Alesi in control as Hill takes it easy

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Motor racing

Jean Alesi worked hard to erase memories of his rash collision with Eddie Irvine during the Australian Grand Prix by dominating the first day of free practice for Sunday's Brazilian race. As Benetton vaulted back into contention in Interlagos yesterday, only his team-mate Gerhard Berger could keep him in sight, and even then the Frenchman maintained a comfortable half-second advantage.

In the wake of the flying Benettons it was a day of caution for Williams, who sent both Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve out on used tyres, preferring not to show their true speed until today's official qualifying session. Hill was thus happy enough with fifth place behind the rejuvenated McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, who like the Benetton drivers both used new tyres, while the Melbourne sensation Villeneuve was only 15th.

Williams' chief designer, Adrian Newey, offered some further perspective when he said: "The pattern tends to be that the driver who is not familiar with a circuit is slower than his team-mate on the first day, but gets up to his speed on the second. That's what we found in the past with Damon and David Coulthard... and this means that the new one-day qualifying system works in the new guy's favour, so it will probably play into Jacques' hands."

Villeneuve appeared to be struggling as his car repeatedly slid beyond his intended apexes but, even though Hill was 1.7 seconds off Alesi's pace, the team had cause for optimism for the day that really counts, especially as the speed traps indicated that the Benettons were slower in top speed than the Williams. "I know where we are," said Hill enigmatically as he climbed from his car, "and I am confident that we are competitive."

Like Williams, Ferrari also opted to conserve tyres for Saturday, but their day began badly when Eddie Irvine crashed on the fourth corner of his first lap, taking two wheels off his car and incurring the steely displeasure of designer John Barnard, who had only just got off the 14 hour flight from the UK. The Ulsterman had to kick his heels all day as his car was repaired, but Schumacher was content with his own workload, and remains optimistic.

With the McLarens going so strongly this was a day for the unexpected, for right behind Hill, and ahead of Schumacher, came the Frenchman Olivier Panis in a Ligier. Immediately behind the Ferrari was the continuingly impressive Dutch driver, Jos Verstappen. But for a takeover last week by the TWR Group headed by the Benetton and Ligier engineering director, Tom Walkinshaw, the Arrows team might not have made it to Brazil; Verstappen's pace was a welcome filip, especially as his novice team-mate, Ricardo Rosset, was 12th fastest, sandwiching the Jordans of Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello, and Johnny Herbert's Sauber.

Off-track animosity continues to simmer within the Williams and Jordan camps, with a hangover of allegations from Benetton and McLaren in Melbourne that their cars do not follow the spirit of the new safety regulations dictating the height of the cockpit sides. Nearby is the Morumbi cemetery in which Ayrton Senna rests, and the sport still bears the scars of the accident which killed the Brazilian at Imola in 1994, and set in train the changes which led to the current regulations. In a place where his spirit still pervades the paddock and the favellas in which his sister Viviane continues the Senna Foundation's fight against rampant poverty, those on the receiving end of the accusations still regard them as unacceptably low punches.

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (Interlagos) First free practice session: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton 1 min 19.246sec (ave speed 194.992 kph); 2 G Berger (Aut) Benetton 1:19.879; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:20.696; 4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:20.852; 5 D Hill (GB) Williams 1:20.938; 6 O Panis (Fr) Ligier 1:21.006; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:21.165; 8 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows 1:21.199; 9 M Brundle (GB) Jordan 1:21.311; 10 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan 1:21.625; 11 J Herbert (GB) Sauber 1:21.701; 12 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork 1:21.706; 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber 1:21.932; 14 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier 1:22.005; 15 J Villenevue (Can) Williams 1:22.040; 16 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell 1;22.144; 17 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell 1:22.162; 18 T Marques (Bra) Minardi 1:22.447; 19 P Lamy (Porl) Minardi 1:22.964; 20 A Montermini (It) Forti 1:25.601. No recorded time: E Irvine (GB) Ferrari.