Dominant Schumacher steals Hill's thunder

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The Independent Online

reports from Suzuka

After dominating the first qualifying session for Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix, the world champion Michael Schumacher called for a new safety initiative to prevent cars taking off after interlocking wheels.

"We don't want them to become like saloon cars," he said, "but with so much safety research being done the one thing we can't do is stop cars flying. We have seen many accidents like this, and the worrying thing is that you cannot know which way it will take off in. It's something Formula One should certainly look at and prevent, one of the dangerous things that is still there and which must be taken very seriously."

Shortly before this unexpected plea, Schumacher had eased the goal posts further apart with a searing best of 1min 38.428sec to redefine the limits just as Damon Hill was celebrating what he thought was provisional pole position. That left Hill with the same deflated feeling that Ferrari's Jean Alesi had felt after Briton had erased his time within seconds. Indeed, in the space of two hectic minutes, the Frenchman had slipped from fastest to fourth.

The Williams team may have more politics surrounding it than the Houses of Parliament at present, but for 30 minutes the action on the track achieved the rare feat of putting all the paddock intrigue on hold. On one of the finest venues in the calendar, Schumacher, Hill, Alesi, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen all fought for supremacy.

Strong words in the morning between Hill and Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, had again ignited the pit lane bush fire. Even though he conceded the World Championship to Schumacher in Aida last weekend, Hill's every move remains monitored by a watchful media and he was in terse mood after the disagreement, which had rather deflated Frank Williams' efforts the previous day to voice his support for Hill and to play down the continuing rumours of attempts by the Williams management to swap Hill for Gerhard Berger, or capture the services of the German driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Both Hill and Head are men who work best with their backs up, however and, once changes had been made to his car, Hill was able to rise to the occasion with a lap of 1min 39.032sec to snatch what seemed to be the provisional pole position in the dying moments.

"I think the car is perfectly capable of taking pole tomorrow," he confirmed. "On the first run it was running too low, so my backside got a little bit roasted where the car touched the ground. It was getting hotter and hotter."

Hakkinen's performance in taking third place for McLaren was the surprise of the day, not least because less than a fortnight ago he was under the surgeon's knife having his appendix removed. "It was only a small operation - six stitches - but when I was lying at home it was really painful to do anything," he said. "I came here determined not to take any risks, but though I can still feel pain when I press my stomach, it doesn't get any worse if I press harder. When I'm in the car I don't really feel anything at all."

The day ended on a moment of drama when Hakkinen's former team-mate, Johnny Herbert, was taken to the circuit's medical centre following an accident when his Benetton collided backwards with the tyre wall at the fast Degner Curve, where both Ferraris and Mark Blundell's McLaren had also come to grief earlier in the day.

He was unharmed and later paid tribute to the safety headrest introduced after Karl Wendlinger's accident at Monaco last year. "It did its job, and cushioned the impact. Last time I did this I had a blinding headache; this time I feel fine."

Wendlinger himself concentrated on playing himself back in on his Formula One return.

JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka) Provisional grid positions after opening qualifying session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1min 38.428sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:39.032; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.127; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:39.142; 5 D Coulthard (GB) Williams- Renault 1:39.155; 6 H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:40.010; 7 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:40.153; 8 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:40.305; 9 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:40.349; 10 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:40.381; 11 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:40.838; 12 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:41.355; 13 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:41.977; 14 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:42.561; 15 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:42.623; 16 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:43.387; 17 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford 1:43.634; 18 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:43.940; 19 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:44.386; 20 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:46.654; 21 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Lotus-Ford 1:46.869; 22 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific- Lotus-Ford 1:48.824; 23 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:50.097; 24 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 16:42.640.