All eyes on Suzuka skies

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IT RAINED in Suzuka yesterday afternoon, but the change in weather came too late to prevent Michael Schumacher galloping round the sinuous circuit to place his Ferrari on provisional pole position.

The day had begun with unseasonably fine sunshine which persisted throughout the two hour-long sessions, but the brief rain shower inevitably increased speculation that a wet race might well hand Schumacher his third drivers' world title, and Ferrari its first since the South African Jody Scheckter was crowned back in 1979. In 1994 Schumacher finished a close second to an inspired Damon Hill in a race run in monsoon conditions, and a year later, while winning his second championship with Benetton, he left all others flailing in his damp wake. Reports predict clement weather again for qualifying, but there is a 20 per cent chance of rain tomorrow.

The possibility of rain had prompted Schumacher to open discussion about overtaking tactics in such conditions, during a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. Anxious to avoid a repeat of his spectacular collision with David Coul-thard in Belgium in September, Schumacher proposed a so- called code for the driver being overtaken. "Nothing came of it as such, however," Johnny Herbert reported. "All Michael said was general common sense stuff, nothing new."

After all the talking and testing, Ferrari and McLaren, Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, finally met again in action on the track after the four-week lay-off. As expected, the two went toe-to-toe, with Hakkinen initially edging Schumacher out by a scant seven-hundredths of a second after the morning's hour-long session. Friday is traditionally the day on which the teams set-up their chassis, and begin to assess which of two tyre options to pursue on this morning's 'last-chance' run prior to qualifying. Both Bridgestone and Good-year bring hard and soft compound tyres to each race, and as ever the trick lies in choosing the better compromise between the grip of the softer rubber and the endurance of the harder. Suzuka is not the easiest circuit on which to make such a choice, because a plethora of different corners impose different requirements, hence the importance of optimising the cars before the all-important qualifying shoot-out.

When practice resumed yesterday afternoon Schumacher turned the tables on McLaren, boosting Ferrari by ending the day almost a second clear of Hakkinen. However, neither he nor sporting director Jean Todt was getting carried away.

"We got through all the work on our programme for today and made some good progress with the set-up of the car," a relaxed-looking Schumacher reported afterwards. "Of course I'm happy to be on provisional pole position, but I don't think today's result shows the whole truth and therefore I expect qualifying to be very close. But we are competitive. All the hard work in testing over the past few weeks seems to have paid off."

"The situation looks good," Todt conceded. "But we now have to check the tyre choice carefully as we have not yet reached a decision and this area will be critical in the race."

McLaren ended the day in fifth and sixth places, and motored into their customary information cul-de-sac. "As al- ways we are concentrating on our race set-up, which means lap times are immaterial," Ron Dennis, McLaren's group managing director, said. "They purely reflect difficulties with traffic and yellow flags."

What he meant was that Hakkinen had focused on some laps with plenty of fuel on board, and had then met traffic on his fastest lap. The Finn was comfortably faster than Schumacher in the first and second timed sectors of the track, only to lose ground in the third when he came upon the Argentinian, Esteban Tuero.

Hakkinen shrugged off the incident, and a yellow flag which stopped him going quickly on another lap after Jean Alesi had spun his Sauber, dismissing them as part of the game. "The car ran reliably, it was strong and I am very pleased," he said.

The fact Ralf Schumacher in the Jordan and Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the Williams, moved into second and third places, ahead of Eddie Irvine's Ferrari, lent credence to Dennis' calm air. This was just the preliminary skirmish; the serious battle begins tomorrow.