Motor Racing / Brazilian Grand Prix: Senna motivated by mind games: Hero in his homeland marks Formula One anniversary as Schumacher heralds arrival of new generation: Richard Williams reports from Sao Paulo on signs of a keener challenge for Williams

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HE IS claiming that it will be an open championship this year, but Ayrton Senna's deeds are sending out a brusquer message altogether. Not even a spirited challenge by Michael Schumacher yesterday in the rain-affected final qualifying session for today's Brazilian Grand Prix could deflect Senna from the task of establishing his dominance of the 1994 season.

In his first appearance for the Williams-Renault team, Senna will start this afternoon's race - at the Interlagos autodrome here, his home circuit - ahead of Schumacher's Benetton-Ford and Jean Alesi's Ferrari. On the day he celebrates the 10th anniversary of his arrival in grand prix racing, it will be Senna's 63rd start from pole position.

The only real uncertainty involves the likelihood of further rain, making the presence at the front of the grid of these three brilliant drivers, each a master of wet conditions, an appealing prospect.

Not, however, for the drivers themselves, who are having to do without the banned computer-controlled aids that eliminated wheelspin, locking brakes and aquaplaning. After practice yesterday, Senna warned that this, combined with the circuit's poor drainage, meant serious danger in the event of another heavy downpour. 'If it rains like that again,' he said, 'they'll have to bring out the pace car straight away, or stop the race.' To add an extra element of unpredictability, today's race also marks the controversial return of mid- race refuelling, banned at the end of 1983 on safety grounds but now restored, against the wishes of almost all the teams, in the hope of making the races more tactically interesting.

Damon Hill, Senna's team- mate, starts from a respectable fourth position, after a practice interrupted by various irritations, from a sudden chill to an onboard fire extinguisher going off involuntarily. One and a half seconds behind Senna's best lap of 1min 15.962sec, his effort was spoiled first by traffic on the twisty, undulating, 2.7-mile circuit, and then by the rain, which swept in half-way through the final one-hour session.

Three teams staked an early claim to a place at the head of the midfield pack. The well-prepared Saubers of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger start fifth and seventh, sandwiching the Footwork-Ford of Gianni Morbidelli - whose team-mate, Christian Fittipaldi, finished 11th. The new Tyrrell- Yamahas also showed promise in the hands of Ukyo Katayama (10th) and Mark Blundell (12th).

Ninth was Jos Verstappen, the 21-year-old Dutchman who is standing in for the injured J J Lehto in the second Benetton. Verstappen is one of five drivers making their grand prix debuts in today's race - each no doubt inspired by the knowledge that Senna followed his first appearance at the wheel of a Toleman- Hart in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix with his first world championship point only a fortnight later in South Africa.

Among the debutants is Frentzen, a 26-year-old Bavarian who comes from the same Mercedes training scheme that produced Schumacher and Wendlinger, and who appears to have the sort of natural speed - the combination of flair with a courage bordering on stupidity - that makes a real grand prix driver. So, it seems, does Verstappen, who has competed in fewer than 50 races of any kind but showed in a couple of spins during practice a proper desire to explore the limits of his car and himself.

Senna - now, at 34, the third oldest man in the field - was up to his old mind games almost before the dust of practice had settled. Sharing a press conference with Patrick Faure, the president of Renault Sport, the world champion of 1988, 1990 and 1991 was given the perfect opportunity when a journalist invited him to comment on the signs of a narrowing of the gap between the Williams and Schumacher's Benetton, compared with last season.

'True,' Senna responded. 'We've seen today the gap being almost insignificant between our car and Schumacher's' Then he took a deep breath, and half- turned towards the man from Renault. 'As far as the future season is concerned,' he resumed, 'it all depends on the development programmes that both Williams-Renault and Benetton-Ford can do. It's an open championship at this stage. I hope Mr Faure will keep on pushing the technicians from Renault to ensure that they continue the development of the engine, and also push Frank Williams and Patrick Head and all the engineers to get the new modifications in the development of the chassis.'

It is a familiar gambit from Senna's considerable repertoire of psychological warfare, but it is an effective one. Renault and Williams were being put on notice that, notwithstanding their two consecutive championships with Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost, now they must match the standards of an altogether more exigent character. Nothing less will do, he was saying, than total commitment. Williams and Head, who started at the bottom and fought their way to the top, might be excused for believing that they have nothing to learn about commitment from Senna.

Whether anyone other than the super-confident Schumacher will be in shape to offer a significant challenge to the Brazilian is another matter. Hill will do well to keep Senna within sight. Alesi, starting his fourth season at Ferrari and still without a grand prix win, will exploit whatever potential there may be in John Barnard's new 412T, whose voluptuous looks and V12 scream are undermined by its reluctance to go round corners.

For the McLaren team, winners of six constructors' championships in the last 10 years, there was not such good news. Mika Hakkinen's eighth place on the grid in the new Peugeot-powered car was a great deal better than Martin Brundle's 18th, but still hardly in keeping with the recent traditions of the team. Both cars were troubled by sticking throttles, the legacy of a misguided insistence on sticking with the banned 'fly-by-wire' device until late in winter testing.

This season's complex rule changes, and the imposition by FIA, the international motor sports authority, of what some designers considered to be laws open to subjective interpretation, had been expected to lead to a rash of protests here. But the run-up to the race could not have been quieter if the constructors had put their heads together and agreed to swallow their rivalries for the short-term good of a sport recently imperilled by its over-indulgence in political warfare at the expense of entertainment.

Formula One teams being very competitive and inherently paranoid, this mood of tranquillity is unlikely to survive the first runaway victory.

If Senna celebrates his anniversary today by disappearing over the horizon when the lights turn green, we may expect attention to be focused on such questions as that of the wing- like rear suspension of the new Williams FW16, and whether it constitutes a 'moveable aerodynamic device' within the meaning of the laws.

Which would be a lot less fun than arguing about whether Schumacher is now a faster driver than Senna, and whether Alesi will get the chance to prove he is better than both.

(Photograph omitted)