Alain Prost had been on the radar of the Formula One teams since 1977 after his impressive performances in Formula Renault and Formula Three. He had cautiously refused several drives from minor teams, confidently waiting until he could prove himself in the minor categories before moving into Formula One with a top team.
In 1979, following his dominace in Formula Three, the top teams finally began to take notice. He held talks with team principals Bernie Ecclestone and Teddy Mayer for drives at Brabham and McLaren respectively. Ever cautious in his negotiations, Prost turned down an offer from Teddy Mayer to race for McLaren in a third car at the 1979 United States Grand Prix West. Prost, not knowing the car or the track was unwilling to race and possibly hamper his credibility.
Following his rejection of the drive at the US Grand Prix, Teddy Mayer had switched his attention to American star, Kevin Cogan for the 1980 drive. However team sponsor, Marlboro still preferred Prost for the drive. On 29th November 1979, Mayer staged a shootout at the Le Castellet circuit between the two drivers for the seat. Prost dominated Cogan in his first drive in an F1 car. McLaren's lead driver John Watson commenting on Prost, "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see how good he was. The difference between him and Cogan was night and day".
The car that Prost and Watson would be driving in 1980, the McLaren M29 had been debuted mid-way through 1979. The car whilst capable of scoring in the points, often had significant aero issues and was not of the championship winning material, McLaren had developed in the past. Prost had joined the team amidst the political turmoil that invoked the team during its transition period under the old management of Teddy Mayer to its new ownership under Ron Dennis.
Nonetheless, the team was still capable of allowing Prost to make a strong first impression. Ahead of his first race in Buenos Aires, his old Formula Three boss Hugues de Chaunac had telegrammed him, asking him to "bring him a point" in his first race. The weekend started well when he qualified twelfth, five places ahead of teammate Watson. Whilst Watson retired, he ran a quiet race, nursing his McLaren that had a badly damaged skirt to a sixth place finish. The demanding Argentine circuit was a notorious car breaker but Prost was able to successfully keep his car running to score a points finish on his first attempt. Upon finishing the race, a delighted De Chanac telegrammed him, saying "Bring me two!" for the next event in Interlagos, Brazil.
Prost continued to impress in Brazil, teammate Watson had continued to struggle, the more experienced man was unable to get the car to work like Prost had. Prost was thirteenth on the grid whilst Watson was twenty third. Prost then led another calm and collected race, as cars ahead of him dropped out he had worked his way up to seventh behind the two Arrows cars of Riccardo Patrese and Jochen Mass. He disposed of Mass easily, before engaging a terrific battle with Patrese for fifth place. Three laps from the end, Prost secured fifth place from Patrese, scoring his second points finish in a row. His double points finishes in his first two F1 races was garnering him some serious attention in the press.
After only two races, Prost had established himself as the leading driver within the McLaren team. For the South African race, he instead of Watson was entrusted with the new McLaren M29C chassis. During pre-race testing, the updated car proved to be much more unstable. Prost had a minor crash early on in the week but then late in testing a second accident in the car saw him break his ankle. The injury meant he would be out of motor racing for another six weeks.
This injury meant he would sit out the South African race and then the US GP East. Although Prost was seen at the event to support his team. His replacement Stephen South failed to qualify whilst Watson finally got his act together, scoring a fourth place finish in Prost's absence. The two drivers were now level on points in the championship.
Prost returned for the Belgian race at Zolder, however the McLaren's were uncompetitive and were only eighteenth and nineteenth on the grid. Both he and Watson would go on to retire with mechanical troubles. The new McLaren M29C was proving troublesome for both Watson and Prost.
Nonetheless, Watson appeared to be strugglng a lot more. In Monaco, he was humiliatingly labelled 'John Whatswrong?' by his mechanics. He had failed to qualify for the race whilst Prost had qualified a career high of tenth on the grid. Prost's speed and capability had well and truly swung the McLaren team in his favour. The race would be a frustrating disappointment when he retired on the opening lap when he was caught in a four car pile-up at the first corner.
Now leading the development of the McLaren M29, Prost improved his qualifying performance to go seventh at his home race at Paul Ricard in France. Watson is still slower and down in thirteenth. It looked set for a strong home performance, Prost overtook Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Carlos Reutemann in the opening laps, but the car's poor reliability let him down when he retired with transmission failure four laps in.
Ahead of the British Grand Prix, the merger between McLaren and Project Four is complete. This new partnership hoping to return McLaren to success, whether Prost would remain with the team was still an open question. He was now being eyed by the current front runners, his debut year success drawing him much attention. Renault and Ferrari have struck up a particular interest in the young Prost. For the race at Brands Hatch, Prost managed another seventh place qualifying position, once again dominating Watson. In the race he drove quietly but efficiently to manage his McLaren to take another sixth place finish.
The McLaren's were less competitive on the long sweeping straights of Hockenheim for the German Grand Prix. Prost was fourteenth whilst Watson was twentieth. It was a race to forget for the team, Watson retired whilst Prost finished only a lap down in eleventh place.
The next race in Austria would yield similar results. The McLaren M29 not suited to the faster circuits on the calendar. In practice, Prost along with teammate Watson, Jan Lammers and Gilles Villeneuve are involved in the rescue of Jochen Mass who had a tremendous accident which left him trapped in his car at Texaco Curve. After qualifying twelfth, Prost led another quiet race to finish in seventh place.
For the Dutch race, Prost debuted McLaren's new car, the McLaren M30. The successor to the M29 embodied all of Prost's development work he had conducted for the team over the past season. Teammate Watson had to be content with the old M29 model. The new car got off to a disastrous start, Prost could only manage eighteenth on the grid whilst Watson in the old car was ninth. The new car was not competitive, however Prost was able to manage his car well to bring it home to a sixth place finish. The attrition rate for the Zandvoort race had been high with many of the front runners including teammate Watson dropping out with mechanical failure.
The fortunes of the M30 did not improve for the Italian Grand Prix at Imola. Prost was still unable to get to grips with the car and only barely managed to qualify putting his car on the last slot of the grid. Watson managed fourteenth in the old car, the M29's successor performing well below standard. The car whilst uncompetitive at least proved to be reliable in the hands of Prost, he once again avoided mechanical failure to bring his car home in seventh, just outside of the points. Prost was growing increasingly frustrated with McLaren and despite his three year contract with the team, he was seriously considering leaving for a more competitive seat for 1981.
For the penultimate race in Montreal, Canada, new team leader Ron Dennis had sacked chief designer Gordon Coppuck and replaced him with up and coming designer, John Barnard. Barnard conducting his own modification on the M30, if successful, Dennis hoped to convince Prost to stay with the new reformed team for 1981. At this time, Prost had began entering serious negotiations with Gérard Larrousse, the Renault team principal. The Barnard modifications to the car had improved the M30's performance, however Prost was still a lowly twelfth whilst Watson was seventh in the old car. The Barnard improvements saw both Prost and Watson race more competitively than they had done all season. Despite a mid-race collision with Riccardo Patrese which damaged the front of his car, Prost was running extremely competitively and was running faster than drivers such as Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite who were running in front running Williams's and Ligier's. Having disposed of these drivers, Prost was up to fourth behind teammate Watson. Prost was hungry for his first podium, however Watson who had largely been dominated by his teammate all season was not letting Prost past. The battle was ended on lap 41, following his accident with Patrese, Prost's car had a front end failure and speared into the tyre barriers. Following a similar accident earlier in the race that saw Jean-Pierre Jabouille break both his legs, there was much relief when Prost clambered from his car, angered but unhurt. Watson finished the race fourth whilst Prost walked away with nothing.
The final race of the season at Watkins Glen would be the final chance for McLaren to prove they were worthy of Prost's services for 1981. However unfortunately it would all be in vain. During Friday practice, Prost suffered yet another mechanical failure which caused another violent accident. He was pitched into the barriers at high speed and during the accident a wheel had detached and had hit Prost in the head. Prost was badly concussed, but luckily had not been more seriously hurt. After a season of driving dangerous and more often than not uncompetitive cars as well as the team having a highly disturbed political environment, Prost vowed to quit McLaren then and there. In the medical centre, he confessed to teammate John Watson, "you will be number one at McLaren next year". Prost did not participate in the final race and shortly there after announced his resignation from the McLaren team.