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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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The cabbie taking passengers from the Sky Harbor International Airport to downtown Phoenix had a little inside joke, which he pulled on race fans and participants trying to get to the Grand Prix of the United States. "So, you want to go to the Grand Canyon," the hack would say, and then chuckle at his fare's puzzlement.

But a deep, empty hollow is what downtown Phoenix might as well be during the only U.S. race on the 16-event Formula One world championship circuit, and the season opener. Appreciation for the race may be intense abroad—Formula One events are televised to 300 million people in 76 countries—but in Phoenix the interest in it can fit in the back of a pickup truck. After three years in Arizona, the sport and the venue remain entirely foreign to each other.

Sky-high technology and canyon-deep subterfuge make Formula One racing unique, which is why the argument is sometimes advanced that it's not a sport as much as an engineering exercise, a global marketing program and a cutthroat business affecting and reflecting the economic strength of entire countries. The drivers have more in common with the allied fighter pilots who were active in the Persian Gulf than they do with other professional athletes, except for one thing: Formula One drivers are paid like Saudi Arabian princes. World champion Ayrton Senna of Brazil makes about $1 million per race.

This season marks the beginning of the fourth year of the fiercest drivers' duel ever witnessed in Grand Prix racing. Between them, Senna and Alain Prost of France had won 36 of 48 races going into Phoenix—Senna 20, Prost 16. Prost was champion in '85, '86 and '89, Senna in '88 and '90. Senna is the fastest driver in the history of Formula One—he has been on the pole for 53 Grands Prix as a result of being quickest in qualifying; Prost is the winningest driver ever, with 44 victories. They do not like each other. Only the two men know the depth of their animosity, but it's not something they explore, because to do so would distract them from attempting to defeat the other. By necessity, their relationship is filled with respect for each other's talent behind the wheel, but at the same time it is a relationship simmering with fury. Sometimes it boils over in frightening ways.

Last year their battle for the world championship was brutal, ending on the first turn of the first lap on the Suzuka circuit in Japan, in the season's penultimate race. While traveling 150 mph, Senna jammed his McLaren- Honda into Prost's Ferrari, knocking them both out of the race and thereby assuring himself the world championship. Moreover, the crack-up was a remake, if not a repeat, of the 1989 finish at Suzuka, when—as McLaren teammates—Senna and Prost had crashed in much the same manner. That time Senna finished, but he was subsequently disqualified (and later fined $100,000 for bad-mouthing the decision), which gave Prost the championship.

In Phoenix on Sunday, Prost and Senna, winners there in 1989 and '90, respectively, started side by side on the front row. That, however, was as close as they would come to each other. Senna left Prost in the black dust of his Goodyears, averaging 98.018 mph for 81 laps of the 2.35-mile circuit. It was a trouncing made all the more remarkable by the fact that Senna's McLaren- Honda V-12 was a new design that had never turned a wheel before practice on Thursday. Prost would come in a distant second, 16.322 seconds back, which gave the 18,500 fans almost nothing in the way of close racing.

Senna, 30, is probably the most complex world champion in the history of Grand Prix racing. Certainly he is the most obsessed. Says his team manager, Ron Dennis, "I've spent my life dealing with overachievers, and I've never seen anyone like Senna."

Senna is a concentration machine. So dedicated is he to his pursuit of speed that he seemingly rejects all else, including consideration of others. Rude and arrogant are adjectives that are often applied to him. He seems to have no time for anyone who can't show him how to go faster. When he is at work, he is given to tears and angry outbursts, but rarely over technical matters; he almost never blames his car for a loss. His emotions surface when he is hurt or affronted by another driver or by race officials. Senna is not without a sense of humor, but he displays it nearly as infrequently as he smiles. "I am very happy inside," he says.

In the selfish world of Formula One drivers, Senna is far the most selfish on the track. He believes that other drivers should give way, simply because he is who he is. They should know he will be there. Such an attitude is blindly self-centered and unrealistic, yet it has undoubtedly been a key factor in what is a brilliant career.

Nelson Piquet, a fellow Brazilian and a three-time world champion, has feuded with Senna, too. It got to the point that Piquet implied that Senna, who is a bachelor, may be gay. Senna was outraged and threatened to sue Piquet. Since then, he has made a point of being seen in the company of beautiful women.

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