Motor Racing: Precise Prost tames streets

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The Independent Online
MONTE CARLO is a total paradox. Truth be known, it is a damn silly place to hold a grand prix. The streets which wind round the principality are narrower than a zealot's imagination and drivers flirt every inch with steel and concrete. A mistake here rarely goes unpunished. There is insufficient room for all but the bravest to overtake. This is the place where everyone dreams of starting from pole position.

'It's not really a track for Formula One,' admitted Philippe Alliot, who summarised all the drivers' feelings: 'I like it, but I think I'm a little crazy]'

It certainly helps to be crazy here, and yet . . . This is where you can get close enough to see the bulge of the stars' eyes and almost feel the hammer of their hearts.

To watch at the exit to Casino Square is to appreciate just why the leading Formula One lights are the best. To walk through the tunnel is to suffer an assault by automotive noise. It intoxicates with a delicious blend of fear, admiration and exhilaration. The drivers earn their money here.

For Ayrton Senna here on Thursday, when the first day of practice was ruined by atypical rain, there was more fear than anything else. His day began with a head-on visit to the barriers at 160kph (100mph) when his McLaren grounded over one of the myriad bumps and was flicked suddenly from its trajectory. The man who has dominated this event in the last seven years sprained a thumb badly and counted himself fortunate to complete the afternoon in a brave fifth place.

He went better yesterday when the good weather obliged everyone to start again from scratch, but not well enough to topple Alain Prost from his 28th pole position. Nor, even, to regain the crucial front-row position that he had just lost to Michael Schumacher in a Benetton-Ford that, at last, enjoys traction control to limit its wheelspin.

It was while attempting to beat the German's time that Senna spun entering the chicane on his second qualifying attempt, and thereafter he sat quietly in the sun, watching and, as ever, calculating.

Another win here for him - his sixth - will take him clear of everyone in the Monegasque record books, while a fifth for Prost, the man he deposed as the King of Monaco, will bring them equal, in company with the late Graham Hill. The odds, however, seem stacked against even Senna's awesome arsenal of talent.

Bette Hill, the former queen of the track on which her husband dominated the 1960s, is here this weekend. As her son Damon savoured a glowing performance in setting fastest time in the rain on Thursday, she had smiled contentedly and bristled with maternal pride. He had done a fine job given his limited experience of one of the world's hardest circuits, but felt its bite on Saturday morning when his Williams-Renault spun wildly after a suspension failure exiting the tunnel.

'The left rear corner simply sat down and I stood on the brakes,' he said, relieved that he had not hit anything solid. He is unlikely to enjoy such luck again. He came as close as possible to The Big One without actually having it.

In the afternoon, he had to be satisfied with an honourable fourth as Prost led the way and grabbed the pole position he had so coveted. His Williams, too, had shown evidence of cracks in a rear suspension arm, but like Hill he put all worries from his mind as he took the best advantage of four clear laps early in the session.

'The car felt very good today,' he said with a smile, satisfied even if a subsequent effort to go quicker had been unsuccessful.

His problem today will centre on how well he gets off the line at the start, after a season in which his innate distaste for the necessity to bully the clutch has worked against him. With the aggressive Schumacher alongside him, he cannot afford to be too sympathetic towards his machinery at that vital stage, for the leader at Monaco always has the advantage.

With Schumacher and Senna so close together and Hill right behind, there is the prospect of one of the better Monaco Grands Prix in recent times, especially as the Ferraris of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger sandwich Riccardo Patrese's Benetton on the third and fourth rows of the grid.

Alesi, in particular, was in gifted form yesterday afternoon as he flirted with the concrete walls and steel barriers in a manner reminiscent of the late Gilles Villeneuve. The crowd loved him as he toured back to the pits, and he waved with the satisfaction of one who knows he has given his all.

A first victory for Hill today would both preserve and enhance family history and provide a suitably fairy-tale climax to Formula One's most glamorous weekend. Reality, however, favours the metronomic Prost. It is a while since he stood with Prince Rainer to accept the victory laurels, but the world championship leader has never been more dedicated and hungry than he is at present.