Motor Racing: Prost and Hill are braced for a bumpy ride

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THE Williams-Renaults of Alain Prost and Damon Hill will start today's German Grand Prix here from the front row, as usual. On this circuit their power should confer a significant advantage, but Michael Schumacher's Benetton and Ayrton Senna's McLaren, which both use the less powerful Ford V8 engine, sit uncomfortably close behind.

Frank Williams is under no illusion and expects a bigger challenge than his rivals could pose recently at Silverstone. There, Williams were in a class of their own, but though this is another quick track that requires a delicate balance between downforce and straight-line speed - both areas in which the FW15C has excelled all year - the bumpy nature of this track has introduced a fresh factor.

'Before we came we thought Hockenheim would be one of the best circuits for our car,' Prost said. 'But that is not the case. It has often been like that this year and part of our problem has been with the active suspension system, which behaves strangely when we run with less wing or on a bumpy circuit. It is difficult to understand. It is a race where you cannot predict anything.'

'It's going to be pretty interesting with Michael and Ayrton involved,' Hill said. 'I think it will be very close between the top four cars. It could be a bit of a cracker. We do have a power advantage here, but Benetton have worked very hard and we are seeing a reduced gap.'

Such comments bear subtle irony on a weekend in which, it seems, the groundwork may have been laid for lasting peace in Formula One. The lighter than usual atmosphere is in part due to the glorious weather and a ticket sell- out that has warmed the hearts of Formula One's burghers. But much of it is the result of a new spirit of co-operation that pervades Formula One after a lengthy meeting of team principals finally thrashed out a suitable compromise that seems set to steer the troubled category into smoother waters for the remainder of the year.

Bernie Ecclestone, the man with a foot in each camp in his roles as the vice-president of marketing for the governing body, Fisa, and the head of the constructors' group, Foca, summed up the thrust of all the recent arguments over regulations. 'Those we have at present were written for propeller-driven planes; now we've got jets. They need to be brought into line with today.' One seasoned pilot, upon hearing that, propounded a contrary view: 'More like we're changing today's jets back to propellers . .

. '

To the thousands of fans who have defied Germany's weakening economy, such niceties matter not, for they sense a possible victory for Schumacher. The local hero snatched back third place from Senna just as the chequered flag ended yesterday's final qualifying session, and he oozes confidence. 'The car felt good, almost perfect,' he enthused on Friday. 'All the changes we have made have been positive.'

For Senna, Schumacher's final spurt was a disappointment, but both believe they have a good chance of edging out the two Williams cars at the start this afternoon. Their Ford V8s require less fuel than the Renault V10, which should confer a subtle weight advantage in the early stages.

Meanwhile, the Britons Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle continued the recent upswing in Ligier-Renault's fortunes with fifth and sixth places on the grid, comfortably quicker than Riccardo Patrese's Benetton.

This is a spooky place, a circuit remembered more for the sad memories that it evokes. On the Frankfurt to Darmstadt autobahn that leads to the 4.2-mile track, a small stone memorial at the side of the road commemorates the dramatic death of the pre-war hero Bernd Rosemeyer, whose Auto Union crashed one windy day in January 1938 as he chased records for Auto Union and the glory of the Third Reich. A similar stone, which was visited by a moved group of Team Lotus personnel yesterday evening, marks the spot where the great Jim Clark was killed 25 years ago.

It can be a dark, threatening place, as the narrow track disappears from the pit stadium to wend its way into countryside densely populated with unyielding pine trees. When it rains here, the spray hangs above the road, trapped. It was here, in 1982, that Alain Prost's Renault was assaulted by Didier Pironi's Ferrari in appalling conditions, when the latter simply failed to see his countryman's car. The resulting accident shattered Pironi's legs and brought his Formula One career to an end.

'It is a bit terrifying, actually,' Hill admitted. 'You're either flat out down a straight with nothing much to do, scrabbling through a chicane or threading through the infield. Perhaps the most dramatic corner is the one leading into the stadium, where you can see all the people there.'

It is not the place for over-active driver imaginations, but today it might just provide the backdrop for the first serious challenge to Williams since Senna won at Donington Park in March.

GERMAN GRAND PRIX (Hockenheim) Final qualifying positions: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams- Renault 1min 38.748sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams- Renault 1:38.905; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:39.580; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:39.616; 5 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:40.135; 6 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:40.855; 7 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:41.101; 8 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:41.138; 9 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:41.242; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:41.304; 11 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:41.449; 12 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:41.531; 13 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:41.564; 14 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:41.642; 15 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:41.858; 16 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:41.945; 17 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:42.025; 18 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:42.032; 19 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:42.203; 20 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:42.656; 21 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:42.682; 22 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:42.786; 23 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:42.910; 24 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:43.007; 25 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:43.345; 26 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:44.166.