Motor Racing: Senna ponders pulling power of his passion: McLaren prepare to resume talks with their leading driver

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The Independent Online
THE organisers of Formula One now know, if they ever doubted it, that Ayrton Senna's presence is essential to maintain the sharp edge of competition in this season's world championship. His value to McLaren-Ford will presumably be ascertained when the parties resume negotiations for a contract to keep him in the team for the rest of the season. His worth to his sport was evident in his victory here in Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix.

The story leaked through the grapevine here is that he has told friends he does not relish the prospect of driving in the Grand Prix of Europe, at Donington Park, on Sunday week. Formula One's guardians must hope that this is another psychological ploy by the 33-year-old Brazilian and that his passion for racing will lure him to the East Midlands.

Senna is believed to be keen to entice McLaren to secure prompt delivery of the higher-specification Ford engines used by Benetton. Senna estimates that Benetton presently have a power advantage of 20 to 30bhp. As Ford's premier team, Benetton are guaranteed the highest specification engine available.

Senna had the pace, car control and mental agility to outmanoeuvre Damon Hill, who found the door to a maiden grand prix win suddenly thrown open to him by Alain Prost's undignified exit. Senna simply slammed it shut again. Hill may eventually develop into a major league player, but he will now have a greater appreciation of Senna's class and the chasm he has yet to bridge.

Barely a fortnight before the start of the season, McLaren's chances were being written off. Senna instantly coaxed response from the McLaren MP4/8 in testing, and now, after two races, leads the drivers' championship. Prost remains the favourite for the title, but with Senna in the fray the Frenchman may have to work for his fourth championship. The contest will be fiercer still if, as Michael Schumacher predicts, he can gain something like a second a lap from his new Benetton-Ford, the B193B, which is due to be introduced at Donington.

The outbreak of competitiveness and entertainment could not have been more appropriately timed for Formula One, coming as it does in the face of rave reviews from the opening IndyCar race, at Surfers Paradise, Australia. As one team director said: 'That's put those Yanks in their place.' It may be too early to be sure of that, though it does indicate the scale of the IndyCar phobia gripping Formula One. Ironically, a piece of IndyCar strategy, the use of a pace car rather than stopping the race, brought an added ingredient to the proceedings here.

Hill's driving in the wet, immediately after the pace car peeled off, was encouraging for him and his team. The Williams managing director, Frank Williams, said: 'He beat Senna and Schumacher in the wet and his performance wasn't down to horsepower. I thought Senna and Schumacher would overwhelm him. It was quite the opposite. He was terrific.'

Williams was scarcely impressed with Prost's hesitation in making a necessary pit stop for wet tyres and, given the driver's experience, it was an extraordinary lapse. He said he was confused by his radio message, but his engineer, David Brown, said: 'I told him to be careful coming into the pit lane.'

For Hill it was vitally important to balance the books after coming to grief in South Africa and he will embark upon a home race with his confidence hugely fortified. He said: 'Now I've laid the foundations to build on and I'm going to Donington looking to close the gap on Senna.'

Williams expects Senna to sustain his threat on the East Midlands circuit. He said: 'There will be a hell of a ding-dong there between Prost and Senna in qualifying. In the race we'll probably enjoy a bit of an advantage. But I think what McLaren have done is absolutely fantastic. There's no question Senna is a fabulous driver. Everyone said it would be easy for us here, but it is never easy. This is Formula One.'

The arrival of three British drivers in the top five here will comfort Donington's management in the run- up to their first Formula One championship race. Herbert, driving a Lotus-Ford, was fourth and Mark Blundell, in a Ligier-Renault, was fifth.

Whether Senna appears at Donington remains to be seen. His partner, Michael Andretti, should be recovered from the battering he took when Gerhard Berger's Ferrari ploughed into his car in a gravel trap. Should one of McLaren's senior drivers not be available, Mika Hakkinen will be called up.