Autumn in Marseille, in the South of France, has an atmosphere so beautiful, it needs to be seen to be believed. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn red and brown, while the daytime summer sun lends the air a touch of warmth as the mistral winds blow. Le Castellet is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commune that is about a 90-minute drive from Marseille, and boasts just two major attractions — the medieval buildings in the village itself and the Circuit Paul Ricard, a former Formula 1 Grand Prix track that will rejoin the racing calendar next year.
As a tribute to his own French heritage as well as that of his latest collaborative partner, watchmaker Richard Mille chose this picturesque setting to launch the new RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost — a stunning timepiece that perfectly melds the worlds of cars, cycling and haute horlogerie. The watch was put to the test at the circuit, on Prost’s wrist, no less, as he took to the curvaceous asphalt and tungsten track in Renault’s RS01 car that recently won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and later on, on one of his 10 racing bicycles. “I am so proud to have this piece of technology on my wrist. It’s like a dream,” he says, smiling for photographers as he shows it off.
A four-time F1 Drivers’ Champion, Prost was famous in the 1980s and 1990s for his fierce rivalries with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. He employed a smooth, relaxed style behind the wheel, deliberately modelling himself on personal heroes like Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark. Although he never cared much for his youthful nickname of “The Professor” — due to his intellectual approach to competition — he does admit that it was an appropriate way to describe the way he raced.
Today, Prost’s influence on the sport is through electrically-powered racing. Together with Jean-Paul Driot, Prost is co-founder of the Renault e.dams team — of which Richard Mille is a sponsor — that is an entrant in the 2016/17 FIA Formula E Championship. Prost is still quite handy behind the wheel of a sports car, though, and proved as much during the launch — I will forever treasure the experience of being in the passenger seat of the RS01 while Prost himself took me on a hot lap around the Circuit Paul Ricard. In his element, I recognised the Alain Prost of old — the same smile, the steely calmness and the very slight smirk at the end. His impressive mop of dark curls has turned white, but otherwise, he is still very much the same man.
These days, it is cycling that keeps Prost active. Although he has been athletic since childhood, cycling had never been a sport he especially enjoyed. “Even when I was competing in Formula 1, it wasn’t part of my training regime — it didn’t particularly interest me,” he says, as we settle down for a chat. “I was more into running, cross-country skiing, weights, golf and tennis. Strangely, I didn’t feel comfortable on two wheels.”
It was during a sabbatical in 1992 that Prost’s physical therapist — a former bicycle racer himself — suggested it as an alternative training method that would be gentler on the racing star’s knees and back. In preparation for his re-entry into F1 the following year, he started mountain biking and began to really enjoy himself. With a group of friends, he boldly signed up for the L’Étape du Tour, a stage of the Tour de France for amateurs. “It was a bit reckless — especially since, at the time, I was driving for Williams-Renault and was in the running for the title,” he admits. “But that’s how it went, and with it came an obligation to do it well — and therefore to train hard.”
Cycling came easily to Prost, who kept at it well after he retired from F1 in 1993 at the age of 38. “If you don’t stop cycling, there’s nothing preventing you from continuing into old age,” he smiles. “Even though it’s a difficult sport, I loved it right away. It was good for me physically and provided a challenge as well, accentuated by the competitive aspect with my friends and the other riders in cyclotourism events. I noticed that thanks to F1, where your heart rate can often reach 160 or even 200 beats per minute, I already had a good foundation. My legs suffered, especially in the beginning, but once you develop the right muscles and maintain them, you can enjoy yourself. I very quickly began feeling good, to the point where I was unable to go without cycling and the endorphins that it produces.”
It was Prost’s knowledge and experience in both cycling and racing that would ultimately inspire Mille’s design for the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost — easily the manufacture’s most visually arresting and technically challenging timepiece. Famously exuberant and thoroughly charming, Mille is also known for the same cerebral approach to his watches, which are all technical masterpieces in their own right.
Even though it’s a difficult sport, I loved it right away. It was good for me physically and provided a challenge as well, accentuated by the competitive aspect with my friends and the other riders in cyclotourism events
A love of all things mechanical is what drove the French-born Mille, then a luxury industry executive, to found his eponymous watch brand in 1999, based on a clear strategy of innovation and technical excellence. Easily one of the most successful independent watch brands, Richard Mille’s audacious approach to design, which continually places mechanics in the service of comfort and practicality, pretty much single-handedly reinvented watchmaking — in particular, the idea of the high-complication mechanical sportswatch — in the 21st century.
Richard Mille’s range of timepieces reflect the founder’s varied interests and predilections — there are watches developed with and for tennis star Rafael Nadal, sprinter Yohan Blake as well as British luxury carmaker McLaren. Each timepiece is made with a specific end goal in mind, and not merely a random collaboration with someone’s name on it just for show. For example, the RM 67-02 High Jump Mutaz Essa Barshim fits like a second skin, so that the Doha-born high jumper can comfortably wear it during competition. The RM 67-02 Sprint Wayde van Niekerk is designed to be as light on the wrist as possible, so as not to impede the South African sprinter as he trains.
In the case of the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost, Mille first identified what information competitive cyclists required most of all, and then looked at creating a watch that was truly ergonomic and flawlessly comfortable. Mille was also clear the watch he would create with Prost — their friendship goes back more than three decades — would not be anchored in cars, paying homage to Prost’s active participation in competitive cycling. “With Alain, there was no reason to do a watch related to anything but cycling,” Mille says, smiling.
I first caught sight of the watch on Prost’s wrist at a private dinner the evening before the experience on the Circuit Paul Ricard. Its asymmetrical case — not to mention the oddly shaped rubber strap that ensures a perfect fit — required many hours of painstaking design. “It’s incredibly comfortable and fits really well,” he says as he slips it off his slender wrist and places it on mine. “The shape looks a little unusual, but when you wear it, it’s really quite something else.”
Indeed it is. Mille developed the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost based on the specific requirements of professional athletes, with whom he has a great deal of experience. “All sportsmen want something light, comfortable and easy to wear. With the Yohan Blake watch, I had already done a tonneau case. So I thought, let’s extend this exercise and develop a truly ergonomic watch. I had this problem with Rafa (Rafael Nadal) — the crown was hurting him, and this is the case if you wear your watch on the left hand. Then, I considered what information you would need as a cyclist, which is, how many kilometres you have already cycled,” Mille says.
“With cycling, it’s not about hitting a certain time for each ride, but rather knowing where you stand in terms of heart rate, energy expenditure, average, and variation of climbs and descents. Integrating all this data — some of which is ‘catalogued’ by the watch Richard and I created — was quite a challenge in terms of watch mechanics. But cyclists want to be aware of all of these parameters. They make it possible to set personal objectives and to have a better understanding of how you stack up against the competition, or even just go out and ride with a club,” Prost adds.
The watch lives up to the three crucial elements central to Richard Mille’s success — technical innovation, artistry and architecture as well as a respect for the heritage and culture of watchmaking. Although not what one would consider a traditional timepiece in terms of aesthetics, the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost has a certain je ne sais quoi that is reflective of all that is most amazing about Swiss watchmaking — audaciousness, flawless craftsmanship and an eye for detail.
Only 30 pieces of this watch will ever be made — Mille is particular about releasing small quantities of any timepiece he makes. “I think this is one of the reasons that the brand is so successful. Some brands are very versatile in terms of volume, and they are willing to open the tap when demand is good. We are a serious watch brand, and I am very strict about increasing production to the level that I have decided — if we cannot cope with demand, I have no problem with that.”
Although the RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost was received with critical acclaim by collectors, this has not been the case with all of the maison’s watches. Mille recalls, with some amusement, an extremely high-performance timepiece that boasted a differential of just one second a month.
“I launched only 10 pieces, so this was really a collector’s piece. But yet, only three pieces were sold. I was so mad, I wanted to kill all the salespeople,” he says, laughing at the memory. He regrets nothing, even though it was not the success story that he had hoped for. “Everything was sold in the end, but I couldn’t believe it. Watches that I make 50 pieces of, 150 orders come in, so I manage to upset 100 people. But an amazing watch I only make 10 pieces of, only three people want? I was so angry.”
Prost’s name alone is assurance that this will not happen to the new watch — the man is an icon for F1 fans all over the world who would be more than pleased to be a part of his endeavour into a new sport. But that’s not why we would suggest acquiring the new RM 70-01 Tourbillon Alain Prost. We would ask you to buy it simply for the way it so beautifully distils the best of Mille’s personality as well as Prost’s spirit, channelling a subtle energy and boasting an unusual aesthetic that, upon first glance, makes your heart skip a beat.
Love at first sight, some call it. I know I did.
This cover story appeared in the Nov 13, 2017 issue of The Edge Malaysia. Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.