Motor racing: Danish delight for Dennis

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RON DENNIS has had little cause to smile this year, but though his cars were only 10th and 12th on the grid here yesterday, the beleaguered boss of McLaren looks like a cat that has had its nose in the cream. So much so that he can probably even bear Formula One's new Mastermind joke: "What's the thing you can't do in a McLaren?" "Pass." "Correct."

Dennis, who once admitted that pain is the first thing he feels after any race he has not won (and who must of late have become inured to it), bears the mien of one who knows that he has the circuit's latest prospect firmly under contract. When McLaren's team leader Mika Hakkinen went down with appendicitis, the 22-year-old Dane Jan Magnussen got his call-up, and has taken to Formula One in a style that suggests we shall look back on the 1995 Pacific Grand Prix the way we do the 1991 Belgian, when a new boy called Michael Schumacher came bouncing into the spotlight.

The German himself was once again upstaged by the Williams duo of David Coulthard and Damon Hill in qualifying as all the drivers struggled vainly to squeeze more than one lap out of their tyres before the abrasive nature of the surface sapped the grip. Once again it was the Scot who made the most of his machinery to set the pace on Friday, and against the trend to slower times yesterday he saved his best until the closing moments to underline his right to a fourth consecutive pole position.

Earlier, Hill had slightly improved his Friday time, and was relieved that he had when Schumacher also beat it but just failed to edge him from the all-important front row. But if practice favoured Williams, Schumacher knew that even a fourth place will be sufficient to clinch him a second world title that is already all but his for the celebrating. It is Hill who has the mountain to climb, to restore his jeopardised reputation and to re-establish himself over team-mate Coulthard.

"It was a very exciting session," Coulthard said, "and that time came despite a couple of little mistakes. It's good to have pole here; on such a tight track it's very difficult to overtake."

Through all this Magnussen has displayed all the coolness of a future champion, and even though at one stage on Friday he inadvertently held up Schumacher, he appeared completely unfazed by the whole show. He arrived in F1 via the unconventional route of Mercedes-Benz touring cars rather than the traditional way of Formula 3000. But his pedigree is impeccable, his tally of 14 Formula Three wins in 1993 exceeding even the late Ayrton Senna's record.

He came hoping to be close to team-mate Mark Blundell on the grid, and admitted to being careful on Friday: "I was cautious, real cautious. The idea was simply to play myself in and get used to F1. There wasn't any pressure from the team. I wasn't expecting any miracles; I just went in there and did the best I could. I just wanted to get to know the circuit and the car and go over it in my mind before giving it my best shot on Saturday."

The sad corollary of the emergence of this new prodigy is the way it has tended to overshadow the excellent work being done in the other McLaren by Blundell, who was 10th fastest yesterday. Whereas Magnussen will remain as McLaren's test driver in 1996, the valiant Blundell is being replaced by Coulthard. Thus does the wheel of fortune rotate in Formula One.