Motor Racing: Senna resumes psychological warfare: The Formula One soap opera has started the new season and motor racing's showcase is looking brighter. Richard Williams reports from Johannesburg

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The Independent Online
A LOT of people were talking about 'the show' at Kyalami last weekend. This turned out to be a coded term for the importance, in the post-Mansell era, of maintaining Formula One's rating as international television entertainment. Well, the South African Grand Prix certainly gave substance to their hopes; plenty of aggressive driving, lots of incidents, and the two lead actors firmly in the starring roles. But the real show came when it was all over.

Alain Prost, the winner, and Ayrton Senna, who came second, were being asked about the closing laps of the race, in which a thunderstorm had combined with the fine, red dust of the high veldt to produce a somewhat less than adhesive surface in the last two or three laps. Prost, who enjoys a wet track less than perhaps any world champion since

Denny Hulme, had been seen to wave his arms during the penultimate lap, as if to try to get the race stopped. But the new rules say that, when it rains, a race will not be terminated, 'unless the circuit is blocked or it is dangerous to continue'. What was Prost's opinion?

'I think, when we have these kind of conditions,' he said, 'especially with two laps to go, it would have been better to stop the race because it was heavy rain and nobody's going to stop for wet tyres at this time in the race. I think for the future we should know that.'

And what did Senna, who is Stirling Moss's heir to the old, unofficial title of 'rain-master', think about it all? Did he agree with Prost? He sat silently and the longer he sat, the more certain we became that something good was coming.

'Yes and no,' he said, eventually, and the room hummed with gleeful anticipation. 'For safety reasons, yes, we should stop. But for competitive reasons, no, because the race has a number of laps and a distance to be covered, and it's the same for everybody. It's a question of whether to stop and put wet tyres on to come across the finish line or take a gamble and not stop and maybe not come around.

'It's a situation which makes life extremely difficult, but then it comes down also to each individual to make a decision. If you just think about safety, sure, stop the race. But we know the rules, they are made not to stop . . . you can stop if you like, but you just don't if you don't. So it's a question of point of view.'

On the face of it, a civilised disagreement between professionals, a divergence of opinion on procedure. But the sub-texts] The undertones] If you just think about safety, sure, stop the race. Nothing could have been more carefully devised to insult Prost, to evoke memories of the battles he has lost against Senna in the past, to remind us that it is less than a year since Senna publicly called Prost a coward. And, by implication, to devalue a victory which in any case, as Senna went on to reveal, had been earned only because his own McLaren had suffered from a handling defect, allowing the Williams to catch, pass and draw away from him.

We learned nothing definitive from Sunday's race. The hi-tech Williams-Renault FW15 clearly suits Prost's neat style, and the narrower tyres stipulated by the new regulations may explain the fact that his fastest lap was two seconds slower than Nigel Mansell's in a Williams last year. But the McLaren MP4/8 has advanced devices of its own, such as a secret 'thinking' gearbox, and these may in time help it overcome the present power deficit of its Ford engine. If Senna believes in the potential of a car which has barely begun its development cycle, he and Prost could take the championship all the way to the wire once again.

The chief supporting roles look like going to Benetton, Ligier, Sauber, and perhaps Ferrari. For Benetton, Michael Schumacher made a surprisingly immature error when trying to pass Senna in the wrong place, while Riccardo Patrese has yet to get the hang of a new car and may be in for one of his quiet seasons, possibly as a prelude to retirement. Ligier's new owner, Cyril de Rouvre, can feel nothing but optimism after the performance of his two English drivers, particularly that of the third-placed Mark Blundell. Ferrari have two hard-charging drivers in Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, but the latter will not want too many races run as a test session for the gremlin-ridden active suspension system of their designer, John Barnard.

Most interesting is the Swiss team of Peter Sauber, whose pretty black and white cars have 'Concept by Mercedes- Benz' stencilled ominously on their engine covers, and whose standard of turn-out would do credit to the legendary Mercedes racing manager, Alfred Neubauer. In their first grand prix, the two cars of J J Lehto and Karl Wendlinger looked perfectly comfortable in fourth and fifth places during the early laps, before teething troubles struck.

But any of the other two dozen cars will have a job to drag the eye away from the duel between Senna and Prost this year. The Formula One soap opera is back, and there are 15 episodes still to come. The next unofficial instalment, though, takes place at the FIA headquarters in Paris on Thursday, when Prost pleads his case against allegations of bringing the world championship into disrepute via critical remarks in a recent magazine interview. Threatened with suspension, he has said that such a sanction would lead him to retire. This would also give Senna, who is driving for McLaren on a race-to-race basis, the chance of the Williams seat he so coveted last year. Since the needs of 'the show' will probably lead to a compromise, the first corner in Adelaide looks like the place to be for the final race of the season on 7 November.

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