Coulthard leads the duellists

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Motor racing


reports from Nurburgring

The contest for the World Championship continues here with the now familiar trio competing for pole position, but the political and personal shenanigans for next season are playing to an ever more captive audience at the fringe theatre.

David Coulthard took centre stage at the main event yesterday, beating his Williams-Renault team-mate and title contender, Damon Hill, into second place on the provisional grid for tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe.

The championship leader, Michael Schumacher, was comprehensively beaten into third place in his Benetton-Renault.

Whatever the outcome of the remaining four races Schumacher heads a different cast at Ferrari next year, and his newly appointed supporting driver, Eddie Irvine, was given a little more insight into what he can expect.

The guidelines to survival as Schumacher's team-mate were offered by Johnny Herbert, the German's suffering partner this season. The Englishman told the Ulsterman: "You've got to watch him like a hawk, how he works things, watch what he does and how he does it. He'll be OK to start with, but he will want to do most of the testing and if he does that he'll get control.

"Eddie is in a better position than I was because he has level terms, but he will have to start strongly. Michael is selfish but then so was Ayrton Senna in that he was single-minded in the way he went about things to win."

Ferrari's current drivers, Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, switch to Benetton next year and the latter is scattering a few tacks behind him as he wends his way from Maranello.

The Austrian said: "If you talk to Ferrari, Michael is one second quicker than anyone else and we are a second behind now so he may be just quick enough to win the championship. Of course, for me that is oversimplifying it but not for them."

Alesi was involved in a public slanging match with Ferrari's team director, Jean Todt, over orders to give way to Berger in Portugal last week and was subsequently fined $200,000 (pounds 130,000). Berger, in characteristically mischievous mood, revealed: "Jean told me he's happy to pay for it. It was worth it."

Irvine, currently with Jordan-Peugeot, is a phlegmatic character at the worst of times and sat impassively as this intelligence was laid before him.

He said: "Part of the reason for going to Ferrari is that they want to win the constructors' championship and are committed to running two good cars. If Michael wants to do a lot of the testing maybe I'll get some breaks and be able to go back to Dublin. You can get stale being in the car too much."

All the drivers were given an extra half hour yesterday to acclimatise to a track last used for a grand prix a decade ago. With the temperature 7.9 C and snow a possibility before the weekend is over, they welcomed the activity. The Williams pair were too hot for Schumacher but he leads Hill by 17 points and the onus is on the Englishman to attack.

EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX (Nurburgring, Germany, tomorrow) opening practice times: 1 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 18.738sec (av speed 130.191mph); 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:18.972; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton- Renault 1:19.470; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:19.821; 5 E Irvine (GB) Jordan- Peugot 1:20.488; 6 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:20.521; 7 J Herbert (GB) Benetton- Renault 1:20.653; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford Zetec 1:20.762; 9 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:20.866; 10 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:20.909; 11 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugot 1:21.350; 12 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:21.541; 13 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford Zetec 1:22.059; 14 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:22.062; 15 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:23.058; 16 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:23.328; 17 M Papis (It) Footwork-Hart 1:23.689; 18 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:23.670; 19 G Tarquini (It) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:24.286; 20 A Montermini (It) Pacific Team Lotus 1:24.696; 21 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:25.647; 22 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:26.667; 23 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:26.784; 24 J-D Deletraz (Swit) Pacific Team Lotus 1:27.853.