Motor Racing: Pole position for Prost despite pressure

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ALAIN PROST'S 25th pole position here today bore an uncharacteristic stamp of drama. Normally, 'The Professor's' trademark is a style so unobtrusive that it makes the art of high-speed driving seem disconcertingly easy.

This weekend, however, the Williams-Renaults have lacked the poise that has thus far kept them ahead of their opposition. Prost twitched and slid his way to the fastest time only after a succession of laps that had been frustrated by track and traffic conditions, and it was a masterful performance. His team-mate Damon Hill was the first to acknowledge that, as he saw what could have been the first pole of his career snatched away.

'The chassis set-up is very critical here,' he said. 'It's a very fine line between good and bad, and we have improved it as the weekend has progressed, but the cars are difficult to set up for this track.'

That, of course, has been of scant comfort to rivals left once again in their wake.

Again, Ayrton Senna, third on the grid ahead of Michael Schumacher in the Benetton, has been obliged to play only a supporting role while he continues his race- by-race arrangement with McLaren. In the past, team representatives have stressed that 'fiscal' considerations have not influenced his refusal to sign a full contract, yet this weekend the McLaren managing director, Ron Dennis, admitted: 'I have told Ayrton that he must look for his material benefits elsewhere.' In other words, the deficit between what he wants and what Dennis can afford to pay him wil not be made up from McLaren's pocket.

Both men have weightier matters on their mind than such arguments. For Senna, life centres around the struggle to match the power of the Williams-Renaults on a circuit with a long straight that is tailor-made for them, and this afternoon, in particular, around an electronic gremlin that lost him most of the session.

Dennis, meanwhile, has been considering politics as well as racing strategy as moves are afoot behind the scenes to alter the entire governmental structure of the sport. The Fisa president, Max Mosley, and the vice-president of marketing, Bernie Ecclestone, are reportedly keen to scrap the Concorde Agreement, under which all teams must agree before technical regulation changes can be effected. Dennis shares Frank Williams' view that no brake should be placed on Formula One's role as the technological pinnacle, and has been soliciting support to oppose Mosley's plans which would allow instant rule changes based on a majority vote.

Senna's imperious manner has not been questioned just in technical matters of late. After the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola he summoned Hill to his presence and warned him never to employ blocking tactics against him as the Briton did when attempting to defend his lead.

If the way he drove in Imola endorsed the progress he is making, Hill's response will have laid a further marker for the former champion as indication of his growing maturity and confidence. 'I told him that I didn't think I had done anything that I hadn't seen him do in his own career,' Hill said.

Intimidation has long been one of Senna's greatest weapons, and one of the few who has been impervious to it is Nigel Mansell. The reigning world champion was very much a focus of paddock gossip this weekend. For some weeks, the performances of his former team- mate Riccardo Patrese have been a source of 'disappointment' to the Benetton boss, Flavio Briatore. A recent lunch in London between Briatore, Ecclestone and a close friend of Mansell's sparked speculation that the way was being prepared for Mansell to return to Formula One in place of the Italian.

Briatore denied the suggestion. 'Obviously I am concerned about Riccardo,' he admitted. 'If he has another disappointing weekend here we will have to consider what to do.'

In fact, Patrese staged his best qualifying performance of the season by lining up behind Schumacher and ahead of the duo of Karl Wendlinger in the Sauber and Michael Andretti in the second McLaren. Nevertheless, if a deal with Mansell does not happen in 1993 - and most feel it is unlikely - such a return for him in 1994 is certainly not unfeasible.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona) Final qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 17.809sec (ave speed 219.63kph); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:18.346; 3 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:19.722; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:20.520; 5 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:20.600; 6 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:21.203; 7 M Andretti (US) McLaren- Ford 1:21.360; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:21.767; 9 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:22.047; 10 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:22.470; 11 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:22.655; 12 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:22.708; 13 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:22.887; 14 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:22.904; 15 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:23.026; 16 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:23.086; 17 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:23.232; 18 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:23.357; 19 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:23.452; 20 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi- Ford 1:23.449; 21 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:23.464; 22 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:24.268; 23 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:24.291; 24 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:24.358; 25 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 1:24.399. Did not qualify: 26 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:25.396.