Friday, 4 May 2012

Senna versus Prost - Malcolm Folley

I recently purchased the Kindle version of Malcolm Folley's book Senna versus Prost.
My appreciation of this book blossomed as my reading of it progressed. Following the first few chapters, I found myself lamenting that it offered little in the way of new information, and the format itself seemed clumsy and confusing. However, as I worked my way through it, it began to make a lot more sense.

The stated remit of this publication, to chronicle the legendary rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, is not always adhered to slavishly, and it often feels more like a re-telling of Formula 1 history in the approximate period 1980-1994.  The text sometimes dwells on issues with only a tenuous or indirect link to the Senna versus Prost dynamic.  To be fair, these tangents often make for enlightening and entertaining reading!

The problem faced by any author seeking to tell the tale of "Senna versus Prost" is that there is very little genuinely new to say, the story having been analysed and committed to paper ad nauseam. However, Folley does a creditable job, taking the trouble to undertake new interviews with many of the key figures, including Prost himself, and also drivers and team personnel who were closely connected to the two men. The input of these individuals, particularly their colourful and amusing "behind the scenes" anecdotes, forms the backbone of the book for me.

Whether or not this book merely retraces old ground will depend to some extent on the vintage of the reader, and also which books and articles they have accessed over the years.  The genuinely new information can be extracted with care.

To his credit, I thought that Folley did a fine job of conveying a sense of how the atmosphere between the two drivers, within the McLaren team, and in the sport generally, gradually became more poisonous, particularly in the period 1989-1993.  It also brought back to me vividly the bitter taste which I felt in my mouth around the time of Suzuka '89.  The egos and back-biting are certainly laid bare here., and some of the memories are unedifying, but compelling nonetheless.  It all makes some of the controversies of more recent times seem tame by comparison.

Surprises?  Well, I thought that the 1990 season overall was given scant coverage, and the actual race in Japan in 1989 was not described as intensively as I expected, though in fairness the off-track aftermath is done justice.

So how do the two drivers emerge from it all?   Prost appeared principled but perhaps naive,  realising too late that in the shape of Senna he was dealing with somebody on a different plane, talent and personality wise, to what he had previously been confronted with.  One could also argue that he was embroiled in just as many, if not more, intrigues as Senna, and with more different team-mates....

The genius and prodigious talent and intensity of Senna are amply outlined, but his flaws are not overlooked, the author largely leaving the words of the Brazilian's contemporaries and rivals to tell the tale.

To hardcore enthusiasts and historians, the treatement of some aspects of this tale might seem overly simplistic and "populist", but for the uninitiated or the casual reader, it will be be different.  This is arguably a cut above your average, run-of-the-mill, Formula 1 pot-boiler.  The book benefits from the passage of time, as this allows a more detached and nuanced assessment, and some key protagonists are willing and able to be more forthcoming, candid and frank with their opinions.  Jo Ramirez, Damon Hill, Martin Brundle and Derek Warwick and others offer cutting opinions and verdicts.

All in all, a good read, but it may well be that the definitive book on the Senna/Prost era has yet to be written....

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