It may be for the last time, though. Immediately after claiming pole position, Prost warned that he will retire from racing if he is severely punished next week by Fisa, motor sport's governing body, for critical remarks he is alleged to have made in a magazine interview. 'If ever I am sanctioned, I will stop racing,' he said, after he was reminded of last Friday's prediction by Bernie Ecclestone, one of Fisa's vice-presidents, that he might face suspension for one or two races. Prost added that he had been misquoted, and that he would be taking the tape of the interview to the hearing in Paris on Thursday.
The removal of Prost would deprive Formula One of its strongest current plot-line. The Frenchman's team-mate was among the first to anticipate the possibilities raised by the outcome of yesterday's qualifying session. 'The start is going to be very interesting,' said Damon Hill, who will enjoy a view from the second row, after qualifying fourth. 'It's bound to be pretty frantic for the first couple of laps with those boys up there.'
Prost, whose recent sabbatical means that he has not raced on the redesigned 2.6-mile Kyalami circuit before, took first blood in an enthralling final qualifying session. Both men's artistry and audacity were very clear to see.
The Brazilian beat Prost's overnight mark on his second lap with a time of 1min 16.683sec, only to find Prost reducing it by a further fraction, forcing Senna out again. Now Senna was sliding over the kerbs in a demonstration of his commitment, the McLaren
MP4/8's tail slewing wildly out of line as he came into the finishing straight to stop the clock in 1:15.784, four-fifths of a second under the Frenchman's new time.
There was an immediate reaction from Prost, whose Williams- Renault FW15 by contrast barely clipped the white lines as he shaved off a further few hundredths. Senna's attempted riposte, launched as usual in the final five minutes of the session, was spoilt when clutch trouble stranded him out on the circuit.
The difference between these two and the rest of the field could be gauged both by the gap of one and a half seconds between them and the third-place car, Michael Schumacher's Benetton-Ford, and by the fortunes of their team- mates, in identical cars. Damon Hill was almost two seconds behind his leader, while Michael Andretti, in his first grand prix, could do no better than ninth in the second McLaren, three seconds off the pace. This will certainly have interested Mika Hakkinen, the odd McLaren driver out at this race, but the young Finn must bear in mind that Formula One's marketing people need a top American driver almost as much as they need the renewed rivalry of a pair of three- time world champions.
Behind the front-row men, those with the greatest cause for satisfaction yesterday included Sauber, with top-10 grid positions for both J J Lehto and Karl Wendlinger in the Mercedes-backed Swiss team's first grand prix, and Ligier-Renault, whose English drivers, Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, both qualified in the top half.
The Lotus-Fords of Johnny Herbert and Alessandro Zanardi suffered from a lack of grip which contradicted their good testing form, while for the teams of Footwork- Mugen (including Derek Warwick), Tyrrell-Yamaha and Lola- Ferrari there was only tribulation.
The mood of these underfinanced teams will not have been improved by the news of yet another sponsor for the already well- endowed Williams team. Yesterday's events had begun with the sight of Prost and Hill cavorting for the photographers alongside Sonic the Hedgehog, whose likeness now adorns their cars and their crash helmets. Maybe Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss would have done the same thing, in similar circumstances. Thank goodness no one thought to ask them.
SOUTH AFRICAN GRAND PRIX (Kyalami) Final qualifying positions: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 15.696sec (ave speed 202.647kph, 125.922mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:15.784; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:17.261; 4 D Hill (GB) Williams- Renault 1:17.592; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:18.234; 6 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:18.664; 7 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:18.676; 8 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:18.687; 9 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:18.786; 10 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:18.950; 11 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse- Lamborghini 1:19.034; 12 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:19.138; 13 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:19.285; 14 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:19.305; 15 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:19.386; 16 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:19.396; 17 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:19.498; 18 I Capelli (It) Jordan-Hart 1:19.759; 19 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:20.081; 20 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:20.237; 21 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:20.401; 22 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:20.402; 23 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:20.660; 24 F Barbazza (It) Minardi- Ford 1:20.994; 25 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 1:21.893; 26 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 1:24.737.Reuse content