Byline: ALAN HENRY
A PERFECTLY judged second place behind Michael Schumacher's Benetton in the Portuguese Grand Prix secured Alain Prost's place as only the second man after the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio to win four world championships in the 43-year history of the contest.
The Frenchman achieved this historic landmark after a characteristically strategic drive during which he dodged every hazard and kept out of trouble in a race full of collisions and off-track excursions.
It was Schumacher's second grand prix victory, coming more than a year after his first in Belgium. Prost's Williams-Renault team-mate Damon Hill finished third after a storming drive from the back of the field, to which he had been consigned after stalling at the start of the pre-race parade lap when on pole position.
Although Fangio won five championships between 1951 and 1957, Prost says he is happy with four and will still retire after this season.
'These records only mean anything when you're racing,' he said after yesterday's race. 'Once you have stopped they are of no consequence. If I stay and win a fifth championship next year, everybody would only be asking me whether I would go on for a sixth the year after that. I am quite happy about what I have achieved, but that's it.'
He then took the opportunity to launch a thinly veiled attack on Fisa, the sport's governing body. He believes he has been discriminated against throughout the season, receiving questionable penalties and threats of disqualification after criticism of Fisa in his sabbatical year in 1992.
'If I had done one-tenth of the sort of thing Mika Hakkinen did at the start (today), I think I would have got a penalty,' he said, citing the over-exuberant manner in which the Finnish driver almost pushed him on to the grass on the run down to the first corner.
'The rules are not the same for everybody and I have become very nervous. I do not forget the criticism which has been levelled at me during this season.'
With Hill relegated to the back, Jean Alesi seized the opportunity to slingshot his Ferrari round the outside of the first corner to take a lead he defended for 20 laps. The McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Hakkinen settled down to run second and third in the opening stages, with Prost keeping a cautious watching brief from fourth place.
Meanwhile Hill ripped through the field from 26th position, making six places on the opening lap alone. After 10 laps he was 10th and by lap 16 he was sixth. 'My father once said you meet a better class of person at the back of the grid,' the Briton said afterwards, 'but I'm not sure I would agree with that.'
After Alesi made a routine tyre stop at the end of lap 20, Senna surged into the lead only to retire with engine failure nine laps later. That promoted Schumacher into a 5sec lead, the young German having made his routine tyre stop on lap 21.
With 10 laps left, Prost piled on the pressure, dodging from side to side behind Schumacher as he attempted to second-guess where the German would position his car under braking.
'It is very difficult to overtake here,' explained Prost, 'but while I wanted to win the race, I wasn't taking any undue chances.'
Hill was only eight seconds behind Prost at the chequered flag and Alesi faded to fourth ahead of Karl Wendlinger's Sauber and Martin Brundle's Ligier.
The other Britons had a disastrous day. Mark Blundell's Ligier was pitched into a sand trap after a tangle with Wendlinger, Derek Warwick's Footwork suffered a similar fate at the hands of Riccardo Patrese, and Johnny Herbert's Lotus spun off on its own.