Hill glimpsed the prospect of victory after a cloudburst accounted for, among others, his team-mate, Alain Prost, and turned a possible procession into a beguiling contest of wit, courage, and car control. Hill was at the head of the charge as the pace car - employed for the first time since the system was introduced last July - pulled off the Interlagos circuit.
In only his fourth grand prix, Hill might have beaten Jackie Stewart's landmark, in 1965, of a maiden success after eight races. As the track surface dried, however, Senna in the McLaren-Ford, and Michael Schumacher, in the Benetton-Ford, took the decision to stop for dry tyres.
Hill followed them into the pits a lap later and, although he re-emerged still in the lead, he was instantly put under pressure by Senna. The Brazilian, having generated sufficient heat in his tyres to launch his attack did so on the 42nd of the 71 laps. He went left, and as Hill attempted to cover, switched to the right to pull off a brilliant manoeuvre.
Hill stayed with Senna and for a period they traded fastest lap times. Senna skilfully used backmarkers as buffers through the corners and began to pull away from Hill. The closing laps became a triumphal demonstration by Senna as Hill, perhaps prudently, accepted second place.
His countryman, Johnny Herbert, driving a Lotus-Ford, was involved in a similarly enthralling dice with Schumacher, on one occasion retaliating to regain third place as the German attempted to muscle through. Schumacher, however, had the last word, breaking free a couple of laps from the end to secure third place. Fifth was another Briton, Mark Blundell, following up his excellent third place in South Africa.
Senna, still not willing to reveal the likelihood of his driving for the rest of the season, was entitled to plead for the chance to savour his 37th victory. He has been at such a distinct power disadvantage here against the Williams that his talent and commitment, finding new dimensions in front of his home crowd, elevated him above the rest once Prost had gone.
He even compensated for a 10-second stop-go penalty, incurred for overtaking under yellow flags. That decision angered him. 'It was absolutely crazy,' he said. 'People should be more careful making decisions. I was lapping the car in front, I didn't overtake, he lifted (off the accelerator). But it is very satisfying to win a race like this. This is not the time to talk about the future.'
The celebrations around the circuit were all for Senna but in the Williams camp too, there was satisfaction with Hill's performance. After his demise in South Africa, a fortnight earlier, it was imperative for him to stay out of trouble here and deliver a result. That he did with aplomb, although he will have seen in Senna, the calibre required to reach the top in Formula One.
Through practice this weekend, and during the early part of the race, we had been unable to look beyond Prost as the probable champion in waiting. He made a good start yesterday and sprinted clear of Senna, who took Hill at the first corner. Prost coolly carved an opening and we resigned ourselves to a procession.
At the start of the 11th lap, Hill, who had wisely taken his time, went past Senna with a courageous dive on the inside. Surely this was going to be a formality, a Williams one-two? But after 25 laps the rain began to fall. Soon parts of the track, particularly along the pit straight, were awash. Senna, sensing the chance to gain advantage, was soon into the pits for wet tyres. Hill quickly followed.
Mysteriously, Prost delayed and, at the end of the 29th lap, found the wreckage of cars littering the straight. He attempted to pick his way through to safety only to slide out of control, hitting another car on his way into the gravel trap.
The Frenchman said: 'I was going to come in on that lap when my engineer said something on the radio and I wasn't quite sure what he meant. I thought he said Damon was in the pits. I hesitated and thought I'd better go round for another lap and play it safe. But I ran over some debris and that's what made me go off.' His employer, Frank Williams, was patently unsympathetic. He said: 'Prost was called in but he just stayed out there and in conditions like that he hardly needed to be told to come in anyway.'
A much earlier withdrawal was the American, Michael Andretti, in the other McLaren-Ford. He was nudged sideways at the start and could not avoid careering into the gravel trap. As he sat in the cockpit, no doubt cursing his luck, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari, also out of control, ploughed into him. The McLaren-Ford was thrown up into the air but Andretti escaped serious injury.
Andretti was airlifted to hospital by helicopter for precautionary checks. A team spokesman said: 'Michael has hurt his right arm and back but he's OK. We just want to make sure there are no problems.' Another driver to make an early exit was Britain's Martin Brundle, in the Ligier-Renault. The fifth member of the British contingent, Derek Warwick, brought home his Footwork-Mugen Honda in ninth place.
DETAILS FROM INTERLAGOS
BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (Sao Paulo, 307.075km, 190.848 miles, 71 laps): 1 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1h 51min 15.485sec; (ave speed 165.601kph, 102.900mph); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault +16.625sec; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford +45.436; 4 J Herbert (GB) Lotus- Ford +46.557; 5 M Blundell (GB) Ligier-Renault +52.127; 6 A Zanardi (It) Lotus- Ford +1 lap; 7 P Alliot (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini +1 lap; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari +1 lap; 9 D Warwick (GB) Footwork- Mugen Honda +2 laps; 10 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse- Lamborghini +2 laps; 11 M Alboreto (It) Lola BMS- Ferrari +3 laps; 12 L Badoer (It) Lola BMS-Ferrari +3 laps. Did not finish (not classified): 13 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber 61 laps covered; 14 JJ Lehto (Fin) Sauber 52; 15 A de Cesaris (It) Tyrrell- Yamaha 48; 16 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 29; 17 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 28; 18 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 27; 19 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 26; 20 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 13; 21 R Patrese (It) Benetton-Ford 3. Did not start (failed to complete one lap): G Berger (Aut) Ferrari, M Andretti (US) McLaren- Ford, M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault, F Barbazza (It) Minardi-Ford. Fastest lap: Schumacher 1:20.024 (194.567kph, 120.898mph).
World Drivers' Championship standings (after two rounds): 1 Senna 16pts; 2 Prost 10; 3= Hill, Blundell 6; 5 Schumacher 4; 6= Herbert, Fittipaldi 3; 8 Lehto 2; 9= Berger, Zanardi 1.
Constructors' standings: 1= McLaren-Ford, Williams-Renault 16; 3 Ligier-Renault 6; 4= Benetton- Ford, Lotus-Ford 4; 6 Minardi-Ford 3; 7 Sauber 2; 8 Ferrari 1.
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