Whether he starts tomorrow's San Marino Grand Prix from the head of the grid depends on his ability to fend off the Frenchman again in today's concluding qualifying session. The chances are that Prost, who missed most of yesterday morning's practice session following a collision with Jean Alesi's Ferrari, will be better prepared for the contest.
However, contest it now appears to be and that, in itself, is a measure of Hill's growing confidence and stature. After two second places he is gaining the momentum which might make him a serious threat to the three-times world champion in only his sixth race. Hill completed a sterling performance yesterday afternoon, two-tenths of a second in front of his partner.
If the weather stays dry, reliability ought to be Williams's only concern. Michael Schumacher and Benetton-Ford had the enormous satisfaction of edging out Ayrton Senna and McLaren-Ford for third place, only for the German to be disqualified from the session for using an unapproved tyre compound. But then they were 1.2sec behind Prost. Ferrari gave the natives some consolation with fourth and fifth places after the reclassification, Gerhard Berger getting marginally the better of Alesi.
Hill, who carries 0 on his car, was typically self-effacing, saying: 'I'm sure some people will wonder who this 0 Hill is at the top. They'll probably think it's an Irishman. It's nice to be above Prost and Senna, but if I'm still there tomorrow I'll really think I have passed another milestone.
'I had my first proper test here with Williams and it always helps in terms of confidence when you know a circuit. When Alain went off in the morning I had the opportunity. I smelled blood.'
Hill has eked out results from the last two races despite the conditions, in the process impressing Britain's most experienced current Formula One competitor, Derek Warwick. The 38-year-old Footwork driver, 12th yesterday, said: 'Having fallen off in South Africa, Damon put a lot of pressure on himself. He was criticised in Brazil, but he got points in the bag and did a good job at Donington.'
Prost, the clear pre-season favourite, has had two depressing outings in the rain and fallen 12 points behind Senna. He is only two points in front of Hill.
Senna, who flew from Brazil overnight, arrived at the circuit five minutes before unofficial practice and had spins in both sessions, ultimately coming to rest at the point where his hapless team-mate, Michael Andretti, slammed backwards into the pit wall. The American's car was patched up only for him to discover a gearbox problem and he drove past the weighbridge on his way back to the pits, a misdemeanour which cost him disqualification from the session.
Senna claimed he was within two or three days of signing an agreement with McLaren for the season, although his boss, Ron Dennis, said he was 'not uncomfortable' with race-to-race negotiations. He, it seems, is prepared to pay the driver what he wants as long as the sponsors chip in. But that has proved a problem. The wrangle over the best of Ford's engines goes on. Benetton have indicated they are willing to share the power plants with McLaren, yet want to know what is in it for them.
Back on the track, Mark Blundell had a satisfactory day, seventh fastest in the Ligier-Renault. Johnny Herbert was ninth in the Lotus-Ford and Martin Brundle 14th in the other Ligier-Renault.
SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola, 5.04km, 3.132 miles) First qualifying times: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 22.540sec (ave speed 219.821kph; 136.590mph); 2 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1:22.788; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:24.042; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:24.822; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:24.906; 6 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:24.916; 7 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:25.405; 8 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:25.482; 9 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:25.742; 10 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:25.789; 11 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:25.941; 12 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:25.971; 13 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:26.142; 14 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:26.181; 15 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:26.465; 16 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:26.707; 17 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:26.810; 18 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:26.947; 19 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:27.312; 20 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:27.371; 21 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:27.569; 22 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:27.753; 23 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:27.801; 24 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 1:28.032. Excluded: M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:31.809 (did not stop for red light at weighbridge); M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:23.988 (unapproved tyre compound).
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