Motor Racing: Superb Senna splits Prost and Hill: Brazilian revels in unequal struggle and may stay with McLaren for rest of season

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EVEN when he is out on his own, seemingly beyond reach of the rest, Alain Prost cannot escape the spectre of Ayrton Senna. To Prost, provisional pole; to Senna, the exhilaration of another superb effort in overcoming a substantial engine disadvantage.

Senna split the Williams-Renaults of Prost and Damon Hill in the first qualifying session for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix here, taking himself and his McLaren-Ford to the brink. The Brazilian's sublime talent is maintaining the challenge to Williams, sustaining the competitive element of the world championship, and rather more besides.

Senna in his pomp is a beguiling spectacle, his skill optimised by unbridled courage. The reality of that he confesses disturbs him. He said: 'I am risking my life and I have to question why.' In other words, he cannot, ultimately beat Prost, not unless every grand prix is raced in a downpour. For Senna, however, there is an irresistible lure.

'It's a tremendous fight inside you,' he said. 'Some of you is saying try, some saying be careful. You have to try to get a balance. But I try my maximum and when it works it's a great feeling, it's a challenge to add to the limits for yourself and your machine.

'You feel unsafe at these speeds, and most of the time it is not worth it. Certainly not this year. It is not possible for me to get pole, so it is not worth the effort. The risk is too high. When you get it wrong you are risking too much - your life. If you touch a kerb here you are asking for a big shunt.

'You can drive like this for one or two laps, but for a full race you can't do it, no way. If I can lead at the first corner it can only give the public a thrill until Williams get past, which they surely will. Their car is so superior. All I can hope for is rain. I want lots of rain.'

Williams, of course, do not. Prost was .6sec ahead of Senna yesterday and, given dry conditions today, Hill ought to make up the .2sec gap between him and the McLaren. Come the race, as Senna suggests, he can expect to offer only token resistance.

Despite the unequal struggle, Senna indicated he was ready to race for the rest of the season, which presumably means McLaren have gathered the additional sponsorship money they required to meet his demands. He said: 'I don't have a signed contract, but I believe we have everything in place and I feel relaxed. It is only a question of time.'

Hill was dissatisfied with his day's work and said: 'I'm a little disappointed to be where I am. The car is not really handling as well as we know it can here.'

The order immediately below Hill yesterday further reflected the value of Senna's contribution to his team. He was comfortably clear of the Benetton- Ford pair, Michael Schumacher and Riccardo Patrese, while Michael Andretti in the other McLaren was a distant seventh.

Patrese has again been hounded by questions about his future, Nigel Mansell being suggested as his latest potential replacement. Benetton deny such an approach, although Formula One's impressario, Bernie Ecclestone, remains in pursuit of the exiled world champion. Ferrari and McLaren are probably rather higher on Mansell's list of options for future employment.

Johnny Herbert (Lotus-Ford) was second fastest of the Britons here yesterday, eighth overall. Derek Warwick (Footwork- Mugen Honda) was 12th and the Ligier-Renault pair, Mark Blundell and Martin Brundle, were 13th and 19th respectively.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona) Leading first qualifying times: 1 A Prost (Fr) Williams-Renault 1min 19.599sec; (214.691kph, 133.403mph); 2 A Senna (Bra) McLaren-Ford 1:20.221; 3 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:20.400; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:21.148; 5 R Patrese (It) Benetton- Ford 1:21.880; 6 M Andretti (US) McLaren-Ford 1:22.286; 7 J J Lehto (Fin) Sauber-Mercedes 1:22.801; 8 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Ford 1:23.541; 9 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Ford 1:23.579; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:23.614; 11 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber- Mercedes 1:23.698; 12 D Warwick (GB) Footwork- Mugen Honda 1:23.971; 13 M Blundell (GB) Ligier- Renault 1:24.107; 14 A Suzuki (Japan) Footwork- Mugen Honda 1:24.158; 15 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Minardi-Ford 1:24.304; 16 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:24.346; 17 T Boutsen (Bel) Jordan-Hart 1:24.476; 18 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:24.708; 19 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Renault 1:24.748; 20 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Lamborghini 1:24.995.