Motor Racing: Hill faces a mission to mix it

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COULD it be that Alain Prost's Formula One world championship success is not a foregone conclusion, after all? The question has barely been addressed so far this season, least of all by Ayrton Senna, who will be more interested than most to discover the answer.

Senna has stressed at every opportunity that his McLaren-Ford, though significantly better than was anticipated, is still no match for Prost's Williams-Renault, and in a straight contest of speed we have seen sufficient evidence of that. And yet here we are, six races into the campaign, with the two triple champions each having three wins and Senna a five-point lead at the top of the drivers' standings.

Senna has earned those victories - in Brazil, at Donington and here, in Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix - through his own brilliance and self- belief, but also thanks hugely to Prost's profligacy. The Frenchman, who has been on pole for all six races, might, and probably ought, to have all six wins. However, as Senna observed, theory and practice are not necessarily one and the same.

Prost made an error of judgement in Brazil, staying out in the wet too long on slick tyres, he was panicked into stopping too readily and stalled at Donington, and here he jumped the start in his desperation to get away first, a slip which cost him a stop-and-go penalty and the Grand Prix.

Senna points out that the forthcoming circuits will suit Williams, but then all the circuits suit the Williams. What is no longer certain is Prost's capacity to make full use of that advantage. The once impeccable, unperturbable 'professor' is not only fallible but, it would appear, vulnerable to pressure. His aversion to the wet and traffic further undermine his credentials. Williams cannot be confident that he will not go on throwing away as many races as he wins for the rest of the year.

It might have assisted Prost's cause had his team-mate, Damon Hill, been able to compete with Senna. Hardly surprisingly, the Englishman has not managed to do so and, equally understandably, considering his lack of experience, he has resisted adopting a cavalier approach to the job. Williams must now take stock of the situation. Perhaps they will reach the conclusion that Hill should be encouraged to mix it a little more. He does, after all, have the equipment.

One driver relishing the prospect of competing more positively is Michael Schumacher, who felt he should have won on Sunday. He pursued Prost hard in the early stages, then looked a comfortable leader until the active suspension on his Benetton-Ford gave way. He was impressively quick all weekend, demonstrating the benefit of traction control. 'I just can't help wonder what we might have done with this from the start of the season,' he said ruefully.

With 10 races remaining Schumacher can still have an influence on the championship, and, given the form of Senna and the flaws in Prost's racing, the season may have far more to offer than we dared hope. Why, even Ferrari bared their teeth here. A revival of the Prancing Horse really would be a fillip for Formula One.

Monaco, as last year, has paid its dues. Illogical though it is to run a grand prix on streets of such configuration and dimensions, the occasion was as eventful as it remains intoxicating. Almost every driver will tell you it is the supreme challenge, the ultimate prize. It is no coincidence that Graham Hill's record of five wins has been eclipsed by Senna.

Schumacher, who lives in the Principality, said: 'Driving here is something different from normal circuits, where you have more freedom and feel a lot safer. It is something completely different and I don't want to miss it. The atmosphere is fantastic, a real racing atmosphere, as it should be. The last race, in Spain, was like a test session compared with Monaco.'

Some sceptics were suggesting that Sunday's crowd was down on last year, but there can be no disputing the enduring aura of the race.