Motor Racing: Williams to set pace again

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AFTER years of posing the question 'Who can beat McLaren-Honda?' at least the name has changed. The target this time, however, looks just as elusive. Williams-Renault appear to be out of reach for a little longer. Alain Prost, back in Formula One with the world champions after a season's sabbatical, is understandably cautious. He will recall how he was expected to steer Ferrari to the title two years ago, only to be driven to distraction and out of the team.

Williams, however, are a rather different proposition and it seems inconceivable they could squander their current advantage, especially with their closest rivals going through a period of transition.

The momentum is with Williams. Such was their superiority with the FW14B, incorporating an active suspension system, they did not have to risk introducing the FW15, which was planned for last season.

That car is already obsolete. The development programme is structured around the 15B and the 15C. The introduction of narrower tyres, intended to produce more entertaining racing and perhaps reduce Williams' domination, is likely to achieve neither. Williams expect to add anti-lock brakes to their sophisticated package during the course of the season.

McLaren, having lost their status as No. 1 team, Honda engines and possibly Ayrton Senna, are regrouping. And yet, given their expertise, organisation and resources, Williams, for one, will not dismiss them. They may be capable of causing Williams the occasional discomfort, if not necessarily representing a genuine threat to their crown. Michael Andretti, who has left his IndyCar seat for Nigel Mansell, shows every sign of wringing what he can from the McLaren.

Benetton-Ford's consistency put them in third place last season but now they are stepping into the technological ring and might have to take a few blows before they can aspire to toppling the heavyweights.

Ferrari can surely only improve after a wretched 1992. The return of John Barnard to the drawing board should, we are told, be evident in the shape and performance of the scarlet car at the first race. A new creation is due mid-season. The Englishman, alas, can do nothing for the engine, and that could prove the team's Achilles' heel.

British romantics will hope for the Lotus-Ford revival to continue, though for now that great name, like the others, can anticipate having to concede top billing to Williams.