Alesi turns screw

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL Schumacher knows that he has so firmly established the upper hand in Formula One this year that results are little more than window dressing. Success in the Japanese Grand Prix would draw him level with Nigel Mansell's record of nine wins in a season, but far more incalculable is the seventh wave of psychological advantage which will now, regardless, surf him into 1996 with Ferrari.

The World Champion has been utterly dominant here, lopping half a second off Damon Hill's best on Friday within seconds of Hill's setting it, and endorsing his superiority yesterday to take pole position for the first time since Canada. And to cap his pleasure, Jean Alesi parked his Ferrari alongside him on the front row of the grid.

When the emotional Frenchman launched into a haranguing of his engineers who, he claimed, had failed to bolster his confidence in his car after an off-track incident on Friday morning (the cause of which remained unconfirmed), Schumacher's mental processor whirred soundlessly into action to file the situation for the future.

Already Ferrari's new V10 engine, which will race for the first time in Schumacher's hands next season, has been setting fast times in testing, and to see the old V12 fast enough to push Alesi to the front row of the grid will undoubtedly have boosted the German's soaring confidence in his own future to stratospheric heights.

So, too, will the dire state of the Williams team, which has been a hotbed of political intrigue and acrimony all weekend, and a pressure-cooker whose lid is barely secured. On the one hand, Frank Williams has been making unconvincing protestations of support for Hill amid rumours of a swap for Gerhard Berger or Heinz-Harald Frentzen and on the other, the technical director, Patrick Head, has been screaming at him to get a move on.

Both are frustrated at their drivers' apparent inability to match Schumacher's pace in a car that, by general consensus, is the best available; the drivers feel that continual references to the manner in which the team's best- loved driver, Alan Jones, used to do things 15 years ago are probably a poor way of boosting motivation.

The turmoil here - Hill will start only fourth, Coulthard back in sixth, and both men went off the track yesterday morning - is a stark contrast to the air of calm at Benetton and, in some ways, a microcosm of the year as a whole, of frustrations - only now being voiced - and opportunities lost.

As if the speed of Schumacher and Alesi is not bad enough, Williams has also had a severe psychological blow with the speed of the appendix-less Mika Hakkinen in a revised McLaren-Mercedes, the progress of which has wended a tortuous path traceable back to the Italian Grand Prix in Monza over a month ago.

The manner in which McLaren's engineers have steadfastly worked to hone their troublesome car is a lesson to all who are tempted to give up in adversity, though we must wait to see if the car is similarly improved on tighter circuits before judging whether Ron Dennis and his team really are back on course.

Suzuka is the closest thing to every boy's dream of a Scalextric layout, a masterpiece of very fast sweeping curves and a flyover section, a proper Grand Prix circuit that rewards commitment and finesse. Coulthard said on his initial acquaintance with the track: "It's pretty scary first time out, but it's a fantastic track once you've got into the groove."

It can be bad news when you are not in the groove, however, as Johnny Herbert discovered on Friday afternoon, and Mark Blundell and Aguri Suzuki yesterday. Blundell crashed at 180mph but will race; Suzuki broke a rib and will not. Karl Wendlinger, the man left in a three-week coma after an accident in Monaco last year, will also be on the grid.

Williams desperately need strong performances from their drivers to re- establish the team's morale and underline their credibility as a cohesive unit. "This year didn't start well, it looked like it was going to get better, and then it sort of took a wrong turn somewhere and we had lots of things go wrong," Hill said.

"We were always on our heels the whole season." If they fail here, the superiority of Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren machinery may provide a chilling foretaste of what 1996 holds.