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Still Head of the Class
Sam Moses
March 18, 1991
Formula One champion Ayrton Senna opened the season with a romp on Phoenix
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March 18, 1991

Still Head Of The Class

Formula One champion Ayrton Senna opened the season with a romp on Phoenix

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Senna is a born-again Catholic, and he often retreats to the back of his team's luxurious motor home with his Bible. He claims to have seen Jesus at Suzuka in 1988, a race in which he stalled at the start but came back to win, and to have been guided by the voice of God at Monaco in '90, when he fended off a late charge by Jean Alesi to win the most famous Grand Prix of them all.

Senna travels between races and continents in his $10 million jet and goes back to one of his three homes in Brazil whenever he can. He was so drained by the travails of last season, especially by what happened in Japan, that he relaxed on his farm for two months. The only distraction was an attempt to kidnap him in November, but it was foiled by the police.

Whoever the real Senna may be, Prost has had enough of the one he knows. Prost, 35, who is called the Professor because of his textbook driving style, believes that Senna is a blemish on the sport, that he has corrupted the driving ethic. Prost left Team McLaren after '89 to get away from Senna (a reported $9 million signing bonus and $15 million-a-year salary from Ferrari probably did a lot to salve the pain of separation), and he almost quit Formula One entirely at the end of last year because of "all the— —" associated with Senna. But Prost re-upped with Ferrari, encouraged by the promise of a newly designed 12-cylinder engine.

It's a shame Phoenix drew so few spectators. The 12-turn circuit has been reworked into racing's fastest street course, and the grandstands offered superlative viewing. The $200 bleacher seats along the front straight were about eight feet above the track and squeezed up against it. As the cars passed in a shrieking blur, aerodynamic downforces caused the titanium skid plates on the cars' bellies to slam into the bumpy pavement, and wakes of golden sparks flew up, to the gasps of the spectators.

From green flag to checker, Senna simply powered away. Prost was handicapped by a troublesome transmission, and at one point a bungled pit stop for tires dropped him into seventh. Other drivers also had difficulties on the rough circuit. Nigel Mansell parked his Williams- Renault after his semiautomatic transmission went kaput while he was running second. Gerhard Berger's McLaren lost fuel pressure. Riccardo Patrese spun his Williams and was creamed by Roberto Moreno's Benetton-Ford. Coming in third was Senna's other enemy, Piquet, in the second Benetton-Ford.

Afterward, an unsmiling Senna pronounced both the weekend and the victory satisfying. Presumably, he was happy inside. And because Phoenix was his first run with his Honda V-12 engine, he was especially pleased with his prospects for this season. "I had small problems with the gearbox, and the car balance was not optimum, so it was very difficult to drive," said Senna. "I'm looking forward to running a proper circuit with proper conditions and see what the car can do."

Prost, seated beside Senna and hearing this, must have been wondering about that next race, too, which will be in Sao Paulo on March 28. Round 2, with Senna in a "balanced" McLaren and racing in front of a wildly partisan crowd, should produce real sparks.

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