Motor Racing: Prost has look of serenity as Hill thrives in supporting role

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THE LAST time grand prix cars raced at Donington Park, there were only two teams in it. Back in 1938, it was a toss-up between the two German titans, Mercedes- Benz and Auto Union. Today, if the weather stays fine in this corner of the East Midlands, the Grand Prix of Europe might not even be that open. Such was the dominance of the two Williams-Renaults in the sunshine of yesterday's final qualifying session that only the possibility of rain encourages the thought of anything other than a serene procession for Alain Prost and his willing dauphin, Damon Hill.

Prost, Hill, Schumacher, Senna: the first two rows practically select themselves these days. The qualifying hour was less than half gone when Prost wrapped up his third pole position in as many races since his return to Formula One at the start of this season. His time of 1min 10.457sec was the fastest ever recorded over the 2.5 miles of Tom Wheatcroft's winding, undulating circuit, which reopened for business in 1977 and has been looking forward to the return of the heavy metal ever since.

His car, Prost said, was not perfect during his fast lap. Incorrect tyre pressures had upset its balance. As the Williams whistled round, though, not a flicker betrayed any unease Prost might have been experiencing. He returned to the pits, took off his helmet, and waited to see if someone could do better.

Within minutes, he knew that the only threat could come from his team-mate. Hill, whose confidence is visibly higher since his second place in Brazil, threw the car into a series of energetic laps, but could get no closer than a third of a second. Prost went out again in case he needed to defend his position, his tyres pumped up properly this time. 'I knew Damon was the only one who could beat me,' he said. 'But I asked the pit over the radio for his time, and then I knew that I didn't have to push again.'

The combination of a powerful engine, well-balanced chassis and the crucial traction control device should ensure that the Williams drivers get into Redgate Corner, the sweeping right-hander after the start, ahead of the pack. Behind them, though, the squabble between Schumacher and Senna will be worth watching. Having his first race in the new Benetton B193B, Schumacher was delighted to discover the qualities of a car having its first decent run on a dry track. For Senna, on the other hand, failure to outqualify the young German merely confirmed his irritation at the knowledge that his McLaren team is behind Benetton in the queue for the best Ford engines. A mediocre result today will surely presage more threats to take the rest of the year off.

The appearance of the Saubers in fifth and seventh places on the grid may evoke memories of the supercharged Mercedes-Benz which leapt over the bumps of the old Donington track before the war. Run with Mercedes money, the little Swiss team maintains that company's legendary standards of preparation, and may one day have the results to match.

Michael Andretti, in the second McLaren, was playing himself in when a wonderful tyre-smoking spin on the exit from McLean's Corner interrupted his progress, leaving him sixth. After managing only four laps in his first two grands prix, the Italian-American will be anxious to do better under the eye of his father, Mario Andretti, the 1978 world champion and Nigel Mansell's current Indy Car team-mate.

The Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi occupy eighth and ninth places, a decent performance that might have been better had Alesi not sent his Ferrari literally flying into the sand-trap at Redgate near the beginning of the session. Riccardo Patrese, again lacklustre in the second Benetton, completes the top 10.

Johnny Herbert was the best of the remaining four British drivers yesterday. Qualifying is not his strong suit, and a lack of grip out of slow corners is the Lotus's problem. Derek Warwick, 14th in the new Footwork, spent most of the session trying to get rid of oversteer, but felt that at least the new car was an improvement over its truck-like predecessor.

For Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, 21st and 22nd, there was no such optimism: the Ligier's problems have yet to be diagnosed, never mind cured. 'Bien sur, je suis decu,' Brundle reported in the French team's press release after the session. 'Moi aussi,' his fellow rosbif added They are two of several drivers, among them Senna and Alesi, who will be hoping for the lottery that rain would bring to the race today. For Prost, nothing but blue skies will do.

EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX (Donington Park) Final qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 10.458sec (127.7mph, lap record); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:10.762; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:12.008; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren- Ford 1:12.107; 5 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:12.738; 6 A Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:12.739; 7 J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:12.763; 8 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:12.862; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:12.980; 10 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:12.982; 11 J Herbert (GB) Lotus- Ford 1:13.328; 12 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:13.514; 13 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:13.560; 14 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:13.664; 15 P Alliot (Fr) Larousse-Lamborghini 1:13.665; 16 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:13.666; 17 E Comas (Fr) Larousse-Lamborghini 1:13.970; 18 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:14.121; 19 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:14.246; 20 F Barbazza (It) Minardi- Ford 1:14.274; 21 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:14.301; 22 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:14.306; 23 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:14.927; 24 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:15.322; 25 A De Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:15.417. Did not qualify: L Badoer (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 1:15.641.