Motor Racing: Senna to drive for McLaren in South Africa

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AYRTON SENNA ended a winter of deliberation yesterday when he announced he would be driving for McLaren-Ford in the opening race of the Formula One world championship in South Africa on Sunday - but would commit himself no further.

The 32-year-old Brazilian decided to race at Kyalami after successful test sessions in the new MP4/8 at Silverstone. He will partner Michael Andretti in McLaren's line-up, while Mika Hakkinen stands down.

Senna and McLaren have no doubt had to bargain hard and long to reach a financial agreement, though the driver is adamant his primary concern was to have a competitive car. He has recorded faster times at the British Grand Prix circuit than any driver from Williams-Renault or Benetton-Ford, the teams expected to head the championship this year.

Senna completed a third days' testing yesterday and then said: 'If the car was not fast, did not handle well, and did not have the potential, there would have been no chance of my driving this year. We have set some fast times and the car has the potential to go faster. We are all here to try to win the championship, but I cannot predict how well we can go. We do not know about reliability or how the car can perform on other circuits.

'I felt someone had to make a decision for South Africa and I have made that decision. We will talk again about the rest of the season after Kyalami. The team have shown a lot of commitment and we have got to pull together to show this can be a winning package.'

Senna cast doubts about his participation after he and McLaren lost their championships to Nigel Mansell and Williams last season. He tried in vain to manoeuvre himself into the Williams seat alongside Alain Prost for this season, and talked of taking a sabbatical.

He agreed, however, to make a final decision after testing the McLaren car, and, within a couple of days at work with it, he changed the mood of the camp and the complexion of the championship. 'It was difficult for me because I had been in Brazil, in a hot climate, for four months and it drains you to go at these speeds,' he said.

'It is very stressful. It is very difficult to tune your mind with your body. You have to go by instinct because you go through corners and past landmarks before you can really think about it. But only when you experience this, driving a car at these speeds, can you really understand what draws us to Formula One. Even now, after all that I have experienced and achieved, I am not sure I know how to understand it. But I could see, more and more, that it would be difficult for me not to drive the car.'

Senna's decision is a boost for Formula One, though he is clearly contemplating whether or not to continue after Sunday's race. His next move may be determined by a decision of the world council of Fisa, the sport's world governing body, which is due to consider ratification of Prost's super licence four days after the South African race. If Prost is suspended that coveted drive could become available.

The departure of Mansell to IndyCars and Senna's threatened exile had left the sport's authorities worrying about the star quality of their cast. As things stand now, the three-times champion from Sao Paulo is back and there is the prospect of his renewing his rivalry with another three-times champion, Prost. Asked if he relished that challenge, Senna said: 'That could be interesting.' But he added: 'Williams will be very, very strong, that's for sure. We shall have to wait and see.'

Hakkinen, meanwhile, must contemplate a year as test driver after taking the risk of leaving Lotus-Ford in search of greener pastures.

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(Photograph omitted)