After Six races in the 1988 formula One season, the question seems to be whether the domination of the Marlboro McLaren team is overwhelming or underwhelming. The answer depends on where you happen to be sitting when the two McLaren-Hondas speed by. If you are in the bucket seat of a competing car, you are likely to be awestruck. But should you be a fan of thrilling racing, perched in a grandstand or on your couch in front of the television set, you might feel compelled to stifle a yawn. Unless, of course, you're into invincibility.
The result of Sunday's Detroit Grand Prix, the only Formula One event held in the U.S., was just the same as the previous races this season. Before 61,000 spectators, the McLarens kissed the field goodbye, with Ayrton Senna of Brazil winning his third race in as many years through the downtown Motown streets, lapping everyone but his teammate, Alain Prost of France. No more of a surprise was that only eight of the 26 cars that began the race were running at the end, through streets that were better suited to conveying rattletrap taxicabs than million-dollar race cars.
This was the final year for the infamous downtown circuit. In 1989 the race is to move to Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River near Lake St. Clair. Throughout its seven-year existence, the 2.5-mile, 20-turn circuit has been reviled by the drivers for its bumps, ripples and manhole covers. The course is less a measure of driving skill than a durability test for both car and driver. It demands as many as 58 gear changes per lap, and brakes, suspension systems and tailbones are abused and battered. The racers have to deal with inner-city heat and traffic just like regular drivers do, though their vehicles are more missile than car. "It's really hard, physically and mentally. It's not a pleasant race," says Senna.
This is also the last year for turbo-charged cars in Formula One racing. Honda has proved to be the only factory able to afford the millions of dollars for continual turbo development, so in the interests of competitive balance and fiscal sanity, technology will take a sizable step backward in '89. Such a drastic rule change must be made gradually, however, so '88 is a transition year: Some cars are turbocharged and some are not, depending on how a team allocates its budget.
To prevent a major disparity in speed between the turbos and the normally aspirated cars, the turbo engines can displace no more than 1.5 liters to the nonturbos' 3.5 and are limited to 150 liters of gas for each race. Theoretically, turbo cars have to be reined in so that they reach the checkered flag before they reach the bottoms of their tanks. Which reduces the '88 Formula One campaign to an elaborate fuel-economy competition. But because Detroit was not a wide-open race—indeed, it is the second slowest (to Monaco) of the 16 Grand Prix courses—the turbos had plenty of gas. So much for regulated parity.
As a result, the McLaren- Honda V-6 turbos remained untouchable. Prost, the No. 1 driver for McLaren, is a two-time world champion about whom even the hungry Senna says, "I believe overall he's the best in the business." The McLaren team director, Ron Dennis, goes further. "Alain is probably the best driver in the history of motor sports," he says.
Dennis's claim is true at least as far as one measure of Formula One racing is concerned. Prost, 33, is the alltime leader, with 31 victories, including three this season. His driving style is so precise, smooth and textbook-perfect that he's known as Professor. He wins by out-thinking his opponents, not outbraving them. "I have no longer the motivation to fight with daggers drawn," he said before Sunday's race. "I prefer to use my own weapon—my experience." Prost acknowledges what others say about him: "Watching myself on TV, it sometimes looks very easy because of the way I drive the car. But for sure, from inside, it is much more difficult."
If Prost is the Professor, the 28-year-old Senna is the gifted student—and problem child, some say. His single-minded-ness about winning the world championship has earned for him a reputation for being difficult, especially when it concerns the inches he refuses to give up on the track, while his speed has given him the moniker Brazilian Bullet. Detroit was the sixth race in a row in which he claimed the pole position, though at a relative crawl, 89.458 mph, reflecting the tightness of the course. He thus matched the record that is held by both Niki Lauda and Stirling Moss.
Senna explains the McLaren success succinctly and accurately: "Good chassis, good engine, good manager, good mechanics, good organization, good drivers, good work." What did the Detroit win mean to him? "Good nine points toward world championship."
Senna, who has done well in Detroit because the race is like a barroom brawl, and Prost, who hates it for precisely the same reason, were split on the grid by the turbo V-6 Ferraris of Gerhard Berger of Austria and Michele Alboreto of Italy, whose win in Detroit in '83 was the last Formula One victory for a nonturbo car. Berger drag raced Senna into the first turn at the start, lost, and that was it for most of the day's drama. He retired on the seventh lap with a flat tire, as Prost methodically picked his way into second position, eventually finishing 38.713 seconds behind Senna.