Prost stars in A Night at the Opera


Alain Prost is inducted in to the Motor Sport Hall of Fame

It was another superb evening at the 2014 edition of the Motor Sport Hall of Fame last Wednesday. A more convivial and relaxed event is hard to find. Since 2013 there has been the added bonus of it all taking place amid the wondrous Royal Opera House. Mix in some true greats of the racing world and you have an unforgettable night.

Upon arrival, Tom Kristensen is checking in his coat at the cloakroom, flashing that famous smile to the pretty attendant. She blushes.

Julian Bailey is catching up with old pal Perry McCarthy, no doubt chatting about their 80’s ‘ratpack’ days. The unmistakable frame of Oliver Gavin chews the post-Daytona fat with Gary Watkins, while John Watson surveys the throng…. and the canapés.

“I can’t stay too long but it’s a great event isn’t it,” ‘Wattie’ tells me, between hearty bites in to an exotic savoury parcel. “Nice to see Alain here too. You know, his nickname in 1980 was ‘tadpole’.  Tony ‘Teach’ Jardine (who is also in attendance) used to do mischievous cartoons of Alain and me and exhibit them in the pits for the world to see. Different times ehh!”

Later, Prost graciously name checks ‘Wattie’ as his ‘teacher and brother at McLaren during my debut season in 1980’. Alain also named his second title in 1986 as his most satisfying. That was no surprise as he stealthily took the crown from a squabbling Mansell and Piquet in infinitely superior Williams FW11s with approximately 1000bhp of Honda V6 power on tap. The stealthy Adelaide finale summed up Prost’s cerebral and deft style perfectly. He had velvet gloves that packed a hell of a punch.

“We didn’t have the fastest car, the Williams was better,” Prost told the audience as he accepted his award from his friend Nigel Roebuck. “But we kept going; we had a good team with Keke (Rosberg) and Ron (Dennis). We achieved what we shouldn’t have (the title) and we never gave up. The last race at Adelaide was an unbelievable moment.”

‘Le professeur’ or ‘tadpole’ if you prefer, also reminisced about his legendary fights with 1988/89 McLaren team mate, Ayrton Senna.

“The battle with Ayrton was special, at the time we didn’t know what we had done. But 20 years later people still talk about it. We became close after Adelaide in ’93 and I spoke to him at least once a week. We had private conversations which will remain that way forever.”

Accompanying Alain at the Hall of Fame was Nico, his son. A more pleasant and elegant young man he could not have wished to have raised. Nico continues with the Rebellion Racing team in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2014, this time with a new ORECA LMP1 car.

When Alain arrived in F1, in January 1980, James Hunt had just retired and was carving, somewhat erratically at first, a new career in broadcasting. His son Tom was at the Royal Opera House to accept his late father’s place in the Hall of Fame, speaking eloquently and movingly. The family likeness was striking and for a few minutes it was if James Simon Wallis Hunt was back among us. A great moment and moving too, for Tom was just seven years old when his Dad died.

Ross Brawn was also deservedly inducted to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday night. The outgoing Mercedes F1 team principal looking refreshed and relaxed, as he prepared for a fishing trip to the River Dee! Talk of him coming back to F1 seems odd to me. For the man who has won everything with several legendary teams, including his own, what else does he have to prove or will the lure of the pitlane be just too much, even for this practical engineering and strategic genius?

Ross’ old gaffer at Williams Grand Prix Engineering, Patrick Head, was in attendance to make a speech and introduce a special auction for the Grand Prix Mechanics Charitable Trust in association with RM Auctions. A very worthwhile organisation which looks after racings hardest workers, who are so often overlooked.

Resplendent in a fetching cravat, Head was as engaging as ever and spent much of the evening catching up with his old charge – Prost and also Sir Stirling Moss, whose mere presence adds gravitas to any occasion.

Moss was joined at the event this year by the man whom he replaced in that British Racing green Vanwall VW5, at Aintree in 1957 – Tony Brooks. I asked him if he still got up to Manchester, where he spent much of his youth and studied dentistry. “I seldom do now but when I am there I am amazed with the transformation of the city, especially from what I knew of it way back when. I hear the football clubs are still rather good though ….!”

There were many other highlights. Not least of which was catching up with Perry McCarthy. I quizzed him on some of his heroic F3000 races in the late 80s, particularly at Spa in ’89 where he somehow hauled an ageing Lola T89/50 in to 7th place, ahead of Damon Hill and Eddie Irvine. Hill was admittedly in the wretched Mooncraft MC041.

“I did that with Roger Cowman on ‘a frayed shoestring of a budget’ with some old Lola shitbox,” said the ‘Billericay bullet’. As ever, the conversation ended with him trying to sell me the latest version of his book – Flat Out, Flat Broke*. Classic Pel.

Last but very much not least was a chance to chat to Steve Mason, a name many will not associate with motorsport. Steve is the ridiculously talented musician behind some of this island’s best and most innovative music over the last 15 years. The Beta Band, King Biscuit Time and his latest solo album are rich bodies of work which I have been a fan of for a very long-time. A self-confessed ‘F1 and motorsport’ fanatic. Knowledgeable and interesting, he was a delight to meet.

Over for another year then. As we made for the exit, I saw legendary broadcaster, Andrew Marriott. A man who has made the sport his profession for half a century and fully fits in to the ‘been there, seen it, done it’ club.

“Great isn’t it Sam,” came the familiar dramatic delivery. “Proper night. Lovely atmosphere. Heroes everywhere. Loved it.”

* £9.99 and available from all good retailers. Commission Pel?

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