Drivers in dope test mystery

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THERE was little action of note on the track yesterday, which perhaps explains why the revelation of Friday's routine dope tests on Rubens Barrichello and Max Papis caused such a palaver at the track side in the afternoon. There were suggestions that each showed traces of banned substances.

It seems that there is a ready explanation, however. Drivers are racing this weekend in temperatures at least 20 degrees lower than they were last weekend in Estoril, and several now have colds as a result. Barrichello is alleged to have told FIA medics, prior to his test, that he had used the nasal treatment Afrin, which contains Ephedrine. Papis admitted openly that he was prescribed Triaminic Flu, which contains Pheniphedrine, as a cold treatment by his doctor.

Damon Hill, David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher also underwent tests as they were the top three drivers in the qualifying session, with Olivier Panis, Papis and Barrichello selected by random ballot. The FIA has conducted regular tests since the beginning of the season, and issues its own guidelines which are based on the list of proscribed drugs used by the Olympic Committee.

The test samples will not be analysed fully for another 10 days, whereupon a report will be sent to the FIA in the normal way. Close observers expect that any trouble will be cleared up almost as quickly as the drivers' colds.

Hill and Schumacher had earlier saved final qualifying for the European Grand Prix from complete anti-climax with their efforts to dislodge Coulthard from his third successive pole position. The hangover from the rain in the morning's free practice kept the leading drivers and cars in the pits for the first 34 minutes of the official hour of qualifying, to the undisguised disgust of the thousands of spectators. Their catcalls were eventually silenced when Hill just worked below Coulthard's time, but the Englishman could not complete that lap after his engine cut out.

Schumacher's final lap was also quicker than Coulthard's by the first intermediate timing point, but the local hero's tyres lost their edge thereafter. Although he bettered his Friday time, he remains third on the grid, sharing the second row with Gerhard Berger's Ferrari. Eddie Irvine did well to push his Jordan-Peugeot through to fifth place, ahead of Jean Alesi (who he replaces at Ferrari in 1996), Johnny Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Such tedious afternoons will soon be a thing of the past. Grand prix schedules will be changed next year to have only one qualifying session, on Saturday afternoons, the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone said here yesterday. The teams have agreed in principle that practice sessions on Fridays will not count for the starting grid. But they have vetoed proposals for teams to be allowed to run three cars at selected races.

There are two Nurburgring circuits and sadly the European Grand Prix is being held on the sterile, newer version. The old Nurburgring watches like a sleeping giant, 14 miles of grey ribbon that instilled fear and respect in equal measure.

Nothing characterised the disparate approach of today's drivers than the responses when Irvine and Berger were asked whether they wished they could have driven on it. Irvine, notably graceless and arrogant in his first weekend of public relations for Ferrari, grunted a monosyllabic "No". Berger, predictably, was expansive. "If you have seen the old circuit..." he said wistfully. "I think all of us would love to drive on a circuit like that because it really shows the performance of the driver."

The challenge of the Nurburgring was once to complete the 170 corners without error, while putting from one's mind the potential consequences of mechanical fragility and failure. On the "new" Nurburgring, today's racers will consider it a challenge conquered if they negotiate two tight chicanes without contact with other cars.

Today's circuit follows the present fashion for stop-go racing, with few places to overtake. This will be on the world champion's mind this afternoon, for on home ground again he finds himself at a significant potential disadvantage to the Williams duo. It could be Hill's last chance to keep title hopes alive, but Coulthard - to be confirmed as McLaren's second driver today - responded testily to inevitable questions about team orders. "I'm tired of them. I think what we all want to see is a motor race."