Ayrton Senna beat his fellow Formula One drivers, who put on one of their better shows Sunday in the second Iceberg USA Grand Prix through the streets of downtown Phoenix. But hardly anyone was there to see it.
Only an estimated 15,000 were on hand on a cold, blustery day for the opening round of the 16-race world championship season.
Senna, the brilliant Brazilian who has been the center of controversy since the end of last season, won the 72-lap race in a new Honda-powered McLaren. But not before he struggled through a tense duel with Jean Alesi, a youthful Frenchman in a Tyrrell Ford, driving in only his eighth Grand Prix.
After Alesi had led the first 33 laps--the first time he had ever been at the front of a Formula One race--he and Senna put on a back-to-back pass on lap 34 that will be talked about for a long time.
Senna, who had stalked Alesi for 10 laps, noted that he had been taking a wide line through the first turn after the pit straight, so Senna ducked inside to get the lead. But Alesi stayed on the power and charged down the short block-long stretch in front of an old brick fire station and passed Senna.
"I certainly didn't expect Alesi to go round the outside of me when I got inside him," Senna said.
A lap later, Senna repeated his pass and blocked Alesi from making a second daring move. From then, the race was only a question of nothing happening to Senna or his red and white car.
"I had waited for some time to make my pass, and when I did I was surprised when I saw Alesi right there next to me," Senna said. "I knew if I closed the door on him, we would both wreck, so I had to open and let him go.
"It was very exciting, a good clean pass when we were both driving to the limit. Those are the situations I like. They are the reasons I chose this as my profession."
Alesi, who had qualified third, got a jump at the start that carried him past the front row pair of Gerhard Berger of Austria, Senna's McLaren teammate; and Pierluigi Martini of Italy, the surprise of qualifying in a Minardi Ford.
Once away from the pack, Alesi built an eight-second lead over Senna after Berger had ended his hopes of winning by spinning into a tire well and damaging the rear wing on his McLaren.
Then Senna's McLaren set out after Alesi's blue and white car.
"At first, I was not so concerned with Alesi because I believed he would have to stop for tires and I knew that I would not," Senna said. "Once I realized he was not going to stop, I pushed very hard to catch him, and he responded by pushing very hard, too.
"He drove a fantastic race, and it wasn't until he lost some time in traffic that I was able to close up behind him. I know that we will have many more close races in the season."
Alesi, who drove in his first Grand Prix less than a year ago, was almost as excited about racing with Senna as he was about his second-place finish.
"Only three years ago, when I was driving in Formula Three and he was driving for Lotus, Ayrton was my hero," Alesi revealed. "For me, it was incredible to be racing with him. My only thought was to try and drive to my maximum and see what would happen."
Only five drivers finished on the lead lap, with Thierry Boutsen of Belgium third in a Williams Renault, former world champion Nelson Piquet of Brazil fourth in a Bennetton Ford, and Stefano Modena of Italy fifth in a Brabham Ford. Satoru Nakajima, Alesi's Tyrrell teammate, was a lap down, but he got the sixth and final point in the Grand Prix standings.
The Ferraris of Alain Prost, who left McLaren after winning his third world championship last year, and Nelson Mansell both dropped out with sick engines. Prost was the first to go after his rear end began to smoke as early as the fourth lap.
Mansell's retirement was more spectacular. After patiently working his way up from his starting position of 18th to fifth, he had set out after Piquet when his car belched a huge puff of smoke that was followed by a ball of fire from the rear of the Ferrari. Mansell spun in his oil and pulled off course, his day done.
Senna drove the 72 laps, or 169.9 miles, at an average speed of 90.586 m.p.h. Prost won last year's inaugural Phoenix race at 87.370. The faster speed was largely attributed to the 40-degree shift in temperature, from last June's 100 to Sunday's 60 degrees.
"I am quite surprised to win the first race in a new car on such a demanding circuit," Senna said. "We only tested the car two weeks ago in Portugal and the test did not go too well. Then we had problems in the engine Friday that caused me to have my poorest starting position since mid-1988."
The win was the 21st for Senna since driving his first race in 1984 in his native Brazil.
Berger, after returning to the course five laps behind the leaders, posted the day's fastest lap of 93.311 m.p.h. in mid-race.
But Alesi's spectacular driving had veteran observers buzzing along pit row.
Alesi, 25, made his Grand Prix debut last year in France after Michele Alboreto quit the Tyrrell team. He responded by finishing fourth after holding down second place for a time.
"It all happened so quickly for me," Alesi recalled. "I had not even time for a fitting. I was using a padded version of Alboreto's seat, and I wasn't comfortable, so Ken (Tyrrell, the team owner) told me he wouldn't judge me on one race. After the race, he was very calm. He just told me I'd better get myself to England to have a proper seat made."
Later, to prove it was no fluke, Alesi came back to finish fifth at Monza and fourth in Spain, ending the championship season in ninth place having competed in only half the races.