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Robert F. Jones
June 29, 1987
Ayrton Senna beat the traffic in the Detroit Grand Prix
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June 29, 1987

Street Smart In Motown

Ayrton Senna beat the traffic in the Detroit Grand Prix

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Ninety thousand race fans jammed downtown Detroit Sunday for the sixth Motown Grand Prix. What they hoped to see was world driving champion Alain Prost break the record for most Formula One wins (27) in a career. Prost shared the mark with Jackie Stewart, who won his last race in 1973.

However, when the race was over, the laurels went not to Prost but to Ayrton Senna, 27, of Brazil, who became the event's first two-time winner. Assisted by a suspension system straight out of Star Wars and employing a calculatingly heavy foot on the throttle, Senna got not only the victory but also the point lead in this year's race for the Formula One championship. "The street-course races are over now," said Senna. "Now we move to the fast circuits. Now the fun begins."

Although Prost failed to break Stewart's record for the second time, he finished a creditable third. The four points he earned kept him in second place in the standings, just two back of Senna, who received nine points for winning. Stewart was on hand to see his standard challenged. "The mind must rule the heart in this sport," he said. "Alain has that kind of control. Odd, for a Frenchman—passion of the Gauls and all that. But he's a lot like I was in my heyday, smooth, steady, consistent." Then wee Jackie laughed—a self-deprecatory, Scots-flavored bray. "Of course, I'm taller than Alain, don't you know."

Prost, 32, began the 1987 season the way he had ended the previous one—with a resounding victory, this time in Brazil. He finished out of the money at San Marino, but bounced back at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium to equal Stewart's record. Next up was Monaco, where Prost had won each of the previous three years. French fans thronged the tiny principality to see their first real racing hero in ages restore a bit of glory to the tricolore. But the race went to Senna in his spanking new orange Lotus with the Honda turbo. "The best engine in racing right now," says Stewart.

Prost has not fared well in Detroit. This time his problems began early. During the McLaren/TAG Porsche-powered racer's first qualifying runs on Friday, the magical balance of bite and suspension failed to materialize, despite Prost's skills and his crew's ministrations. He placed ninth in the 26-car field that first day, a ghastly position on the narrow, 20-turn circuit through down-town streets pocked with manhole covers and concrete patches over asphalt.

Things improved a bit on Saturday. Prost moved up to fifth place on the starting grid, on the inside of the third two-car row. But, cautioned Stewart, "to win on this course you have to start from at least the first two rows."

When the green light flashed on race day, Prost got off to a slow start. He was aced out of fifth right off the bat by Italy's Michele Alboreto, whose Ferrari lay directly behind Prost on the grid. Nigel Mansell of Britain, in a quick Williams that also was powered by a Honda, had taken the pole with the weekend's only clocking exceeding 90 mph, and he built a sizable lead through the early laps. Mansell's teammate (and Senna's countryman), Nelson Piquet, roared out from his third-place spot on the grid, only to pick up a puncture on the first lap. Forced to the pits for a tire change, he dropped to dead last and began a pursuit that would prove the most brilliant driving feat of the race.

Senna, who had qualified second, maintained that position through the early going. But he had a secret weapon—a revolutionary "active suspension." Controlled by a minicomputer making 100 million calculations per lap, the system uses tubes and sensors placed throughout the car to gauge subtle changes in speed and road surface. The computer "tunes" the chassis members to maintain a constant ride height and, in the process, tire wear is reduced.

Brake problems early in the race kept Senna from employing them unduly, and that, too, inadvertently saved him rubber. Thus, the combination of the active suspension and faulty brakes permitted him at midrace to make a bold decision against coming in for new tires. 'I knew I had more rubber left than other people," he would say later, "and I was going faster than the other cars that stopped for new tires." During a two-hour Grand Prix race, at least one change of rubber is usually required.

By Lap 25 of the 63-lap race, Prost had passed Alboreto to take over third place, and Mansell had increased his lead to 15 seconds. Then Senna made his move. He turned the race's fastest lap to that point—87.818 mph—and eroded Mansell's lead to 11 seconds. At midpoint in the race, Mansell pitted for new tires—and a touch of disaster. A stripped lug nut on his right rear wheel cost him 18.54 seconds. Senna took over the lead, and Prost moved into second. But both would have to pit for rubber soon—or so everyone thought.

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