Motor Racing: Hill's confidence rises as Prost takes pole: David Tremayne reports from Imola

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The Independent Online
DAMON HILL'S burgeoning confidence took him within a whisker of his first pole position here yesterday. Although the young Englishman eventually lost out to his team-mate, Alain Prost, it was an honourable defeat.

After dominating the previous three practice sessions, Hill finished less than a tenth of a second behind Prost following an unruffled performance which underlined further the increasing momentum of his challenge. Characteristically, however, he has played down his role.

'It was incredibly easy to produce this time,' he said yesterday morning as the Williams design staff smiled indulgently. 'I've just been concentrating on driving as tidily and as economically as possible and letting the time unfold. The car felt terrific to drive.'

For Prost, a 24th pole position was satisfactory after his qualifying campaign got off to the worst possible start on Friday morning when he was sidelined following an accidental attack by his close friend Jean Alesi in the Ferrari.

It was also the best riposte to critics who have devoured him in France and Italy following his disappointing performance in the rain-spoiled Grand Prix of Europe at Donington Park two weeks ago. Possibly he also drew a measure of satisfaction at the sight of his arch- rival, Ayrton Senna, floundering with a highly uncharacteristic three accidents in two days.

Polemics have again dominated the paddock conversations this weekend, triggered by Senna's late arrival. Seasoned observers were astonished when the Brazilian elected to stay in Brazil until Thursday, only arriving at the circuit 15 minutes before the first free practice session on Friday.

Some 40 years ago, the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio suffered his only serious accident when he drove overnight from a race in Ireland to the Monza Grand Prix in Italy, only to crash heavily on the second lap through fatigue. The Argentinian sustained neck injuries which forced him out of racing for the season, and he never forgot the brutal lesson.

Memories of that incident were rekindled on Friday as Senna crashed in the morning session, and then emulated his team-mate, Michael Andretti, in the afternoon by spinning into the pit wall. His attempt to dislodge Michael Schumacher's Benetton from third place on the grid ended yesterday afternoon with yet another driving error, which further damaged his McLaren. There were many who felt that such lapses were a result of jetlag sustained during the flight from Brazil.

Off track, the Brazilian has scarcely been able to relax, either, as he and his team boss, Ron Dennis, have been continuing their remorseless lobbying for the rights to the same specification Ford engines as those used by Benetton.

Though McLaren's communications representative tried to bluff his way through the minefield by suggesting that there had never been any question as to whether Senna would drive, it seems clear that his deliberate late arrival was an unsuccessful - and unsubtle - attempt to put yet more pressure on Ford. He came very close to staying at home when he heard that Benetton had spiked a provisional agreement between themselves, Ford and McLaren that would have allowed McLaren to use the latest engines by citing the exclusive contract they enjoy with Ford.

Had McLaren wanted the deal to extend to the 1994 season, the story might have been different, but Dennis has been reluctant to commit his team, preferring to leave his options open.

The situation has been further complicated by Senna announcing on Friday that he had agreed terms to drive for McLaren all year, rather than on the present race-by-race basis. His rider that he had not actually signed the agreement yet went largely overlooked as he went on bitterly to accuse Benetton of moving the goalposts and frustrating the engine deal.

On the track, meanwhile, Hill and Prost were busy moving some goalposts of their own as they continued to establish new benchmarks of performance on a circuit which suits the power of the Renault V10 engine perfectly. After being reinstated following temporary disqualification for an alleged tyre regulation infringement on Friday, Schumacher held on to his third place despite Senna's best but troubled efforts yesterday.

The sight of Karl Wendlinger's Sauber sitting alongside Andretti on the third row has caused a measure of disquiet. In Brazil, the American swerved to avoid the Austrian and collided with Gerhard Berger's Ferrari; last time out at Donington, Wendlinger and Andretti crashed together on the first lap.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola, 5.04km, 3.132 miles) Final qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 22.070sec (ave speed 221.08kph; 137.38mph); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:22.168; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:23.919; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:24.007; 5 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:24.720; 6 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:24.793; 7 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:24.804; 8 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:24.822; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:24.829; 10 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:24.893; 11 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:24.896; 12 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:25.115; 13 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:25.169; 14 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:25.482; 15 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:25.901; 16 JJ Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:25.941; 17 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:26.279; 18 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:26.429; 19 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:26.436; 20 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:26.465; 21 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:26.657; 22 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:26.900; 23 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:27.277; 24 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:27.371; 25 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 1:27.602. Did not qualify: 26 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:27.771.