McLaren team dominating 1988 Grand Prix auto racing circuit. Prost, Senna parlay contrasting driving styles to three victories

To the accompaniment of ``La Marseillaise'' and a triumphant chorus of air horns from the flotilla of yachts double-parked in Monaco's harbor, the tiny French race car champion, Alain Prost, mounted the red carpeted stairs and accepted his silver trophy from Prince Rainier III. After a two-hour hair-raising drive through the winding streets of Monte Carlo in his iridescent red and white Formula One McLaren race car, Prost had taken the checkered flag in motor sports' most prestigious race, the Monaco Grand Prix. Prost won it in dramatic fashion, too, overtaking teammate Ayrton Senna in the closing stages as these two continued their domination of the circuit. Together they have won the first three races of the year in their Honda-turbo-powered cars, leading McLaren team manager Ron Dennis to forecast a clean sweep of the 16-race season - a feat no team has ever accomplished.

Thus the battle for the individual championship is resolving into a duel between teammates: ``Professor'' Prost, an experienced driver of great poise and tactical genius, and ``Magic'' Senna, the quick and daring Brazilian prodigy who has qualified in the pole position, first on the starting grid, in all of this year's Grand Prix races. Senna is a risk-taker, though, and while he won at San Marino, he was disqualified in Rio and squandered a lead of almost a minute over Prost here when he clipped a barrier and crashed 11 laps from the finish line.

The Monaco victory was Prost's fourth in five years and the 30th Grand Prix win of his career. Last year in Portugal the French furnituremaker's son broke Jackie Stewart's career record (28 Grand Prix victories), and he continues to reaffirm his position as the winner of more Grand Prix races than any other driver in history.

The two-time world champion won this year's opening race in Rio, finished second in San Marino, and, with Sunday's win here, leads the standings with 24 points. Next come Austrian Gerhard Berger (14 points) in a Ferrari; Senna (9 points); and last year's world champion Nelson Piquet (8 points), driving a Lotus.

The Monaco Grand Prix is not only the ultimate test in driving skill but one of the most glamorous events on the European social calendar. Visiting royalty pay their respects to Prince Rainier, who is not only a motor racing fan but comes from Europe's oldest ruling house. Movie stars from the nearby film festival in Cannes drop by in helicopters to attend the race and the sumptuous post-race gala hosted by the royal family and the Automobile Club of Monaco. This year an entire Concorde flight was chartered to ferry fans from New York to Nice, a six minute chopper ride from Monte Carlo. The flight was arranged by Gilles Noghes, who is not only Monaco's director of tourism but the son of Anthony Noghes, who organized the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929 on a dare from the French Automobile Club, which said the pocket principality was too tiny to hold a car race.

While the Monaco race remains the shortest and slowest course on the 16-race Grand Prix circuit, it happens to be the most spectacular and demanding. The tortuous streets of Monte Carlo require drivers to shift gears at least every three seconds over the two-hour race. The narrow streets offer little opportunity for passing, and drivers race nose to tail, hoping for the leader to miss a gear shift or clip a curb. Temperatures inside the cars exceed 140 degrees, and constant braking on the hairpin turns blisters the driver's feet. Furthermore, the punishing course wreaks mechanical havoc on the finely tuned race cars; last Sunday only 11 of the 26 cars on the starting grid finished the race.

The famous course follows the horseshoe-shaped harbor, nestled beneath the royal palace and the imposing Rock of Monaco. The race begins beside a row of umbrella pines, charges past the 15th century Ste. Devote Church, rises up a hill lined with jewelry and haute couture shops, then bends around the Casino rose garden and posh H^otel de Paris from whose balconies international glitterati watch the blurred parade of the world's most sophisticated race cars. From there the course snakes its way to the Mediterranean, past Portier curve, through a noisy tunnel that exits onto the harbor. The course then wiggles around an Olympic-size swimming pool with a final hairpin around a lobster restaurant, La Rascasse, and down to the finish line.

Sunday's starting grid was headed by Senna on pole, followed by Prost, the two Ferrari drivers (Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto), and English ace Nigel Mansell. Prost got away quickly at the start and might have squirted by Senna at the first narrow Ste. Devote right-hand turn, had Prost not missed a gear change and let Berger slip by into second place. On Lap 29, in an audacious kamikaze move, Alboreto rear-ended Mansell into the outside rail, thus leaving only Senna, Berger, and Prost in front of him. Prost, having trailed nearly two-thirds of the race in the oil and water spray from Berger's Ferrari, overboosted past the Austrian at Ste. Devote on Lap 55.

The Frenchman then began his attack on Senna, who had built a lead of more than 50 seconds, an eternity in a sport where cars can travel the length of a football field in less than one second. But Senna, apparently feeling the pressure from his teammate, speeded up and, on Lap 66, carelessly clipped a curb and crashed at Portier, just before the tunnel. Thus the young Brazilian relinquished to Prost not only the checkered flag but 9 points - which could mean the difference in winning the championship when the season ends in Australia Nov. 15.

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