Motor Racing: Prost poised for testy time in 1993

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ALAIN PROST embarks today upon a road which may well lead him to a fourth Formula One world championship, but, just as likely, to a potentially perilous confrontation with his old adversary, Ayrton Senna.

Prost takes to the wheel of the Williams-Renault for the first time in testing here at the circuit where Nigel Mansell secured victory in Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix, the venomous exhortations of Senna still ringing in his ears.

Senna, having castigated Prost at every opportunity for keeping him out of the other seat at Williams, sought consolation at a party, which he left, with the aid of friends, in the early hours of yesterday. Prost may feel no better about their possible re-match on the track next season.

Senna will not decide whether to commit himself to another year at McLaren until the team have signed a new engine deal. Their prospects of acquiring a supply of Renault engines appear to have diminished and they have had lengthy talks with Ford. However, Formula One, about to lose Mansell from its cast at the end of the season, is anxious to retain its other attraction and Senna's words suggest he will still be around to greet Prost.

Remarks from Senna about unfair play are mildly amusing, but there is nothing remotely funny about thinly veiled threats of unacceptable aggression. Senna has warned that their duel could be 'physical' and prepares us for more of the hostilities we witnessed in 1989 and 1990. Prost says he is not surprised to hear of such talk, reminding us that Senna eventually admitted he drove him off the circuit at the first corner of the decisive 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.

As Senna himself points out, Formula One has cleaned up its act over the past two seasons, yet that is surely tantamount to arguing against himself. Whether this is all merely the hot air of frustration remains to be seen, but Fisa, motor sport's governing body, will be monitoring the situation with anxiety.

Renault support Prost's contention that to reunite the former McLaren pair would be self-destructive. They say they seek harmony, while stressing the choice of Prost's partner rests with Frank Williams. Prost maintains he could have worked with Mansell, but it is difficult to imagine their relationship being harmonious.

Riccardo Patrese, who escaped a terrifying crash in Sunday's race, may stay at Williams, despite being named as a replacement for Martin Brundle at Benetton- Ford. Brundle hopes to make it a straight swap. Williams, who have also discussed with Lotus the possibility of taking one of their contracted drivers, Johnny Herbert and Mika Hakkinen, for a compensation fee, plan to make an announcement later this week.

Prost will be relieved to begin his new job in relative peace and promises to comply with a policy of goodwill to his new partner. He said: 'It is important for us to have a good ambience in the team. That is the best way to work inside a team. I am happy for my team- mate to have equal equipment and opportunity. That is the way I have always worked in the past and it is the way it should be. It is fair.

'If, then, one driver puts himself in a better position to go for the championship, it is for the team to decide whether he will get the support to go for the championship. I have no problem with that kind of arrangement. Of course, I would like to go for the championship and do what we might have done when I was with Renault and Elf in 1983. But it is important that both drivers have the opportunity.'

Few doubt the Williams drivers will again have the best opportunities of winning the championship next season. Their new car, the FW15, has been put through its first paces in testing and will undergo significant development work over the winter months.

On the evidence of this season, however, Patrese may not be capable of competing with Prost. Despite being blessed with the outstanding car on the grid, he has yet to win a race (Mansell achieved a record ninth victory of the year here) and lies fourth in the championship, behind his present partner, Senna, and Michael Schumacher (Benetton-Ford). Brundle has recovered from an uneasy start to produce consistently competitive form and climb to sixth place.