Motor Racing: Prost spins so serenely

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IT IS a rare thing, the sight of Alain Prost spinning. Yet such has been the pace of things here that the little Frenchman rotated his Williams-Renault not once, but twice yesterday. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, shortly after taking his 10th pole position of the year.

Predictably, the battle for the front row of the grid was an exclusive inter-team battle between Prost and Damon Hill. In the final analysis the Briton lost out by only two-tenths of a second, as the Anglo-French cars once more out- paced the opposition on a circuit on which much had been expected from Benetton and McLaren.

As Ayrton Senna joined Prost on the grass yesterday afternoon, Michael Schumacher rose splendidly to the occasion for Benetton with a best lap just over a half-second shy of Prost. 'This,' he beamed, 'is the closest we have been all year.'

Fourth place, in a McLaren which lacks grip, puts Senna uncomfortably within reach of Riccardo Patrese and an energetic Gerhard Berger, and embarrassingly less than a second clear of PierLuigi Martini. The little Italian proved the sensation of qualifying, hoisting his under-financed Minardi to an excellent seventh ahead of Jean Alesi's Ferrari and the hardy Derek Warwick in the Footwork-Mugen Honda.

Budapest is traditionally the place where the Formula One 'silly season' of rumour and counter-rumour gets underway. With the 30-degree temperature here overheating some minds, this year has proved no exception. To listen to some, one would believe it a formality that Nigel Mansell will return next year in a Renault- engined Benetton, but the truth may be rather less exciting. On the weekend in which the reigning world champion is expected to sign again for IndyCar racing with the Newman-Haas team, the feeling is that while he might be 'manoeuvred' into supplying Benetton with engines against his wishes, the Renault Sport chief Patrick Faure is unlikely to be pushed into burying a hatchet sharpened in 1992 by disappointment with Mansell's attitude during his greatest season.

Feelings change in Formula One faster than newspaper headlines, but insiders suggest that hell is likely to freeze over before the Briton enjoys a Gallic welcome. The prospect of his closest rival getting similar engines is hardly calculated to fill Frank Williams with delight. 'I don't believe that the deal has happened,' he said on Friday. 'It may happen, but clearly we have our own reasons for hoping that it won't' This weekend he has only one focus.

This time last year Mansell wrapped up the title with a second place behind Senna; this year Prost still has work to do, such has been the competition from the Brazilian. Already, speculation is placing Senna alongside him at Williams in 1994, even though such a potent combination could have a disastrous effect on team harmony. This year Prost had an official veto of Senna written into his contract; Williams refuses to say whether it holds for 1994, too.

Prost has looked serene enough this weekend, spins notwithstanding, but the Hungaroring is a misleading circuit. For all that it seems fast, with its sweeping curves, it is very like Monaco. There is virtually nowhere to overtake. Prost is all too aware of the need to start well. Getting off the line has proved his Achilles' heel this year, and Hill's trump card. If he gets ahead, the Briton may well feel inclined to stay there, to prove a point after his disappointments at Silverstone and Hockenheim. A victory seems overdue and if it comes Hill's way this afternoon the timing might just prove crucial as Williams considers the identity of Prost's 1994 partner.

'We'll get round to Damon soon,' Williams promises. 'Patrick Head and I will talk about it at the end of the month.'

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX (Budapest) Final qualifying positions: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 14.631sec; 2 Damon Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:14.835; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:15.228; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:16.451, 5 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:16.561; 6 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:16.939; 7 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:17.366; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:17.486; 9 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:17.682; 10 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:17.693; 11 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:18.107; 12 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:18.388; 13 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:18.392; 14 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:18.446; 15 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:18.638; 16 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan- Hart 1:18.721; 17 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:18.840; 18 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:19.305; 19 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:19.320; 20 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:19.444; 21 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:19.485; 22 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:19.560; 23 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:20.270; 24 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:20.482; 25 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari 1:21.502; 26 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:22.625.