Coulthard stays calm to take control

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IT IS a classic car buff's haven, Buenos Aires. A 1954 Chevrolet? 1962 Ford Falcon? 1963 Singer Gazelle Estate? You will find one here. But what you will not find is a grand prix track worthy of the name. In the past the circuit was longer, quicker, more challenging. Like a fine- bred Spanish bull with the longest horns and the meanest temper. But that was then and this is now.

It is 14 years since Formula One last played Buenos Aires, this manic town which never sleeps, where the taxi drivers make their Roman counterparts seem like nervous tiros. Then, the Brabham team enjoyed the fertility of designer Gordon Murray's interpretative mind and ran away with the race with their clever pneumatic suspension system. It gave them such an advantage that not only Nelson Piquet but also rookie Hector Rebaque were able to outfumble greats such as Carlos Reutemann. Reutemann is here this weekend, as charismatic as ever but with weightier things on his mind than mere motor racing. Now the governor of the province of Santa F, he will be elected to the Argentinian Senate shortly. Some tip him as the next president.

On Thursday, despite awful conditions, he drove one of last year's Ferraris brought specially by his old team. And in a run that belied his absence from a cockpit since his abrupt retirement in early 1982, the 52-year- old put on a majestic performance. The car rode the puddles and spewed up plumes of spray as it recognised and responded to the hand of a master. His fastest lap would have placed him 11th that afternoon.

That run, great as it was, could ill disguise the deterioration of the Autodromo Municipal Oscar Alfredo Galvez since its greatest days. For all the enthusiasm that has gone into preparing it once again, the wear at the edges is all too evident. The starlet is now a crone.

"It's a circuit that is demanding physically and mentally," Mika Hakkinen said. "Some braking points are uphill then immediately downhill, so you're not sure where to brake. But it's very enjoyable to drive." Unless you want to pass anyone.

At one stage during Friday's sodden proceedings the Finn was fastest for McLaren, but in the changing conditions lap times were a lottery. Throughout, it was Jean Alesi who mastered the track best for Ferrari, driving with his usual brio. He had been quickest the previous day, too, and it was only when David Coulthard timed his final run to perfection and red flags interrupted the last efforts of Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher that the Scot was able to burst past the Frenchman to claim provisional pole position.

Friday was a day for heroes as the track offered minimal grip and several famous names - Hill, Schumacher, Berger and Herbert among them - suffered the indignity of off-course moments.

Benetton and Williams are racing with the same fuel that was ruled illegal in Brazil, but it has now been approved by the FIA after Elf submitted it as its new sample for homologation for the rest of the season.

Coulthard was confident of his chance of retaining pole position, but appeared to have gained a respite when the skies darkened again yesterday afternoon just before final qualifying. Torrential rain then prevented anyone going out until the dying moments, when a soaking free-for-all saw Hill grab pole position with a time later equalled by Hakkinen. Hill then moved further ahead as Alesi, Schumacher and the Finn Mika Salo mounted strong challenges, and Eddie Irvine vaulted temporarily to second place after recovering from an off-road moment.

Just as Hill seemed to have the situation under control with a time of 1min 54.057sec, though, Coulthard produced a stunning lap of 1min 53.241sec to confirm the first pole position of his Formula One career in the most convincing style. It was timing and one-upmanship of the highest order. "It was just a question of keeping going," said the Scot. "At one stage I virtually stopped on the back straight to give myself a gap, and with good teamwork we came through. But for everyone's sake I hope it's a dry race."

As the Argentines celebrate retaking their place in the world championship, however, their countryman Juan-Manuel Fangio, possibly the greatest driver of all, lies ill, near to the end of his life, 300km south in Balcarce. As his nation prepares to open a fresh chapter in its racing history, another is drawing quietly to its close.