Motor Racing: Prost takes full toll of Senna's misfortune

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The Independent Online
FOR a dozen laps, it was as good as motor racing gets. Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher: the class of the field, covered by less than a second, battling it out for points and psychological ascendancy in the first race of a new world championship season. Only when yesterday's South African Grand Prix here was over did we learn that our eyes had deceived us, and that Prost had not, after all, won a straight fight.

This information came, of course, from Senna. At the press conference after a race which had begun in a 90-degree heat haze and ended in a crashing thunderstorm, the Brazilian calmly explained that a mechanical problem had cost him victory. So the thrilling dogfight at the head of the field in the race's second quarter had been an illusion, and Prost's 45th grand prix victory, on his return after a year's sabbatical, was no longer an unqualified triumph.

What the world thought it had watched was Prost, after a bungled start (for which he blamed an imprecise clutch), catching his two deadliest rivals and passing them with manoeuvres which demanded a champion's nerve and judgement. Once he had taken the lead, on the 24th of 72 laps, he pressed home his advantage and finished several streets ahead of a well-beaten Senna.

That was before we heard the Brazilian version. Prost, sitting in the next chair at the press centre, began to looked a bit bleak as the tale unfolded, but Senna's analysis certainly matched the known facts. Once Prost, on pole position, had conceded the vital first corner, Senna drew quickly away, and by the end of the third lap his McLaren had more than two seconds over Schumacher's Benetton, which in turn had a similar advantage over Prost's Williams.

Thinking of his tyres, Senna explained, he then eased off very slightly, but by lap 10 the two pursuers were right on his tail. The McLaren had hit big trouble. 'One corner of the car went completely out of my control,' Senna said. 'At first I thought it was a puncture, but then I realised it was an electronic problem.' In other words, a glitch in the active suspension system. 'It was hell to drive. Immediately Schumacher caught me up, and Alain, and they were much quicker than me.'

A check of the lap-by-lap times showed that this explanation was not just another Formula One mind game. Senna had indeed eased off a fraction on the third and fourth laps, but on the eighth lap his time suddenly dropped by two seconds, and stayed there until Prost and Schumacher overtook him. Only with fresh tyres did he approach to his early pace, and even then he did not speed up as the fuel load lightened.

All of which, in retrospect, took some of the shine off Prost's assault on Senna, which featured a variety of attempted passes at the first turn, a sweeping downhill right-and-left combination. When he succeeded, at the fourth time of asking and in the face of Senna's typically brusque resistance, it seemed we might be witnessing the return of Alain Prost, racing driver. After Senna's testimony, though, it was harder to be sure.

Behind the leading duo, the most unambiguously pleasing sight of the day was that of the entire Ligier team rushing to applaud Mark Blundell, one of their brace of rosbifs, after his dogged run to third place. Blundell, a 26-year-old former motocross racer from Hertfordshire, is the least hyped of Britain's five current grand prix drivers, but showed consistency and good sense in picking up places as others hit trouble.

Almost as cheering was a fourth place for Christian Fittipaldi and the little Minardi team, who are so impoverished that their mechanics are the only ones in the paddock who do not enjoy the luxury of matching footwear. They do have a nice little car, though, and a talented young pilot in the 22-year- old nephew of the former world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi.

Only one other car, J J Lehto's Sauber, was still running when the chequered flag came out as lightning flashed, thunder boomed and the slick tyres began to throw up spray. The last championship point, for sixth place, went to a parked car, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari, which had spun off on the penultimate lap, an hour or so after his team-mate, Jean Alesi, had lost his hydraulics when fifth.

The final point would have gone to Derek Warwick, had his Footwork-Mugen Honda not also left the track in the final downpour after conceding fifth place to Lehto - who, despite early gearbox problems, underlined his car's outstanding potential in the team's first grand prix by recording the second fastest race lap.

Schumacher lost his place on the podium when he tried to dive inside Senna into a downhill right- hander on the 40th lap, forgot who his opponent was, and found himself off the road. Seven laps later his team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, also ended up in a sand-trap, dismounting unscathed until the marshalls towed the car straight into him, badly bruising his right leg.

Martin Brundle, competing in his 100th grand prix, looked like joining his Ligier colleague in the points after an early stop to change a damaged nose-cone, but forfeited sixth place when, coming up to lap Warwick with only a dozen laps to go, he failed to spot a patch of oil and spun out. Johnny Herbert's disappointing weekend had just started to improve when his Lotus-Ford lost its oil pressure on the 40th lap, after he had climbed to seventh place from 17th on the grid.

His fellow Lotus driver, Alessandro Zanardi, figured in the early demise of Damon Hill. A dream start saw the Williams debutant in second place after a couple of hundred yards, but a nervous twitch to the right brought a quick spin which took him down to 11th, and into a scrap with Zanardi which ended with both cars entwined on the grass. What Hill needs is a steady race into third or fourth place, to quieten the unreasonable expectations of those anxious to acclaim a new Nigel Mansell. Getting it, though, will present the severest test of his temperament.

DETAILS FROM SOUTH AFRICA

72 laps (306.763km, 190.618 miles): 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1hr 38min 45.082sec (ave speed 186.403kph, 115.828mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:19.824; 3 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault plus one lap; 4 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford +1; 5 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber +2; 6 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari +3; 7 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda +3. Did not finish (not classified): 8 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 57 laps covered; 9 M Alboreto (It) BMS Lola- Ferrari 55; 10 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 51; 11 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 46; 12 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 39; 13 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 38; 14 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 33; 15 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 31; 16 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 30; 17 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 27; 18 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 21; 19 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork- Mugen Honda 21; 20 L Badoer (It) BMS Lola- Ferrari 20; 21 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 16; 22 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 16; 23 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 4; 24 I Capelli (It) Jordan- Hart 2; 25 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1. Did not start (failed to complete one lap): 26 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha. Fastest lap: Prost 1min 19.492sec (192.970kph, 119.909mph).

World Drivers' Championship: 1 Prost 10pts; 2 Senna 6; 3 Blundell 4; 4 Fittipaldi 3; 5 Lehto 2; 6 Berger 1. World Constructors' Championship: 1 Williams-Renault 10pts; 2 McLaren-Ford 6; 3 Ligier-Renault 4; 4 Minardi-Ford 3; 5 Sauber 2; 6 Ferrari 1.

(Photograph omitted)

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