Wee Frenchman the biggest wheel on world auto racing circuit

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Alain Prost, the diminutive French race car driver known as the ``Professor,'' is teaching the Grand Prix circuit a lesson and rewriting the Formula One history books. Having engineered a shrewd come-from-behind victory in this year's Adelaide Grand Prix before 800 million television viewers worldwide, Prost became the first driver in more than a quarter century to win the overall championship two years running. In a riveting, 4-second triumph ahead of two-time world champion Nelson Piquet of Brazil, Prost clinched the 25th Grand Prix win of his career, surpassing Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary five-time world champion. The Frenchman is now even in the record books with such greats as retired Austrian driver Niki Lauda and the late Jim Clark of Scotland - and only three wins away from eclipsing Jackie Stewart's record of 27 Grand Prix victories. At the rate he is accelerating, Prost could well achieve that milestone by the end of next year.

Ironically, it was only a few years ago that cheeky pit mechanics scribbled ``Tadpole'' (for little frog) on the side of Prost's car. Today, however, they all respectfully call him ``Professor'' - not so much for for his bushy Einstein haircut as for his sheer brilliance as a tactician on the race course. Prost is a private, religious man with a cheerful spirit and quiet wit. The other Formula One drivers speak admiringly of his ``remarkable reserve of stamina'' and ``single-mindedness.''

Prost happens to drive a car that fits his personality, a British McLaren Formula One with a Porsche V-6 twin turbo engine; it may not be the fastest in sheer qualifying time, but it's highly reliable and fuel efficient.

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Like his car, Prost is the epitome of smoothness going around the track. Never reckless, always calculating, Prost drives like a grandmaster of chess, visualizing his opponents' moves and his own possible mechanical failures in advance. Twice this year, Prost's computerized fuel gauge went on the blink, yet he had mentally worked out his fuel consumption to the last drop and took the checkered flag just as his tank ran dry.

Prost is called the ``thinking man's driver,'' but the ``Professor'' never let books come between him and his education; in fact, he never found time to finish high school. Born in 1955 in the French provincial town of St. Chamond south of Lyon, Prost bought his first Go-Kart at age 16 with $100 he earned working in his father's furniture store. After leaving school, he studiously pursued a career in racing, was crowned European karting champion at age 18, and was awarded a scholarship from the French Automobile Federation to attend the prestigious Winfield racing school in England.

From then on, Prost's life was in the passing lane. In 1976, he won a remarkable 12 of 13 Formula Renault Challenge races and three years later was named European Formula Three champion. At his 1980 Formula One debut in Argentina, Prost finished sixth, becoming one of the few Formula One drivers ever to score points in their first race. Fittingly, his first Formula One victory came in the French Grand Prix, driving for his country's Renault team.

Prost's ascent in the standings was steady and relentless. He finished fifth in overall points in 1981 and fourth in 1982. In 1983 and '84, he came within two points and a half point, respectively, of grabbing the championship. Last year, after winning five of the 16 Grand Prix races during the eight-month season, he finally finished in first place, becoming the only Frenchman ever to win the world title.

The victory was bittersweet for France, because at the time Prost was not only piloting an English-designed car with a German engine, but he was neither driving for Renault nor living in France. Two years earlier, Prost had defected to the English McLaren team after a bitter dispute with Renault management and eventually moved to St. Croix, Switzerland, with his wife, Anne-Marie, and three-year-old son, Nicholas.

Prost returns frequently to his homeland, where he owns a golf course near Dijon with his closest friend, French Formula One driver Jacques Lafitte.

This year, Prost wrote his way into the Formula record books in Adelaide with classic professorial style. Adelaide, the world's fastest street circuit, was the last of the 1986 Grand Prix races, and the championship came down to a three-man duel between Prost, Piquet, and Englishman Nigel Mansell, all separated by no more than seven points.

Mansell had led the standings since July, having swept Grand Prix events in Belgium, Canada, France, Britain, and Portugal. He needed only to finish third in Adelaide to win the championship and was the favorite. But Piquet, with victories in Brazil, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, and Prost, who had San Marino and Monaco to his credit, were both ready to pounce if they got the chance.

So it all came down to the 300-kilmeter, 82-lap race through the gumtree-lined streets of Adelaide, known as Australia's ``City of Churches.'' Mansell had the pole position at the starting line, but Prost's teammate Keke Rosberg quickly jumped into the lead. Piquet and Mansell trailed in second and third place, with Prost relegated to a distant fourth.

The pavement was wet and slippery and the race boiled down to tire strategy. Prost conservatively pulled into the pits to change tires early in the race while the rest of the field gambled to go the distance. On the 62nd lap, Rosberg blew a tread and was forced to withdraw. One lap later, barreling 200 m.p.h. down the Brabham Straight, Mansell's left rear tire exploded in a spectacular shower of sparks. He, too, dropped out, dashing his championship hopes.

The last 20 laps were electric with tension. Piquet held the lead and was left to battle the persistent Prost close behind. But thanks to his shrewd earlier move, the Frenchman was driving on new tires. When Piquet pulled into the pits to avoid the mishap that knocked out Mansell and Rosberg, Prost took the lead, nosing out the Brazilian at the finish line to win the race and the championship.

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