Motor Racing: Prost coasts home as Hill slides into trap: Williams-Renault No 1 closes the championship gap on Senna after the McLaren-Ford driver fails to finish a race of attrition

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THE rains eased, the anxieties diminished and Alain Prost regained his foothold on the climb to the Formula One world championship yesterday.

Yet again, changing weather conditions influenced the course of a race, but this time not so drastically as to undermine the performance of the Frenchman and, assisted by the misfortune which beset those closest to him, he won the San Marino Grand Prix here comfortably clear of the other survivors.

His Williams-Renault was never under threat from Michael Schumacher's Benetton-Ford and the German, in turn, was an isolated second, ahead of Martin Brundle's Ligier-Renault. The breathing space at the end belied the tension and claustrophobic drama of the early afternoon.

Each of the three on the podium had his own fight to win, his own pressure to release. Prost, hounded by the French media as well as Ayrton Senna, needed to repair his battered credibility after Brazil and Donington, and he effectively saw off the Brazilian, in the McLaren-Ford, and Damon Hill, in the other Williams, before they went out of the race.

Prost said: 'I feel very tired because mentally this weekend was very difficult. I was a bit lucky that Ayrton did not finish and now the championship is balanced. I hope there is a little less pressure now and it will be easier to work.'

Schumacher and his camp have been under siege, too. The lobby from McLaren for engine parity has compounded an uncertain start to the season. Benetton's engineering director, Tom Walkinshaw, insists negotiations with McLaren have irretrievably broken down, but another failure on the track might, to say the least, have been embarrassing. Schumacher ensured that did not happen.

Brundle arrived here without a finish, just as he had done as a Benetton driver. Twelve months ago he emerged with fourth place and maintained his form for the rest of the season. Yesterday, he wished for a re-run of 1992.

'This is a good result for me and the team,' Brundle said. 'I needed it. A lot of pressure is off me now. They expected a lot of me here, then I turn up and throw it into the wall. That's not the way it was supposed to be.'

The demise of Hill, with brake problems, Senna, because of a hydraulic failure, and Jean Alesi's Ferrari, with a broken clutch, elevated Brundle up the order, but he muscled his way past Karl Wendlinger's Sauber to strengthen his hand.

Fourth place went to Wendlinger's team-mate, J J Lehto, despite the fact that he had to abandon his car with a blown engine two laps from the end.

Johnny Herbert and Alessandro Zanardi appeared to be carrying Lotus towards the points until the former suffered an engine failure and the latter had the most spectacular of exits. The Italian spun yet returned to the track trailing flames from his disintegrating car. Eventually he lost a wheel and parked. He said: 'I could see the car was on fire and you know how you think really quickly sometimes? I remembered Gerhard Berger's 1989 accident here and I knew the marshals at Tamburello (the final corner) were very efficient so that's where I went. Seriously]'

The long-predicted rain arrived at lunchtime and, although not heavy, meant wet tyres were required for the start. Hill came out of the pack with the lead, while Senna outmanoeuvred an understandably reticent Prost. Senna resisted the senior Williams driver for half a dozen tantalising laps, giving Hill the opportunity to pull clear. He was 10 seconds ahead when Senna and Prost went in for slicks.

The Englishman, conscious of the price he and Prost paid for hasty pit- stop decisions at Donington, delayed his tyre change for a further two laps. It was another miscalculation, conceding the intitiative. Although Hill came out in front of the other two, he completed that lap in third place. Prost went by the McLaren and the other Williams and proceeded to command the race in the manner to which he was once accustomed.

Hill's day was over at Tosa, a sharp left-hander. He simply went straight on into the gravel trap. He said: 'We've had a brake problem all weekend. I had some fun but the experience of Prost and Senna took over a bit. I'm disappointed. When you have a good start, of course it occurs to you that you might win.'

Mark Blundell did not make it to the first corner, his Ligier snapping out of control and ramming the wall. Derek Warwick survived a spin but went off again at a chicane in mid- race and was not given a third chance.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola, 61 laps, 307.44km, 191.034 miles): 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams- Renault 1hr 33min 20.313sec (ave speed 197.625kph, 122.799mph); 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford +32.41sec; 3 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault +1 lap; 4 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber +2; 5 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse- Lamborghini +2; 6 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford +2; 7 L Badoer (It) BMS Lola-Ferrari +3; 8 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford +4; 9 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda +7. Did not finish (not classified): 10 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 53 laps covered; 11 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 48; 12 A Senna (Bra) McLaren- Ford 42; 13 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 40; 14 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 36; 15 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 33; 16 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 29; 17 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 22; 18 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 20; 19 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse- Lamborghini 18; 20 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 18; 21 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 17; 22 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 8; 23 T Boutsen (Bel) 1. Did not start (failed to complete a lap): M Blundell (GB) Ligier- Renault; R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford. Fastest lap: Prost 1min 26.128sec (210.663kph, 130.900 mph).

World drivers' championship standings: 1 Senna 26pts; 2 Prost 24; 3 Hill 12; 4 Schumacher 10; 5= Blundell, Herbert 6; 7 Lehto 5; 8 Brundle 4; 9 Fittipaldi 3; 10= Patrese, Alliot, Barbazza 2; 13= Berger, Zanardi 1. Constructors' championship: 1 Williams 36pts; 2 McLaren 26; 3 Benetton 12; 4 Ligier 10; 5 Lotus 7; 6= Minardi, Sauber 5; 8 Larrousse 2; 9 Ferrari 1.

(Photograph omitted)

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