Motor Racing: Senna back in old pole role: Brazilian shows Prost clean pair of wheels as Formula One champion feels heat

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The Independent Online
THE opposition are swarming all over the once imperious Williams- Renault team here, threatening to spoil what was meant to be a triumphal send-off for Alain Prost.

This season has brought Prost seven race wins and a fourth world championship and yet, one senses, he retires from Formula One with shallow satisfaction. Defeat in tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix - especially defeat to Ayrton Senna - might provide the abiding image of his final season.

When the rains fell, early in the year, Prost could not live with Senna and his patently inferior McLaren-Ford. Now, at the bitter end, Williams appear to be vulnerable and that is all the encouragement the merciless Senna requires.

Damon Hill, toiling to learn this street circuit in the other Williams, put the team's dilemma in blunt terms: 'The car is just getting long in the tooth. We've been trying to milk all we can from the car but everyone has caught us up. We had a big advantage at the beginning of the year but now that has gone.'

The opening qualifying session illustrated the point. Senna was on provisional pole, almost half a second ahead of Prost. Michael Schumacher, in a Benetton-Ford, was third, Mika Hakkinen, in the other McLaren, fourth, and Gerhard Berger, in a Ferrari, was fifth. Hill was sixth.

The Englishman, contesting Senna, his future team-mate, for second place in the championship, made no attempt to mask his anxiety. He said: 'It is bound to be a handicap not knowing this place. I shall just have to work harder. The car is not how I would like it, but I am still trying to come to terms with the track. I need to be nearer the front of the grid because Senna's going to be long gone if he gets ahead at the start.'

Prost, of course, is acutely aware of that. Senna's revelation that his fastest lap, 1min 13.371sec, had been achieved despite the odd inconvenience was not designed to console his old adversary.

Senna said: 'It was a tremendous lap, a pretty special one. Had there been no traffic, I could have done better.' He also had a problem with the radio. 'I was wondering if I should come in because my fuel was low, and as I was getting no reply I was shouting, especially as I neared the pit entrance. Later I discovered that my radio button was stuck, so the pits could not talk back to me. The result was that I could not concentrate in the usual way, so I couldn't improve my time.'

Prost maintained he was neither surprised nor dismayed by Senna's performance. 'It was close in Portugal and Japan and maybe it will be even closer here,' he said. 'It is important to be on pole, but more important to have the car right. It would be disappointing not to win this race because the car was good at the beginning of the season and now it is not so easy to drive. But I promise you, I am not going to race the first race in 1994 if it does not go well here.

'I am looking forward to having time with my children and living a normal family life. I have never had that. I am honestly not thinking about this being my last race. The good thing about the car having problems is that it makes me concentrate on the job. I am going about it in the normal way.'

And will he make one final attempt at reconciliation with Senna? Prost replied: 'I have tried to make peace, as a sportsman, but the last time we did he then drove into me. If he does so now I'm not going to believe him. He would be a hypocrite. It should have been done before, not at my last race.'

AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX (Adelaide) First qualifying times: 1 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1min 13.371sec; 2 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1:13.807; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:14.098; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Ford) 1:14.106; 5 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:14.194; 6 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:14.721; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:15.332; 8 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:16.022; 9 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:16.077; 10 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:16.079; 11 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:16.106; 12 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:16.286; 13 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:16.459; 14 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:16.862; 15 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:16.905; 16 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:17.018; 17 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:17.350; 18 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:17.612; 19 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse- Lamborghini 1:17.750; 20 J-M Gounon (Fr) Minardi- Ford 1:17.754; 21 P Lamy (Por) Lotus-Ford 1:19.628; 22 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart 1:19.733; 23 T Suzuki (Japan) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:21.793. Did not race (ill): D Warwick (GB) Footwork-Mugen Honda.