ALAIN PROST, the most successful driver in the history of the world championship, a man in possession of a record 44 grands prix victories and three titles, has provisional pole position on his return to Formula One.
Yet he also has confirmation - after yesterday's first qualifying session for tomorrow's South African Grand Prix - that his two most menacing opponents, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, are within striking range. Prost knows he is back in the pressure game.
That may be disconcerting for the 38-year-old Frenchman, but it is good news for the embattled impressarios of motor racing's most extravagant show. Formula One promises to be a genuine contest again this season.
Prost embarks upon the campaign trail proper at Kyalami tomorrow as favourite for the crown. His team, Williams-Renault, and one of his predecessors, Nigel Mansell, dominated the constructors' and drivers' championships last season. Winter testing and development suggest their latest car should still have the pace and reliability to stay ahead.
There are, however, indications that the outcome this season may not be a foregone conclusion, that the young charger, Schumacher, in the Benetton-Ford, and an old adversary, Senna, in the McLaren- Ford, might be poised to exploit any weaknesses.
Prost's smooth, economic style belie his speed and ambition. Senna and Schumacher, like Mansell before, are more visually committed and aggressive. In recent years, Prost has grown increasingly reticent in traffic and that was apparent during yesterday's practice sessions.
Mansell took the Williams by the throat and squeezed every last tenth of a second out of it. He had the courage to go for the gaps, occasionally when the gaps were not there.
After more than a year in exile, coming to terms with the Williams, driving on what is for him a new circuit, and working to the tighter schedules imposed by the authorities represent a daunting mission, even for a driver with Prost's credentials. Senna and Schumacher will be encouraged to believe they can intimidate Prost, hustle him out of his stride and go for the jugular.
Come the racing, of course, it could be nothing like that. Prost may be able to distance himself from the rest and perform to his strengths, in his own time.
He has never dismissed the potential of the opposition or underestimated the severity of his own learning curve. He has painstakingly gone about the task of understanding the technology beneath the skin of the Williams and systematically built up his fitness.
'For me it has been important to work with the car and engineers as much as possible,' he said. 'I do not go fast if I don't have to. Sometimes if you try to go too fast it tells you nothing because all your mind and body are working to keep the car on the road.
'It has been just as important for me to get physically fit and strong. I kept fit all last year by cycling, but to be fit for racing is another matter. That has also been hard work, it has meant a lot of mileage.
'I like to feel in control, technically, physically and mentally. I go fast if I want to, I go slow if I want to. I believe I can be better and stronger than ever this year.
'For sure, I am here to try to win the championship. I came back to compete and I hope to do for two years. I am confident that is possible but not too confident. We can all see that the others are getting stronger. Senna and Schumacher are very fast. You have to work all the time if you want to stay in front.'
There are other pressures on Prost. By next week he could be serving a suspension, punishment for his public condemnation of Fisa, the sport's governing body. 'It is not the perfect situation,' Prost said drily. 'I don't know what they want to achieve.'
Some sceptics have inferred that Fisa's objective is to manufacture a more open championship and that the removal of Prost for a race or two might serve their cause. Others have thus reached the conclusion that the little man ought to throw tomorrow's race.
If Prost feels under siege, so must his team-mate, Damon Hill. The 32-year-old Englishman is not expected to win the championship, but is expected to back up Prost and be on hand to take over should the lead car run into problems.
Hill aspires to a more positive involvement and, given the experience of a few races, may gain the confidence to compete with Prost. Such a prospect could also depend on whether Hill can shake off Senna and Schumacher, and right now that looks a tall order.
A spin yesterday betrayed Hill's nerves and fed doubts about his ability to stay with the very best. He has, after all, had only two grands prix, both in a slow Brabham. Before that, he never managed the results in Formula 3000 to reflect his pace or underline his optimism.
Whether McLaren and Benetton can conjure the reliability to sustain their challenge is perhaps the critical issue of the championship. Benetton took third place behind McLaren last season through the consistency of a conventional car, scoring in every race. They recognised that they had to take on board more technological weaponry to advance further, hence the development of active suspension and semi-automatic transmission. The cost, they also acknowledge, could be teething problems.
Tom Walkinshaw, the engineering director of Benetton, said: 'We know that we could have problems with reliability for the first quarter of the season, but that was a calculated risk we felt we had to take.
'We have a new car coming soon and as the season unfolds we would expect to get stronger and more reliable. We hope to improve on last season and eventually give Williams a real fight.'
McLaren echo those sentiments, though they would probably not have dared do so a month ago. Electronic gremlins threatened to blight their preparations. Then Senna turns up, waves the magic wand, and suddenly everything is different.
Such was the upturn in performance that McLaren's mechanics were rushing out to take advantage of generous odds and back themselves for the championship.
One man totally unamazed by McLaren's revival is Patrick Head, the technical director of Williams. He said: 'People were baying because McLaren were having problems, but they tend to forget how much new technology had gone into that car and how good McLaren are.
'There's a lot of ability in this pit lane and no one should be underestimated, least of all McLaren. I said from the start that they (would) get it right, and it looks as if they are.'
If Lotus-Ford get it right they, too, could be muscling in on the act. A resurgence of the Norfolk marque would be as welcome to the romantics as a renaissance at Ferrari. The Italian team have had a worse winter than most but Jean Alesi's fifth place on the provisional grid will have lifted the clouds.
Martin Brundle's eighth place in the Ligier-Renault will be equally well received by the French camp, who defied the scorn of their nation to hire the Englishman and his countryman, Mark Blundell.
After all the predictions of another mismatch this year, the senses have been excited and a global audience anticipates a world championship worthy of the billing. Should such a spectacle materialise, the guardians of the sport may have to reopen the debate on the technology they say is endangering the future of Formula One.
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