Motor Racing: Hill accepts his place in Prost's wake: French Grand Prix suffers as a spectacle from Williams' subordination of competition to the corporate cause

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The Independent Online
ALAIN PROST took another huge stride towards a fourth world championship before his compatriots here yesterday as Williams-Renault demonstrated they remain as imperious as ever they were.

Such was their superiority in the French Grand Prix, Prost and his team-mate, Damon Hill, were able to circulate in nose-to-tail formation, neither taking undue risks to fend off or attack the other. They crossed the line a mere 0.3sec apart. They had the luxury of being able to slow down towards the end and still finish comfortably ahead of Michael Schumacher's Benetton-Ford. Ayrton Senna, in a McLaren-Ford, was fourth and Martin Brundle maintained his form with fifth place in a Ligier-Renault. Michael Andretti bustled his way to sixth place in the other McLaren.

Hill, starting from his first pole position, led until the Williams' tyre stops, where he was held up going into the pits and almost hit by another car returning to the track. The Williams pair indulged in a brief duel, but Prost took charge and thereafter it was a matter of merely counting down the laps.

The Williams camp were still coy about tactics, though both drivers conceded there had been no attempt to race in the closing stages and Hill acknowledged his duty to the corporate cause. As a team strategy it made perfectly good sense. Prost needed more breathing space between himself and Senna at the top of the driver standings and both English and French factions of the organisation were anxious to register their first one-two success of the season here.

As a spectacle, however, it was a grossly unsatisfying offering and, now that Prost has a 12-point advantage over the Brazilian, perhaps Hill and the paying public at Sunday's British Grand Prix will be granted a contest worthy of the billing. The fact is that no other team are likely to threaten Williams, so we have to rely on them to provide the sport.

Frank Williams, the team's principal, offered that prospect, saying, 'I would never tell Damon not to race.' Hill, second for a fourth time, said: 'Victory was a possibility here but the pit-stop cost me time. Next week I have a very strong chance to go one better.'

Prost, now seeking his 50th Formula One victory, suggested he anticipated a genuine confrontation. He said: 'Damon proved here how fast he is and I would be happy for him if he won his own grand prix, but I have to think of the championship.'

That was patently in Prost's thoughts yesterday, and winning for the sixth time on French soil made the fare all the more palatable. He nervously switched to a virtually untried spare car and, to his immense relief, it never missed a beat.

He said: 'It was the race I did not want to lose and I was concerned about the reliability, but the car was absolutely perfect. It was an important result for me and for the team. The next race will be challenging for me. Damon will be difficult to beat. That's why I wanted to win so much here.

'It is one of my best wins in terms of the feeling. I remember winning the French Grand Prix at Le Castellet 10 years ago in front of 20,000 fans. Now we have big crowds and they show they are very happy. Damon will get the same feeling next week.'

Prost said he was surprised how easily he and Hill were able to shrug off the opposition, the gulf in class becoming apparent barely a couple of laps into the race. The jousting, therefore, was for the rest of the places, and for a while Brundle and his fellow Briton Mark Blundell held their grid positions, third and fourth. Blundell, however, tangled with Andrea de Cesaris and found himself in a tyre barrier.

A second pit-stop relegated Brundle to fifth and, while Senna chose to make only one change, Benetton sensed the opportunity to expoit a potential weakness and called in Schumacher for more fresh rubber. The German duly nibbled at Senna's advantage and went past him nine laps from the end.

Schumacher said: 'We have had some good fights together and weren't quite able to finish it in Montreal because he had a problem. This time I was the winner. Usually he takes advantage of the back markers but today I was able to do so.'

Brundle also targeted Senna - shades of their 1983 British Formula Three campaign - but was a tantalising 1.3sec adrift at the end. 'Two more points is good, but I am going home disappointed,' he said. Johnny Herbert, in a Lotus-Ford, battled in vain against Gerhard Berger and Derek Warwick, sliding off the track. Warwick, in a Footwork-Mugen Honda, went on to finish 13th.

Back at the Williams motorhome, Frank Williams thanked Hill for his contribution, both on and off the track. We must wait to see if his endeavours and diplomacy are to be rewarded at Silverstone.


FRENCH GRAND PRIX 72 laps (306.00km): 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1hr 38min 35.241sec (ave speed 186.231kph); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault +0.342sec; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford +21.209; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford +32.405; 5 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault +33.795; 6 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford, 1 lap; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Hart 1; 8 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1; 9 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 2; 10 R Patrese (It) Benetton- Ford 2; 11 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 2; 12 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 2; 13 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 2; 14 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 2; 15 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 4; 16 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 6. Did not finish: 17 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 47 laps completed; 18 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 28; 19 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 25; 20 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 22; 21 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 20; 22 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 16; 23 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 16; 24 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 9; 25 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 3. Fastest lap: Schumacher 1min 19.256sec (193.045kph).

WORLD DRIVERS' CHAMPIONSHIP: 1 Prost 57pts; 2 Senna 45; 3 Hill 28; 4 Schumacher 24; 5 Brundle 9; 6= Blundell, Herbert 6; 8= Lehto, Patrese, Fittipaldi, Berger 5; 12 Alesi 4; 13 Andretti 3; 14= Alliot, Barbazza 2; 16= Zanardi, Wendlinger 1.

CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP: 1 Williams 85pts; 2 McLaren 48; 3 Benetton 29; 4 Ligier 15; 5 Ferrari 9; 6= Lotus, Minardi 7; 8 Sauber 6; 9 Larrousse 2.

(Photograph omitted)