt/or Senna was faster.”
Both were the perfect proof that fast and successful don't always amount to the same thing.
Forty years ago Stewart scored his 27th and final victory, fittingly at the Nurburgring, and by the end of the tragic season of 1973 had retired with his third World Champion's trophy in the cabinet.
Twenty years later, Prost – having surpassed Jackie's record with a 28th win in Portugal six years earlier – took his final victory in Germany and his fourth champion's crown before making way at Williams for Senna.
It was the ever-amusing Frank Gardner who once said: “I didn't necessarily want to be the quickest driver in the business, though I certainly wanted to be the oldest…”
In some minds, neither Stewart nor Prost deserve the accolades heaped upon Clark or Rindt or Villeneuve or Senna. Let's say it, death immortalized that quartet. They were all seen as dashing heroes who all needed to be the fastest, to be running out front. With the exception of Clark, who had the least flamboyant style of the four, they were all crowd pleasers because of their dramatic style. Jochen's car control was always evident, as was Gilles'. And you could see the way Ayrton could make a racecar dance and vibrate.
I was in the Williams garage in South Africa at the end of second qualifying for the first race of the year in 1993. It was Prost's first race for a team whose proprietors adored the likes of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell who wore their raw speed like a badge of honor. Jonesey was a man's man, hard in everything he did. Keke would stub out his cigarette and then lap Silverstone at 160mph. Mansell would drag a time out of the car with his iron will and unbelievable strength. They were old school heroes, and Frank and Patrick lapped it all up.
Honestly? They looked bored by Prost that afternoon, and, with Senna fastest in the McLaren Ford, they were impatient. Frank was stony-faced, Patrick's blood pressure looked as it if was rising by the second. The car with which Mansell had wiped the floor with everyone in 1992, and which had been improved, was not being driven in the manner they had expected of their new driver. Senna had lapped in 1m 15.784s and time was running out. The lap Prost was on didn't look any quicker. Then suddenly the time flashed up: 1m 15.696s. Frank and Patrick were on pole, and their jaws dropped in surprise.
But that was Alain. And it was Jackie, too. Perhaps it's no surprise that in later life, both would pen excellent books on how to drive fast. And pitching a car through a corner on tire-smoking, crowd-pleasing, oversteer-controlling opposite lock had no part in their philosophy. They were both superbly disciplined drivers intent on doing the job effectively and efficiently, which meant spending as little time as possible going sideways, and getting everything out of themselves and their equipment in the smoothest possible manner. They carved every one of their fast laps with surgical precision, without the need to demonstrate to spectators how difficult it was to perform up there on the high wire. Dammit, they made it look easy, and therein lay the confirmation of their skill. But to some they were also boring to watch.
When he was in his mid-50s, Jackie drove me around Oulton Park in a Ford Escort Cosworth. Let me tell you, he was quick…and he was as smooth as silk. Two other F1 drivers were there that day; Johnny Herbert was quick, but he got his speed a different way as he frequently hammed it up with his shattered feet, while Jonathan Palmer found his pace with the finesse of a butcher dismembering a side of beef.
Neither Stewart nor Prost fitted the mold of the rugged race driver, cheating death with a smile on their lips. They were thinkers who were all too aware of the risk. “In bed one night, Helen and I were counting up how many people we had lost, close friends, to racing,” Jackie once told me. “We stopped counting when we got to 50…”
How chilling does that sound in today's era? But it all went so much deeper than that. These were their friends, people with whom they spent much of their time on the road, with whom they lived, loved and laughed, taken suddenly and violently. The Stewarts saw all the anguish at the closest quarters. Helen was always by Jackie's side, his succor in such moments of tragedy, and as brave in her own way as he was. Many times she would be the one who had to clear the dead man's hotel room.
At the height of Jackie's safety crusade – which was born as much from anger at the senseless waste of young lives as it was his own brush with death at Spa in 1966 when he was trapped in his damaged BRM – he was branded a “milk and water” racer by Motor Sport magazine's Denis Jenkinson. The latter had partnered world champion Eric Oliver in sidecar racing and won the Mille Miglia as Stirling Moss's navigator in 1955 and therefore had some right to such an extreme view, but it was nonetheless ridiculous. And Stewart would still take pole positions and wins at tracks that he regarded as dangerous. Driving the hefty BRM H16 one-handed at Spa in 1967, while holding the beast in gear with the other hand, he was beaten only by Dan Gurney's Eagle. Was that the performance of a wimp? I think not.
What people forget about Prost is that in his early years, especially after Gilles' death in May 1982, he was the wild man who set the pace for Renault and sometimes, such as at Zandvoort in 1983 when he collided inadvertently with Nelson Piquet, the impetuous one. But today more recall him giving up in the wet at Silverstone in 1988, and again in the deluge that was Adelaide in '89. He was panned for that, for such behavior surely was not befitting a real racer?
“I don't mind racing in the wet,” he explained, “but it makes no sense whatsoever to me when you cannot see. I remember what happened to Didier [Pironi] when he did not see me in the spray at Hockenheim in 1982. The people who criticize me don't remember that.”
Neither Prost nor Stewart needed to display their egos while driving. Jackie adored Juan Manuel Fangio and was a disciple of the great Argentine's philosophy of winning at the slowest possible speed. (Interestingly, perhaps because to do so would have been infra dig in his era, Fangio was never criticized for that.)