Motor Racing: Mansell closes on pole and Williams seat

Nigel Mansell successfully negotiated the first part of his weekend's business here yesterday, resisting the challenge of Ayrton Senna's McLaren-Honda and Jean Alesi's Ferrari (remember where we are]) to take provisional pole position for tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix.

The seemingly more exacting activity, securing a new contract with Williams-Renault, goes on amid growing expectancy that he will have the opportunity of defending his world championship. Mansell is hopeful, if cautious, and Frank Williams, the managing director of Williams, said: 'I am optimistic of a successful outcome - that is that Nigel will stay.'

Williams refused to identify any stumbling block or disclose details of their talks. He did, however, maintain that all his team's partners and sponsors shared his desire to retain Mansell, and that the team was not engaged in discussions with any other driver.

It is understood that Williams has been attempting to reduce Mansell's salary considerably, so it is reasonable to assume he has sponsors' backing to find a middle ground. That could be arrived at today, although Williams said: 'The only deadline we have as far as we are concerned is mid-January. I sincerely hope, though, it will happen before then. The sooner the better.'

Alain Prost is believed to have tied up the other seat at the team and Williams confirmed he preferred to announce his 1993 drivers simultaneously. 'It's tidier that way,' he said.

This whole episode has been far from tidy and the lingering uncertainty has had a knock-on effect down the pit lane. The British drivers, Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell and Damon Hill, are among those in the queue, but Senna has followed developments more closely than most. He complicated Mansell's plans when he offered his services to Williams 'for nothing', but it appears one of his sources of personal sponsorship was closed to him yesterday.

McLaren's managing director, Ron Dennis, accepted that his chances of retaining Senna cannot be determined until the situation at Williams has been resolved. Dennis, in turn, declines to give Senna the inside track on his negotiations for an engine supplier to replace Honda, who have formally announced their decision to 'suspend' their Formula One operation at the end of the season.

Dennis admitted there was not a manufacturer he had not spoken to but was still seeking a new partner for McLaren. He insisted, however, the signing of the American Michael Andretti was not linked with his strategy.

He indicated that if Senna decided to leave he would hire an experienced Formula One driver. Of Senna's declared intention to race on next season only with the prospect of driving a winning car, Dennis said: 'He lives for winning and I accept that. No problem. If he has a better chance elsewhere, he will take it, or have a sabbatical.'

Dennis, refusing to contemplate life among the also-rans, added: 'The one thing that drives me on is that I am a bad loser. We have re-signed with every one of our sponsors, almost all of them for four years, and I believe we are unique in terms of our commercial resources. Whatever it takes, it will get done.'

McLaren-Honda have dominated Formula One for the past four years but have been unable to halt the takeover by Williams-Renault this season. They tried out their active suspension system yesterday, although it will not be risked in the race. Senna described it as 'a little too active'.

Mansell always had the edge in the first qualifying session yesterday yet finished less than three- tenths of a second ahead of Senna. The Englishman said: 'I'm pleased to be on provisional pole because we had problems with power and the handling of the car. We'll need to be quicker to keep pole.'

If he does, it will be his 11th in 13 races. Victory would be his ninth of the season, eclipsing Senna's record from 1988.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza) First qualifying times: 1 N Mansell (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 22.586sec (ave speed 252.827kph, 157.103mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Honda 1:22.822; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:22.976; 4 R Patrese (It) Williams-Renault 1:23.022; 5 G Berger (Aut) McLaren-Honda 1:23.997; 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:24.143; 7 M Brundle (GB) Benetton-Ford 1:24.551; 8 I Capelli (It) Ferrari 1:24.877; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) Lotus-Ford 1:25.108; 10 T Boutsen (Bel) Ligier-Renault 1:25.173; 11 B Gachot (Bel) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:25.173; 12 E Comas (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:25.178; 13 M Alboreto (It) Footwork- Mugen Honda 1:25.234; 14 O Grouillard (Fr) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.354; 15 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Ilmor 1:25.502; 16 P Martini (It) Dallara- Ferrari 1:25.528; 17 G Morbidelli (It) Minardi- Lamborghini 1:25.575; 18 A Suzuki (Jap) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:25.775; 19 J J Lehto (Fin) Dallara-Ferrari 1:25.951; 20 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:26.162; 21 E Naspetti (It) March- Ilmor 1:26.279; 22 G Tarquini (It) Fondmetal- Ford 1:26.307; 23 M Gugelmin (Bra) Jordan- Yamaha 1:26.463; 24 K Wendlinger (Aut) March-Ilmor 1:26.667; 25 U Katayama (Jap) Venturi-Lamborghini 1:27.018; 26 E Van De Poele (Bel) Fondmetal-Ford 1:27.019; 27 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Lamborghini 1:27.228; 28 S Modena (It) Jordan-Yamaha 1:27.331.

Fuel for Ferrari, page 47