Motor Racing: Ascent of Hakkinen unsettles Senna

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THE OLD order is beginning to change at last. Qualifying for today's Japanese Grand Prix here has made it clear that the challenge of the sport's young lions is growing stronger race by race.

Although Alain Prost maintained Williams-Renault's equilibrium with fastest times on both days, the opposition is beginning to make inroads into the advantage enjoyed so often by the Williams-Renault alliance this season.

On Friday afternoon Michael Schumacher rose to the occasion for Benetton-Ford to set the fastest time. He then watched as Prost bettered it by a mere two-thousandths of a second, and the wry smile that creased his spoon-shaped face bore no trace of self-doubt or disappointment. It was the smile of a man acknowledging another's fine achievement, but equally it was indicative of the German's latent confidence.

Yesterday it was Prost's turn to smile broadly, in appreciation of the determination of Gerhard Berger as the Austrian temporarily placed his Ferrari at the head of the pack. Prost then calmly stepped back into his car to give yet another demonstration of his artistry as he regained the advantage.

In the pit between Williams and Benetton, Ayrton Senna's countenance has told another story, for here has been yet further evidence that his new McLaren team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, of Finland, really is as fast as we have long suspected. Having been very quick in qualifying in his first race for the team in Estoril recently, Hakkinen has lost no time proving that his speed in Portugal was no mere flash in the pan.

To match Senna in a similar car is to be something very special indeed, and the Brazilian has not had to work so hard since Prost was his partner. On Saturday the two of them traded the second-fastest time, with Senna only narrowly bettering Hakkinen's effort. When his car stopped just before the end of qualifying, he stood pensively by the side of the track, watching the Finn intently.

The broadest smile, however, has been worn by a newcomer, Eddie Irvine, of Ulster. Eighth-fastest time in the Jordan-Hart has been a telling indication of what a blend of circuit knowledge (from Japanese Formula 3000 races), commitment and a head uncluttered by Formula One dogma can achieve and this splendid performance has justly catapulted him into the media spotlight.

In a country where saving face is all-important, Damon Hill managed to get egg all over his after crashing his Williams trying to improve on his own temporarily fastest time. Ron Dennis, the McLaren boss, managed to make that look like a rather minor faux pas although he did a good job of wiping his countenance after inadvertently wiping off a corner of his elegant new McLaren F1 road car, which he crashed somewhat publicly during a brief lap of the circuit on Friday morning.

In a month in which his new engine-supply deal with Peugeot has upset Chrysler, who believed they had agreed a deal, Dennis's misfortune was compounded by the presence of the irreverent Berger in one of the passenger seats, for the ex- McLaren driver has lost no time in ribbing his former employer.

'You know, I see this coming the moment we go out,' he confided with a chuckle. 'When it happens, it is funnier than Mr Bean,' he said.