Motor Racing: Prost makes his reservation: Circuit criticised as former champion impresses

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ALAIN PROST may still have his reservations about Donington Park's elevation to Formula One world status, but they were scarcely evident in his driving yesterday. He was fastest in the first hour of practice for Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe at the East Midlands circuit.

The instant competitiveness of Williams-Renault, who are supposedly due to confront stern opposition here, was underlined by Damon Hill's best time, just a tenth of a second slower than Prost's and more than a second quicker than the third-placed Gerhard Berger, in a Ferrari. Ayrton Senna, in a McLaren- Ford, was a tenth of a second behind the Austrian, followed by the British pair, Johnny Herbert, in a Lotus-Ford, and Martin Brundle, in a Ligier-Renault.

The mix of teams in the frame suggests a pattern has yet to emerge. McLaren appeared unconcerned and the drizzle which arrived during the session served to confuse rather than clarify. The one consistent element in all this is the form of Williams. New tracks, new requirements, new cars fielded by opponents: Williams seem capable of taking everything in their stride. They have the grip as well as the power, and Prost was, for much of the afternoon, two and a half seconds clear of the rest.

The Frenchman has criticised what he considers to be a 'tight and dangerous' circuit but was more restrained in his comments yesterday. 'Maybe it was not a good idea to have a race in England at this time,' he said, hunching his shoulders against the chill wind. 'But the decision has been made so we have to compete. It was not so easy because of the rain. There are three or four blind corners, so you have to be confident. We'll have a better idea tomorrow, but I don't think there will be a big difference between the cars.'

Hill, who wiped his slate clean with a second place in Brazil, lent patriotic support to Donington's cause. 'It's terrific to drive on,' he said. 'It's a beautiful track. To be honest, I'm not really looking at ways of going off. They've done a lot of work here and they've really improved it around Redgate. There are up to four overtaking places, all under braking.'

Senna was left to make the early assessments on McLaren's behalf after his team-mate, Michael Andretti, slid off and had his car towed to safety. Senna also had a spin but was helped back on to the circuit. The Brazilian, leading the championship with a second place and a win from the opening two races, had another view: 'The surface and run-off areas are better than they used to be, but the track is very tight and there is not enough room to overtake. It is also going to be very tiring for the drivers.'

The conversation came to an abrupt end when Senna was asked if he enjoyed renewing his rivalry with Prost. 'No comment,' he replied.

Benetton-Ford hoped to be rivalling Prost and Williams in the not-too-distant future. However, their new car, the B193B, purpose-built to accommodate active suspension, had little opportunity to flex its muscles yesterday.

Michael Schumacher was ninth, Riccardo Patrese 12th. Mark Blundell in the other Ligier 10th and Derek Warwick, in the new Footwork-Mugen, 20th.

Nearly-Famous Five, page 33