Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Williams look for the old one-two again: Prost claims pole from British team-mate as local pride is set aside in the search for success

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NIGEL MANSELL'S long shadow has fallen over the track this weekend, as the crowd seeks not only a gripping grand prix to erase the dull memories of Magny- Cours last week, but, ideally, a British victory.

As Mansell competes in the IndyCar World Series in Cleveland, Ohio, the pressure that has been on Damon Hill all season has built to a climax of patriotic fervour and expectation.

The 32-year-old Briton came within 0.343sec of his first grand prix victory in France last week as he followed his Williams-Renault team-mate, Alain Prost, home, but it is important not to read too much into the story. In front of the Renault president, Louis Schweitzer, victory on home ground was an imperative: given the superiority of the Williams FW15Cs in qualifying at Magny-Cours, nothing else could ever have been acceptable. The first Williams one- two of the season, however, once again opened the floodgate of criticism of Frank Williams, who has been exhorted not to order Hill to play team tactics to safeguard Prost, as he did in France.

Such navety overlooks several factors. The result of the French Grand Prix was indeed close, but it did not tell the full truth, for neither Prost nor Hill was driving flat-out since they had no need to. They were so superior to the Benetton-Ford of Michael Schumacher and the McLaren-Ford of Ayrton Senna - as well as the Renault-engined Ligiers of the Britons Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell - that there was no need to stress their machinery, nor to take chances racing each other.

The talk all week has been of a tit-for-tat switch of team orders this weekend, to allow Hill to take his first win. But, as a former champion, Mario Andretti, once said to his son Michael, when the latter ventured the opinion that his pater might have let him win a race: 'Michael, that's not the way it works.'

Williams has never been a man to be swayed by media pressure: witness last year's feeble campaign by a national newspaper to picket his factory in an attempt to make him reinstate Mansell.

'I have absolutely no comment to make. Team tactics are a private matter,' Williams said yesterday. Behind that statement lies a ruthless pursuit of the World Championship, and with Prost leading by only 12 points from his arch-rival, Ayrton Senna, there is no room for sentiment. More crucially, Williams could stand to lose 34 points from Canada and France, plus whatever they score today, if the meeting of the FISA World Motor Sport Council later this week decides that cars with active suspension and traction control - such as the Williams FW15C - are illegal. Such a ruling could change the face of the World Championship struggle, for while Prost would drop at least 20 points, on current scoring Senna would drop only four.

It was not until yesterday afternoon that anyone could be sure that the Williams-Renaults would enjoy the same superiority at Silverstone that they had in France. Indeed, on Thursday night it was by no means a foregone conclusion to Bernard Dudot, the designer of the Renault V10 engine.

'The Williams is a very good car aerodynamically,' he said, 'but the Benetton has a very good suspension system, and that has made it very fast round this track, where the surface is not completely smooth. McLaren, too, will be a big threat to us here.'

For this weekend Ayrton Senna has the same specification Ford V8 engine as Schumacher has enjoyed all season, and he desperately needs a good result to keep his World Championship hopes alive. However, yesterday afternoon's qualifying session, the only one held in fully dry conditions, developed into a dramatic shoot- out between Prost and Hill for pole position. First Prost had the upper hand, but then a dramatic lap of 1:19.134 took Hill to the fore. As he toured back to the pits, waving to the crowd and his on-board camera, Murray Walker told him on his radio that he had taken pole position. Barely had the words been uttered, however, than Prost finished his own fastest lap. A time of 1:19.006 was sufficient to restore the status quo, and to leave the opposition breathless.

'One way to be quick is to be confident and relaxed,' Hill said. 'But the attention you get at your home grand prix makes relaxing very hard. I'm not used to the tension, but it was a good spur to get the best from the car.'

He and Prost both evaded questions about race tactics, but when asked if he would try to hold Prost off if he beat him to the first corner Hill's response was tart. 'I'd be a funny sort of racing driver if I didn't . . .'

Until Schumacher took over his team-mate Riccardo Patrese's car, after crashing his own, Senna had been third fastest, almost three seconds adrift. Towards the end, the troubled Brazilian was pushed back a place as Schumacher hit his stride, but the German still could not match the Anglo-French cars.

BRITISH GRAND PRIX (Silverstone) Final qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 19.006sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:19.134; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:20.401; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:21.986; 5 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:22.364; 6 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:22.421; 7 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:22.487; 8 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:22.834; 9 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:22.885; 10 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:23.077; 11 M Andretti (US) McLaren- Ford 1:23.114; 12 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:23.203; 13 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:23.257; 14 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:23.533; 15 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:23.635; 16 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:24.071; 17 E Comas (Fr) Larrouse-Lamborghini 1:24.139; 18 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:24.525; 19 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:24.664; 20 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:24.718; 21 A De Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:25.254; 22 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:25.343; 23 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:25.363; 24 P Alliot (Fr) Larrouse-Lamborghini 1:25.397; 25 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:26.239. Did not qualify: 26 Michele Alboreto (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 1:26.520.

(Photograph omitted)

Richard Williams, page 25