Motor Racing: Senna at home as the title favourite: Brazilian fervour fires up Formula One

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THE clamour was for Ayrton Senna, as you would expect here, yet somehow there was an even greater intensity, a more heightened expectancy. It had to be their man for the championship, and few were arguing.

Senna, three times Formula One title winner already, is just about everybody's favourite for the crown this season, which starts at the Brazilian Grand Prix, on Sunday. Another success for the multi-millionaire is hardly going to change the lives of those trapped in the appalling shanties which cling to almost any available hill or roadside in this city, but the masses will revel in his restoration to what they, and he, believe to be his rightful place.

After two seasons of trailing, forlornly, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost, the 34-year-old Brazilian now has his hands on the Williams-Renault and still it would seem to be the best car in Formula One. Should the abolition of 'driver aids' indeed benefit the gifted, then Senna is blessed with every conceivable advantage.

At least two drivers harbour thoughts of sabotaging his plans and, if the championship is to sustain any sort of contest, we must hope they have grounds for optimism. Damon Hill, in his second season with Williams, now has the knowledge, confidence and stature, as well as the car, to challenge his partner. Michael Schumacher, probably more than any other driver, has the ability.

Schumacher has demonstrated his speed and ambition through winter testing, even outpacing Senna at Imola. The chances are, however, that he and his Benetton-Ford were on the limit. Senna, according to those close to the situation, was not, seeing no need to show his hand. He is said to be comfortable and content; at peace and at ease.

To beat Senna, someone must dent his self-assurance. But the genius does have an Achilles' heel: his temperament. Competition at the sharp end just might unsettle him.

Mika Hakkinen, his former team-mate at McLaren, will relish any opportunity to get close to him, though Peugeot, McLaren's new engine partners, say they need time to take on Renault. The Ferrari pair, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, are quick enough and combative enough to threaten Senna, but again their camp warns not to expect too much too soon.

So we come back to Hill and Schumacher, and both are fully aware they must invade Senna's psychological haven. Hill, the 33-year old Briton, believes he might have made inroads by staying so close to Senna in testing. That is not the way the great man likes it; he seeks to crush his colleagues, as he did Berger.

Hill senses he has already surprised Senna and intends to keep him under pressure, on his guard and perhaps expose his vulnerability. 'He's got fire,' Hill said. 'That is why he's quick. He's South American and gets worked up. But if he starts ranting and raving that will be fine by me. It will mean I'm getting to him.

'So far, the relationship has been good. We've talked about it. He doesn't want me to go off and work on my own and conceal information that would possibly benefit both of us and for me to work against him in the team would be foolish. I have got a whole lot more to learn from Ayrton Senna than I could ever conceal from him.

'To me he is a very, very quick driver who is there to be beaten. I have told him that. He respects that. It would be a bizarre situation if I was a racing driver who didn't want to try to beat my team-mate.

'He has been very free and easy with me and talking about the car. He doesn't muck about at all. He isn't a laugh a minute, but he has got a sense of humour there somewhere.

'Understandably, he won't be happy if I am consistently quicker. It is much worse losing something you have got than doing without something you haven't ever had. He has built himself up and rightly regards himself as the world's best grand prix driver, so he wouldn't like it, would he?

'I started last year with the aim of becoming a serious contender in Formula One, and I think I have done that. This year the goal has to be to raise myself above being simply one of the drivers who can possibly do well in the championship. I aim to improve myself. It is a process of discovery and this year I have probably got the ultimate test with Aytron Senna as a team-mate.'

Schumacher has the conviction that he is equal to anything Senna can offer, yet fears the additional power produced by the Renault V10 compared with even the latest Ford Cosworth V8 may prove crucial.

McLaren have switched from Ford to the Peugeot V10 in the belief that it will, long- term, have the necessary muscle to confront Williams-Renault. Hakkinen is quick but raw, and the input of Martin Brundle should hugely influence the team's progress.

The 34-year-old Briton, given the stage to show he is worthy of the job ahead of the Frenchman, Philippe Alliot, said: 'I'm now where I believe I ought to be and feel good about it. I have yet to fully prove myself in Formula One.

'This is like a rebirth in my career. If it is going to go on from here I've got to contemplate a win this year. I've won in every formula I've been in except Formula One, and that is obviously the hardest. The pressure is always on you and I've got to produce the goods. But I'm in the car and Alliot's got to get me out of it.

'When I sat in the car for the first time as a McLaren driver, I had to pinch myself. Behind me are 250 people at McLaren, 250 at Peugeot and millions and millions of dollars, but I can't afford to think of that on the grid. At McLaren all I've got to think about is M Brundle and my performance, and that's nice. It's a controlled environment and that's why this team have been at the front for so long.'

Sauber-Mercedes, who have brought together Schumacher's former sportscar running mates, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, could be the emerging team of Formula One. The other dark horses could be Jordan-Hart.

The two newcomers to the fold are British teams, Pacific and Simtek. Pacific, successful in all their ventures over the past decade, have found the funding which eluded them last season, while Banbury- based Simtek are stepping straight from the drawing board to the grand prix track.

----------------------------------------------------------------- GRAND PRIX CALENDAR ----------------------------------------------------------------- 27 March Brazil (Sao Paulo) 17 April Pacific (Aida, Japan) 1 May San Marino (Imola) 15 May Monaco (Monte Carlo) 29 May Spain (Barcelona) 12 June Canada (Montreal) 3 July France (Magny-Cours) 10 July Britain (Silverstone) 31 July Germany (Hockenheim) 14 August Hungary (Budapest) 28 August Belgium (Spa) 11 September Italy (Monza) 25 September Portugal (Estoril) 16 October Argentina (Buenos Aires) 6 November Japan (Suzuka) 13 November Australia (Adelaide) -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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