Rio de Janeiro — Alain Prost's victory in this year's opening Grand Prix auto race not only made history for the jockey-sized Frenchman, it signaled the closing of a dangerous epoch in motor sport and the start of the most competitive Formula One season in a decade. The annual Grand Prix in the Jacarepagua lagoon west of Rio is the flashiest event on the social calendar outside of carnival. This year, Brazil's jet set and hoi polloi alike crowded into rain-drenched VIP boxes or Indianapolis-sized grandstands to witness Prost's historic 29th win. The French superstar, who has recorded more Grand Prix victories than anyone else in the history of racing, was awarded a towering sterling trophy and dubbed ``The King of Rio.'' It was Prost's fifth Brazilian Grand Prix victory in the last seven years.
The Rio race opened another arduous eight-month Formula One season in which Prost and more than two dozen of the world's top drivers compete against one another in tiny, low-slung race cars driven on circuits in 15 countries. Formula One cars, the most sophisticated racing machines on four wheels, reach speeds in excess of 200 m.p.h. and are capable of traveling the length of a football field in less than one second. While they are only half the weight of normal passenger cars, they squeeze 10 times the horsepower out of their compact but often lethal turbocharged engines.
But Rio race fans heard the screeching metallic prelude of the turbo's furious swan song. In an effort to improve safety and decrease costs, FISA (La F'ed'eration Internationale du Sport Automobile), the Paris-based governing body which sets Formula One regulations, has at last outlawed turbo-powered cars beginning in 1989. In the meantime, FISA has bridled the turbos with stringent fuel restrictions and special ``pop-off valves'' which spill off excessive turbo boost. According to Yvon Leon, FISA's secretary general, the new regulations mean a drop in horsepower from more than 1,000 to around 650. This reduces top speeds by some 30 m.p.h., says Leon, and will foster not only track safety but more exciting, closely bunched racing.
``The turbo cars were much too fast and caught fire easily,'' said Italian Riccardo Patrese, driver of a non-turbo Williams-Judd car. ``This year we'll be later on the brakes and faster into the corners than the turbos which will make the racing more interesting for drivers and racing fans.''
Certain fast abrasive tracks like Rio still favor the more powerful cars. Indeed, the top six cars here were all equipped with turbo engines. In their David-Goliath battle, the non-turbos may be surrendering as much as a 100 horsepower advantage to the muscle-bound turbos - but the latter will have a harder time navigating stop-and-go street circuits such as Monaco, Detroit, and Adelaide. On other tracks, fuel consumption should be critical, and many of the heavier gas-guzzling turbos will simply run out of gas before reaching the checkered flag.
While many Formula One teams are already changing their cars over to get a jump on the 1989 regulations, some of the larger, richer outfits like Ferrari, Lotus, and McLaren are sticking with the turbos, gambling that their horsepower advantage will win more races. In Rio, the bet paid off.
Formula One racing, which happens to be the world's most popular televised sport, is aired in more than 50 countries. Three races will be staged in North America this year (Mexico City on May 29, Montreal on June 12, and Detroit on June 19), and all 16 races are broadcast on the all-sports cable network ESPN.
The drivers to keep an eye on are the quintet known as the ``Big Five'': Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna, both driving Honda-powered McLarens; Nelson Piquet, also from Brazil, in a Honda-powered Lotus; Gerhard Berger of Austria in a Ferrari; and Nigel Mansell, a part-time constable on England's Isle of Man, in a Williams car with a Judd engine.
Prost, the French furnituremaker's son who dropped out of school to race Go Karts, is regarded as the best of the bunch. For his tactical genius and deceptively smooth driving style the reclusive Prost has been dubbed ``The Professor.'' He won back-to-back championships in 1985 and 1986, the first time that feat had been accomplished in over a quarter century. Last year he finished only fourth in championship points because of engine problems with his TAG-Porsche turbo, which was scrapped this year in favor of the reliable Honda V-6. And the way he almost effortlessly dominated the April 3 Rio race in his iridescent red and white car, a third championship for the likable Frenchman would surprise no one.
Ayrton Senna, Prost's new teammate, is one of the hottest drivers to hit Formula One in a long time. Son of a Sao Paulo millionaire, Senna won last year in Detroit and Monaco for Lotus and beat Prost for third place. He has brilliant car control but a sometimes reckless manner which needs maturing. In Rio, Senna started from the rear of the 26-car pack and got up to second place behind Prost before being disqualified for a last-minute change of cars. The question remains: How will the proud young Senna adjust to driving with Prost? Will he take a lesson from the ``Professor'' or simply nip at his heels?
The other star from Brazil is Piquet, the reigning world champion. Usually laid back to the point of snoozing in the pits before races, Piquet suffered a jarring accident in Italy last year and fought constantly, on the circuit and off, with his Williams team partner Mansell. Although Piquet turned in a victorious but lackluster performance last year, he quit Williams and is relieved to be taking up his comfortable and undisputed No. 1 position at Lotus beside less experienced Japanese driver Satoru Nakajima. Piquet finished a respectable third here on the track, which was recently renamed Autodromo Nelson Piquet after Rio's native son. (The first six drivers earn 9, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1 points, respectively, toward the year-long Grand Prix championship).
Another probable contender is Austrian Gerhard Berger, whose Ferrari won the last two Grand Prix races of 1987 and finished second in Rio. Ferrari is a traditional powerhouse in Formula One, and over the last four decades has won more Grand Prix than any other make of race car in history. The sleek scarlet cars, however, have lost the championship for the last nine years. Ninety-year-old Enzo Ferrari, the ex-Alfa Romeo driver who started the Italian sports car company after World War II, is counting on Berger to put Ferrari back on top.
The only one of the ``Big Five'' drivers without the advantage of the turbo engine is Mansell, who is frequently compared to retired fellow Englishman Stirling Moss, the ``greatest driver in history never to win a championship.'' Two years in a row now, Mansell has been among the leaders, only to lose his chance for the title due to accidents. Last year he started from the front row every one of the Grand Prix races he entered and won an extraordinary six, but Piquet, who won only half as many races, edged him out via second-place points and took the overall crown.
Rio was Mansell's first race since a long winter of discontent, recovering from a crash in Japan last November. And like most of the drivers of non-turbo cars, he was forced to withdraw early when his new Judd engine overheated.