Fishie They both died in Imola, not Monza, but any such loss is dramatic. The (second) worst part for that poor kid (besides dying…) is that Senna’s death overshadowed his own.
So, remember these two photos?
There is an interesting backstory behind them, and it is related to Sega. As explained above, the guy on these pictures is Alain Prost. He was, throughout the 80’s, the most successful French sports personality of that era because he managed to win four F1 world championships and 51 races (the record at the time) while other French athletes and teams were very good at failing in semi-finals and finals of their respective sports. Keep in mind this all happened at the peak of F1’s popularity and glamour worldwide.
Prost was also not very likeable, in part because he was Senna’s biggest rival, also because he was a douchebag that needed a douchebag mentality to win (see Michael Jordan’s recent doc for reference). Prost was above all sins Not Fun At All. Ayrton Senna was a genius, a wreckless maniac, capable of incredible stunts, impossible comebacks and stunning improvisations. Prost’s success came from his brilliant car tuning before the race, his clever and safe tactics, and his good understanding of F1 rules and how to make the best of potential race restarts or cancellations due to various circumstances. His nickname was “The Professor”. There was nothing romantic about his success, and many French people rooted for Senna instead, because being a winner was less appreciated than being an artist in France, especially back then. So Prost is pretty much the Vegeta of Senna’s story. Their relationship has been extremely complicated as both teammates and rivals, and the famous Senna documentary gleefully made Prost the villain of its narrative for convenience. The truth, as always, is a bit more subtle.
One of Prost’s obsessions throughout the 90’s had been to own and manage his own racing team, in part due to his feud with Senna and his (probably legitimate) perception that their team McLaren and especially their engine provider Honda favored Senna to win (as Senna was much more bankable in Japan). Although Prost never managed to buy a team while he was a driver, he finally bought and operated his own F1 racing team in 1997, three years after his retirement. The problem was, this cost a shitload of money. Even with the support of many French sponsors and industries, Prost needed a backup solution for cash in order to finance that purchase and project. Enters La Tête Dans Les Nuages, or the F1 team that Daytona USA built.
Arcade centers, in the France of the 80’s and 90’s, had pretty much the same reputation as everywhere else. They were seedy, suspicious, and a bit dangerous. The machines did not always work as intended. Some games were clones. Many of the operators had ties to the Underworld. Yada yada.
While on a trip to Japan, a French businessman named Gimond discovered that the situation in Japan was a bit different. There were a few dodgey arcades, sure, but most of them were bright, huge and family-friendly. He started sharing the discovery with some business partners, and they decided to try their chance at this business by introducing family-friendly and safe arcade centers, in the style of the famous Joypolis and Club Sega centers, to the French audience. One of these business partners was Didier Calmels, who happened to have created a short-lived French F1 Team in 1987, Larousse. Through this team, Calmels had not only met with Japanese businessmen (one of their drivers was Suzuki Aguri) but also befriended Alain Prost. So Calmels offered Prost to join their business venture as the famous face of the whole deal. And Prost, via his stunt at his final team Williams, had contacts at Sega thanks to their sponsoring of the team (see hellomrkearns ’s post for reference). Prost, in turn, convinced Sega to partner with them.
So these two pictures you see of Prost playing arcade games, they are not just photos of a celebrity fake-playing arcade games. They are pictures of the owner of that arcade center on its opening night. Prost was a big part of the initial promotion, and that arcade center called La Tête Dans Les Nuages (“head in the clouds”) was mind-blowing at the time. Its “Centre Sega” (the proper video game section of the venue) had by far the best lineup ever seen in France, and all the latest Sega games and arcade machines from Japan, right in the middle of Paris. The centerpiece was the 8 connected units of Daytona USA (they even had a few tournaments there) and, shown in one of Prost’s pics, quite an amazing deluxe set-up for Sega Rally with four connected units. There were tons of other games there, a diverse fighting game crowd, some weird stuff like Prop Cycle, two R360s and the AS-1… All this thanks to a dude who wanted to create his own F1 team to whoop Ayrton Senna’s ass.
The business venture was very successful early on. Prost invested in 1993, the first arcade center opened in April 1995, and they entered the stock market in 1997 with a huge windfall for the initial investors. Prost owned 10% and made a lot of bucks from the stock market introduction, which allowed him to finalize the purchase of the F1 team he wanted.
Things went south pretty much immediately after that. They opened way too many centers in France (25 in three years), Sega bolted away as an official partner because they were struggling in the home console business, and Prost Grand Prix (the F1 team) was a complete failure. The stock price of La Tête Dans Les Nuages tanked very quickly, Prost bailed out of the business around the turn of the century, and I think all but two (or maybe just one) arcade center still exists. But the original one in the center of Paris is still open, if nowhere else. It’s not the marvel of new machines it used to be. Then again, arcade games are not what they used to be. Shit, F1 is not what it used to be. But there was a brief moment when all the stars aligned and that weird, risky, ultimately doomed adventure makes Prost much more likeable to me.