Meeting a Formula 1 legend the day before a race could be fraught with tension. At that level – indeed, with any professional sportsperson – they go into a state of mind that mere mortals cannot comprehend. But the driver I’m meeting is semi-retired, and any tension would concern his son’s upcoming performance. The legend is Alain Prost.
All I need to do to put him into context, if F1 history isn’t your thing, is to cite two numbers: 51 career wins and four championship titles, a record bettered only by Michael Schumacher, with Juan Manuel Fangio having one more championship to his credit. This makes Prost genuine F1 royalty, and – still young at 61 – he remains passionate about the sport.
He’s also passionate about watches. It was watches that brought about this meeting, because Richard Mille is the partner of e.dams-Renault team, co-owned by Prost, and the brand supports the team’s drivers, Sébastien Buemi and Prost’s son Nicolas. With such a grand name in motor racing brought to Formula E – it’s like someone called Breguet or Ditisheim joining your watch company – the new race series acquires unassailable credibility, as well as a sage adviser.
“I knew about Richard Mille’s watches for many years,” said Prost, “because, yes, I am a ‘watch guy’. I have had so many – and I’ve also suffered a couple of robberies.” Among the watches he lost is a Rolex “Paul Newman” Cosmograph Daytona. The wry smile that accompanied him telling me this shows just how cool he is, in the sense of being in total control.
A Winning Formula
His expertise over 13 seasons is now being applied to Formula E, which also attracted Mille’s support – and the man and the brand are involved, too, in F1, sports car racing and other motorsports – because Formula E addresses the environment, energy and performance. For Mille, “the spirit of innovation and research pushing the limits of extreme performance” that motivates the Formula shares an obvious link to his approach to horology, for the brand is one of the most adventurous when it comes to using new materials.
Prost is happy to explain how the hugely visible F1 – one of the world’s three or four most watched sports – differs from Formula E. “In fact, everything is different – you’re talking about the car, the whole concept. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of the sport, the best of the performance, the best quality. They are going to read between the lines of the rules to make it better.
“Formula E is a competition that goes to city circuits, so they cannot compare. Obviously, Formula 1 goes to Monaco – Long Beach or Detroit in the past, Singapore today – but the tradition is very different. The car by itself is almost considered a prototype.” Prost pointed out that modern Grand Prix cars have a direct evolutionary line back to the 1950s.
Telling of Prost’s personality, and why he is both one of the most respected and best-loved of all the F1 drivers was a revealing observation about this new venture. “The philosophy that you need to have about Formula E is humility.” This introduces his clarification of the key point of Formula E: it is heart and soul about the improvement of clean, green electric power.
“We don’t do the same things [as F1]: We don’t develop the chassis, we have very strict rules because we don’t want to spend too much money and, if we do spend, it has to be on the technology – electrical parts, engine, batteries. We don’t want to spend too much on aerodynamics or brakes.” Unspoken, that seemed to suggest no profligacy like the advertising budgets, prize money or driver deification that F1 can afford.
“It’s a different philosophy. We are learning, it’s a sport, we have a fantastic championship, but it’s almost an excuse to develop this technology. But I said ‘humility’ – we are at the beginning, we just race and develop at the same time.”
For Richard Mille, this championship provides the brand with an association with teams like e.dams, sharing an opportunity to present innovations in electric power, and to further the development of new technologies that can be adapted to future generations of automobiles, and possibly, too, to other battery-powered devices. The nascent glamour of Formula E adds pizazz to a field where otherwise the public wouldn’t notice: how much sizzle is there when a company announces longer battery life in a mobile phone?
Paris Is Calling
On 23 April 2016, the first ever Paris Formula E Grand Prix was held on the esplanade before Hôtel des Invalides, with a massive 18,000 spectators turning out for the event on a circuit that must be one of the most picturesque in motor racing history. Both of e.dams-Renault’s drivers finished well, Sébastien Buemi fighting his way from an eighth place start to a third place podium finish, behind Brazilian Lucas Di Grassi and Frenchman Jean-Éric Vergne. Nicolas Prost finished fourth.
Following this historic first ever Paris E-Prix, conducted within sight of Napoleon Bonaparte’s final resting place in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, e.dams-Renault, defending World Champion constructor, now leads the Team Championship with 165 points. In the driver category, Sébastien Buemi is in 2nd place and Nicolas Prost is 6th.
Alain Prost, and co-owner of e.dams-Renault Jean-Paul Driot, was delighted with these results, that the numbers guys among you will note was a race against the clock, over the 14-turn, 1.93km circuit winding around the Hôtel des Invalides.
“Before this weekend, I thought we might not be able to pull off such a good showing,” said Prost. “But, given the pressure we were under, and the problems we had with tyre temperature during qualifying sessions, finishing the race without losing points in the Team category was already a good thing. And it’s great for Sébastien, who is still a favourite for the championship, to be on the podium, especially here at home, in France. Nicolas also turned in a strong performance, so we are pleased overall.”
Considering that France is one of the oldest participants in motor racing, it’s intriguing to note that its capital had never before hosted a Grand Prix race. Mille said: “Two years ago, when we signed with the e.dams team owners Jean-Paul Driot and Alain Prost, the championship was still in its infancy. No one had anticipated its phenomenal success worldwide, from London to Shanghai via Miami.” If you want to know, then, how the formula is doing, chew on this thought: Grand Prix racing – what is now F1 – started almost a century ago. Its modern incarnation followed the Second World War. And yet it took Formula E – the most advanced form of electric car racing yet devised – to present the first-ever race on the streets of Paris.