Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger gave Ferrari provisional occupancy of the front row of the grid for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix here, their pace contrasting with the erratic performance of the other leading teams. David Coulthard, in a Williams-Renault, was third fastest, Michael Schumacher, in his Benetton-Renault, fourth, and Damon Hill, in the other Williams, fifth.
Schumacher complained that his car was "terrible and unpredictable", and Hill was no more impressed with his machinery. "I'm very unhappy with the car," the Englishman said. "All the laps were messy. I've got the car wrong somehow. We are nowhere near where we should be. We've got to go to work."
They, at least, can anticipate improvements during the course of this and subsequent weekends. Nigel Mansell, preparing for his second race with McLaren-Mercedes, suspects he has little to look forward to.
Mansell was 12th after a spin, a few wobbles and an uncomfortable ride all afternoon. The much-hyped comeback is losing its gloss and another major enterprise appears to be offering scant hope of paying dividends.
"It's sheer understeer and oversteer, not balanced at all," the former champion said of his car. "I just have to go and think about it. I've no doubt whatever it is a fundamental car problem. You can make it worse or a little bit better, but you will never fix it.
"I will qualify my remarks by saying Mercedes is a fantastic manufacturer and the team has an unprecedented track record. They'll get it right. But at the end of the day it's a question of how much time and how many races go by. At the moment the car, for me, the way I drive and what I need from the car, is very difficult."
Mansell is no doubt casting envious eyes in the direction of his old teams, Williams and Ferrari. Come the race, Williams will again be seen as the team to beat, though Ferrari approach each grand prix with ever greater conviction.
Coulthard said: "Ferrari are the force. They are going forward and it's shaping up to be very close. But the quickest car in qualifying is not necessarily the quickest in the race."
Berger takes a similar view. The Austrian said: "This circuit doesn't really suit the 12 cylinder engine but still we have done well. It looks like we should now be competitive everywhere and that's what we need.
"But I would not say we are the biggest threat to Williams. Everything is open. For me, the favourite is Damon Hill in the Williams, but Schumacher is also strong so I don't want to make any judgement like this."
The pattern of the day was set early in the session, when the buoyant Alesi surged clear of the pack. The others pushed and probed, but Ferrari were always capable of staying one step ahead. Their French driver, still seeking a maiden grand prix win, completed his stint 0.354sec faster than Berger.
"At the end of the morning session I was on the right road to finding a good set-up and in the afternoon the car was really well balanced," Alesi said. "The times came quite easily and I think I can do even better tomorrow. The optimism I expressed before starting here was well-founded."
Hill's last-lap charge lifted him from seventh to fifth, above Mika Hkkinen's McLaren and Johnny Herbert's Benetton. Herbert spun in the unofficial practice session and in qualifying, but was within a second of Schumacher and concluded: "On the whole, it's more encouraging for me."
Eddie Irvine, in a Jordan- Peugot, was eighth and Martin Brundle, who was making his first appearance of the season in the Ligier-Mugen Honda, was 15th.
Brundle said: "After being away for nearly six months, today has possibly been one of the most difficult of my career. I have progressively got into the groove, although I wasn't really in a position to go looking for the limits of the car."
SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona) First practice times: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1min 23.104sec (ave speed 204.769kph, 127.265mph); 2 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:23.458; 3 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:23.496; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1:23.535; 5 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:24.356; 6 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24.427; 7 J Herbert (GB) Benetton- Renault 1:24.461; 8 E Irvine (Irl) Jordan-Peugeot 1:24.891; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:25.655; 10 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:25.902; 11 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:26.013; 12 N Mansell (GB) McLaren- Mercedes 1:26.246; 13 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:26.413; 14 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:26.462; 15 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:26.747; 16 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:26.846; 17 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:27.280; 18 J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek-Ford 1:27.666; 19 P L Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:28.008; 20 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford 1:28.305; 21 D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford 1:28.312; 22 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:28.563; 23 A Montermini (It) Lotus Pacific-Ford 1:29.942; 24 B Gachot (Bel) Lotus Pacific-Ford 1:30.429; 25 P P Diniz (Bra) Forti- Ford 1:30.578; 26 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:31.063.Reuse content