The Frenchman, after a troubled day in the Williams-Renault, took provisional pole position by a mere 2,000th of a second from Benetton-Ford's Michael Schumacher. Mika Hakkinen was third, ahead of his McLaren-Ford partner, Ayrton Senna, with Damon Hill, in the other Williams, fifth, and Gerhard Berger, in a Ferrari, sixth. Less than half a second covered the leaders. Hill was as disgruntled to be on the third row as Prost was surprised to be at the front. Hill arrived here with designs on victory but, his first day's work on the figure-of-eight circuit completed, he went back to the drawing board.
Hill said: 'To be honest, I'm not terribly optimistic at the moment. It's the worst day I've had this season. It is always the same when you are under pressure. It is easy to complain that the car isn't handling so well when actually you have to push harder. I'll study Alain's data, compare it with mine, and see where I might be able to improve.'
Prost might, at one stage, have settled for fifth place, as the others jousted for the leading slot. An engine failure restricted him to three laps during the morning's unofficial practice session and he trailed for much of the afternoon. His resolve, however, was undiminished and eventually he bustled his way to the top of the timesheet. The winner of the previous race, in Portugal, last month, Schumacher is equipped here with four-wheel steering and even greater belief in the potential of the B193B. He said: 'I'm amazed at how good the car felt from the first moment and also how well we have developed the car here. With this new system, we have plenty of room for improvement. For the first time we can think we have a chance of taking pole.'
Senna, who lost power on his second run, is still positive and Ferrari, too, are relishing the prospect of a fight. Jean Alesi pushed a trifle too hard and thumped a barrier, so he certainly has more to come. Suddenly, the opposition appears to be closing on Williams.
Eddie Irvine marked his first day in Formula One with a creditable 11th place on the provisional grid. The driver from Northern Ireland, who has worked for the past three years in Japan, used his local knowledge to good effect at the wheel of a Jordan-Hart. He said: 'It helps when you know a circuit like this but it's early days. I was a little uncomfortable in the car because the cockpit is more cramped than my Formula 3000 car. I don't know how well I might go in the race because my back is giving me problems and I can't be sure I'll stay the course.'
Derek Warwick was 12th in a Footwork-Mugen Honda, Mark Blundell was 13th for Ligier-Renault, Johnny Herbert 17th in a Lotus-Ford and Martin Brundle, troubled by sore ribs following his accident in testing last week, was 18th in the other Ligier.
The first car in trouble yesterday was a McLaren - the road-going version, driven by the team's managing director, Ron Dennis, on a demonstration run. Dennis and his startled passenger, Berger, were unhurt as they went off the track but the car was damaged and had to be sent back to England for repairs.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka): First qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 38.587sec (214.130kph, 133.054 mph); 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:38.589; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Ford 1:38.813; 4 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:38.942; 5 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:38.979; 6 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:39.024; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:39.535; 8 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:40.346; 9 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:40.748; 10 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:40.963; 11 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart 1:41.018; 12 D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:41.086; 13 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:41.278; 14 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:41.367; 15 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:41.380; 16 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:41.480; 17 J Herbert (GB) Lotus- Ford 1:41.488; 18 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:41.543; 19 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:41.624; 20 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:42.388; 21 P Lamy (Por) Lotus-Ford 1:43.165; 22 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:43.483; 23 T Suzuki (Japan) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:44.562; 24 J-M Gounon (Fr) Minardi-Ford 1:46.782.
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