Alesi in the grip of Hill

Monaco Grand Prix: Ferrari's Frenchman is frustrated and Schumacher suffers as a British family tradition continues
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The Independent Online
THE GODS scowled again at Jean Alesi in Monte Carlo yesterday, reserving their affection for the man whose father was once the King in a Principality.

As Alesi was forced to watch in frustration from the pits, Damon Hill revealed a mastery of Monaco that was every bit the equal shown by his father Graham here in a glorious run of five victories in the Sixties.

In Monaco the art lies in flirting with the concrete walls and Armco barriers, without their giving you a Glasgow kiss, in maintaining precision and forward momentum. And it was Hill who achieved that better than anybody else as he and Michael Schumacher indulged in a gripping battle for pole position.

Alesi should have been in there pitching with them, having set the pace all weekend, but just as he was about to go into his first fast lap his Ferrari stalled ingloriously at the Rascasse corner, and he was not allowed to use it again after an illegal push-start. As he waited for his team- mate Gerhard Berger to finish his laps, so that he could take over his car, Hill and Schumacher pushed ahead. First Schumacher recorded 1min 23.600sec, to which Hill smoothly responded with 1min 23.294sec. Then it seemed business as usual when Schumacher trimmed that to 1min 22.742sec, until Hill's stunning 1min 22.115sec riposte.

As David Coulthard pushed into third place in the second Williams with 1min 23.109sec, and Berger managed 1min 23.220sec for fourth fastest time, Schumacher's final efforts proved fruitless. In the closing stages, just to rub in the message that he is a far from a spent Championship force after the problems of Barcelona, Hill came back again with an excellent lap of 1min 21.952sec to throw his pole position beyond any reach.

It was all too much for Alesi, who finally got out in Berger's car and completed his warm-up lap 13 seconds before the chequered flag ended the session. It was a tall order to expect him to improve his 1min 23.754sec which had been fastest on Thursday, but he is not the sort to surrender without a fight. He was deeply upset that his only quick lap occupied 1min 24.023sec, but the crowd loved his spirit.

"When Michael did his first quick lap I thought that was it," Hill said. "I thought Benetton was back in the groove. But then it all just unfolded for me. That last lap there was no traffic at all; it was the closest I've ever got to the perfect lap."

This afternoon his sights are set on a sixth victory for the Hill family, which would bring it level with the late Ayrton Senna's Monaco record.

This was the most gripping qualifying session for years, and the Ferraris in particular were spectacular to watch. Berger entertained the spectators in Casino Square with the sort of four-wheel drifts not seen in Formula One since the Seventies, and confirmed that the new regulations have created a breed of cars which is the most visually exciting since the turbocharged monsters of 1986.

Coulthard, slow to learn on Thursday, was delighted with his position, which left him fastest of the Monaco virgins who had spent most of the previous days flogging round the streets of the Principality trying to fix its layout and intimate characteristics in their mental notebooks. But given his machinery, the rookie Eddie Irvine was equally impressive as he took ninth place, just behind Mika Hakkinen's McLaren in sixth and Johnny Herbert and Martin Brundle.

Once the bad boy of Formula One, Irvine is fast maturing into a man who is drawing attention from the leading teams. Ferrari and McLaren are said to be watching his performances with great interest, notwithstanding a last-lap accident which damaged his Jordan-Peugeot. Right behind him, Mark Blundell's performance boosted McLaren's morale in the wake of Nigel Mansell's departure.

Before qualifying began there had been another drama when the former rally driver Jean Ragnotti drove his Renault course car into the back of Taki Inoue's Footwork as the latter was being towed to the pits. Though Inoue was ejected from the upturned car, he will race.

The little Simtek team from Banbury will also run, but faces the biggest crisis of its brief Formula One career after its owner/ designer Nick Wirth revealed its precarious financial state and indicated that he will close it down unless he finds "several million" dollars within the next week.

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