Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, December 11, 1993

So Hard on Prost, Racing Pulls a Punch for Senna

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The International Automobile Federation's decision to give Ayrton Senna a suspended two-race ban for a fight with a fellow driver after the Japanese Grand Prix proves that in auto racing, the word is stronger than the fist.

At the beginning of the 1993 Formula One season, Alain Prost was under threat of a four-race ban for using words to criticize the governing bodies of Formula One. Senna's offense, for which he was reprimanded Thursday, took the form of a fistfight when he felt that Eddie Irvine, a driver from Northern Ireland, was driving recklessly.

Had Prost in the past season punched anyone on or near the race track, there is little doubt he would have been out of the running for what became his record fourth driver's title.

There is little doubt because the threat of missing four races was only one of the governing body's many attacks on Prost in a year that proved so fraught with obstacles that the Frenchman announced his retirement even before he gained the drivers' crown.

Before the season started, there was a debate at FISA, which has since been dissolved into the FIA, as to whether Prost should be awarded his superlicense, which all Formula One drivers must have to race. It was a strange thing to be wondering about, given that the man had won more Grand Prix races than anyone in history. But it would have made it a much easier season for certain other drivers if one of the toughest competitors wasn't there driving the best car.

The superlicense was granted, however, and Prost came into the season showing that he was still there, and all of a piece, after a year's sabbatical: He won the first race of the season, South Africa.

That was when they held the little trial to rap his knuckles for criticizing them while he was on his year's sabbatical. FISA wanted to ban Prost from up to four Grand Prix races for having spoken his mind while he was not even a driver.

The trial's conclusion was that Prost was allowed to continue the season after all, but he had to be careful about what he said in future.

But at the Grand Prix of Monaco, where Prost desperately wanted to win the title for his fifth time and for his team's first time, he won the pole position, key in Monaco, where it is very hard to pass.

This appeared to be an invitation to the rule-makers to penalize him. The officials said Prost jumped the green light by about a tenth of a second at the start. So, after leading for several laps, Prost was called into the pits to wait out a penalty of 10 seconds. Senna won, but Prost ended in 4th place.

With Senna five points ahead of him in the championship after Monaco, Prost's enemies must have felt content.

But they decided to make sure that the Frenchman did not get any ideas, so before the next race, the Canadian Grand Prix, they came up with their next ploy: Track stewards in Montreal reported that 24 of the 26 cars were technically illegal and should not be racing.

Until mid-July, Prost was threatened with losing points that he had gained in several Grand Prix races at which his car was charged with apparently illegal fuel. He risked losing his coveted 50th Grand Prix victory, not to mention his place in the drivers' standings.

Then the rule-makers decided he could keep the points after all. The fuel was maybe not really illegal.

But there remained the active suspension. Prost's Williams-Renault team cars, unlike all the others, could not be converted to traditional suspension with a flick of a switch, as the Williams cars are constructed specifically for the suspension as opposed to having it just slapped on. If they laid down the law, only Prost's team would have been out for at least three races while they built a new car.

This would have done Prost in. But all the teams decided in a meeting just before the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim that Formula One could not maintain its reputation if the rules were changed in mid-season to the detriment of people like Prost and his team. FISA put off enforcement of the rules until the 1994 season.

So after the meeting, as soon as Prost took the lead on the eighth lap at Hockenheim, he was commanded into the pits for another stop-go 10 second penalty that ended up costing him 35 seconds, since he stalled his motor.

Prost was penalized for a brilliant demonstration of lucidity early in the race when many cars were skidding about on the bumpy track. He drove off an S-curve to avoid being sliced in half by Martin Brundle's Ligier-Renault, which was skidding out of control in his direction.

The rule-makers said he was taking a shortcut to save time.

Prost won the race, but only after his teammate, Damon Hill, in the lead, blew a tire two laps from the end.

So the fates were with Prost, not to mention his genius, and he won the fourth drivers' title against the odds and the rule-makers.

But since Prost has announced his retirement and Senna next season will be taking his Williams-Renault, the atmosphere has changed in Formula One.

The rules have become foggy again and may allow Williams-Renault to keep its active suspension. It is written that active suspension may be allowed if it is not used to affect the aerodynamics of the car. But it was invented to affect the aerodynamics of the car, to keep it at the same level off the track as much of the time as possible.

And now FIA's "sentencing" of Senna proves also that the sport's governing body is turning a tolerant eye on driver comportment. Or perhaps not. A driver may act as he pleases, but if he is outspoken instead of resorting to the fist, he may be banned from not two, but four races. But probably only in the form of a suspended sentence.

It looks like the 1994 Grand Prix season is shaping up to be at least as interesting as the last one. Or at least for the season's leading driver, Senna, who now has, like his predecessor Prost, the FIA's sword of Damocles over his head.

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