Motor Racing: Senna geared for the fight

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The Independent Online
THE pressure points have moved subtly as the world championship moved into its second round here in Sao Paulo, Ayrton Senna's home playground. In South Africa two weeks ago the focus was all on Alain Prost as he faced his first race for more than a season, and drove under the threat of possible suspension after upsetting the governing body, Fisa. Now, it is Senna who is feeling the strain. As he continues his race-by-race approach, still unwilling to commit to a full contract with McLaren, one of the toughest battles he faces is being fought off the track.

After qualifying only third, nearly two seconds behind Prost's Renault-powered Williams, Senna has lost no opportunity to push for a similar specification Ford engine to that used by the young German Michael Schumacher in the Benetton team. Ron Dennis, the McLaren boss, speaks of a 100 horsepower deficit to Renault, while continuing to insist that McLaren has not been rendered a mere customer team by the withdrawal of Honda. It is a delicate situation upon which hangs Senna's future. Ford has a deal to supply Benetton with engines of higher specification, at least until the middle of the year, and Benetton's status as 'favoured' team is contracted until the end of 1994. Yet in their current beleaguered state Ford's racing involvement has come under minute scrutiny. On current performance a similar deal with McLaren is enormously tempting. Certainly, the lobbying from Dennis and Senna is remorseless, and the gap here to Williams has only increased its intensity.

Where Senna is tense, Prost is markedly more relaxed. 'It is a great feeling to be so happy with a team, and one I have not had for a long time,' he said on Friday.

His team-mate Damon Hill, of Britain, has also had reason to be cheerful. 'After my performance in South Africa I wanted to do a good job for the team and not make any mistakes,' he insisted. To finish only a second shy of Prost is impressive. Typically, though, there have been echoes of Graham Hill, the restless perfectionist, from his son. 'I'm not saying things are perfect as there is always room for improvement,' he admits, 'but I am satisfied.'

So too, on Friday, was the new Swiss Sauber team as Karl Wendlinger, of Austria, pushed his car to fifth place, right behind his former Mercedes-Benz sportscar team-mate Schumacher. For Benetton, qualifying has so far endorsed the superiority of the McLaren over their current chassis, but where Schumacher is resigned until his new car appears at Donington, Sauber are elated to continue the form they showed in South Africa. On Saturday J J Lehto, the Finn, just beat his team-mate Wendlinger to seventh place as Michael Andretti and Riccardo Patrese backed their respective McLaren and Benetton team leaders by improving to fifth and sixth places. Once again, the young Briton Mark Blundell has impressed, too, lining his Ligier Renault up in 10th place.

The meagre crowd only has eyes for Senna, however - the perfectionist who once said: 'I am not designed to finish second or third, I am designed to win.' He continues to push things to the absolute limit, not only on the track but also in the politics of the pit lane, but it remains to be seen just how successful he is in either pursuit in a weekend of garage tantrums. His close friend Mauricio Gugelmin, the former Formula One driver, does not believe that he will continue on a regular basis unless he finishes strongly today, and believes he can win the championship. If he goes, that could leave the way clear for the exiled Finn Mika Hakkinen to take over the McLaren seat. In a race Senna is never to be underrated, but the indications are that victory will be won only if the Williams-Renaults stumble.

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (Sao Paulo) Qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 15.866sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:16.859; 3 A Senna (Bra) Mclaren-Ford 1:17.697; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:17.821; 5 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:18.635; 6 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 1:19.049; 7 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber 1:19.207; 8 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 1:19.270; 9 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:19.260; 10 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:19.296; 11 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:19.340; 12 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:19.435; 13 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:19.561; 14 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:19.593; 15 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:19.804; 16 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:19.835; 17 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:19.868; 18 D Warwick (GB) Footwork Mugen-Honda 1:20.064; 19 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork Mugen-Honda 1:20.232; 20 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:20.716; 21 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:20.908; 22 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:20.991; 23 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:21.224; 24 F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford 1:21.228; 25 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari 1:21.488. Did not qualify: I Capelli (It) Jordan-Hart 1:21.789

(Photograph omitted)

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