reports from Monaco
Those who know about these things will tell you nothing sorts out drivers as Monaco does, and Jean Alesi was the only man to beat the world champion, Michael Schumacher, on the twisting, climbing, tumbling ribbon of tarmac here purported to be a Formula One circuit.
Ferrari's re-emergence as a force, in qualifying at any rate, has already been evident this season, but Alesi's beguiling performance in yesterday's qualifying session had the gallery holding its breath. He leaned into the metal barriers yet never flinched and never scrubbed off speed and remained an elusive target, even for Schumacher.
The German retaliated with a late run, pushing his Benetton-Renault ever closer to the edge, and was still four-tenths of a second short of the Frenchman's best. Schumacher is confident he has more to come in tomorrow's concluding session, which promises to be a gripping encounter.
Gerhard Berger, in the other Ferrari, edged out Damon Hill's Williams- Renault for third place, though the Englishman was relieved to be so close to the main event. He had been a distant eighth when a sharp shower threatened to curtail competitive action, and starting eighth on this circuit virtually consigns victory to the realms of fantasy.
Mika Hakkinen was fifth in a McLaren-Mercedes, while his partner, Mark Blundell, replacing Nigel Mansell, was eighth after smashing into that unforgiving barrier at the point where revellers from the Tip Top Bar are usually the lurching casualties.
Alesi, still pursuing his first win in Formula One, may still not be able to contain Schumacher, or indeed Hill come the race, but the car control and commitment he demonstrated in 1min 23.754sec around the streets was a triumph in itself.
Back in the Ferrari pit, his comments were as measured as his driving. "This year I am really well prepared for Monaco," he said. "Having tested last week I immediately had the right feeling in the car. But it is too early to think about victory. We will have to make progress on Saturday in order to start the race with a chance of winning."
Schumacher is the logical tip for Sunday and he was content with his provisional position. "We had a few problems this morning but the car is responding well and I think that we should be able to close the gap on Saturday, as there is still more to come," he said.
Hill, just a point behind Schumacher in the Championship, is convinced that he can raise his own game for the final session. "When the rain came, I thought that was it, but fortunately for us we got a second shot at it. We should be able to match Alesi's time. Everything happens on Saturday here if it doesn't rain and I've not yet got to the point where I am driving at the maximum. I've been keeping a bit in reserve for Saturday," he said.
David Coulthard, in the other Williams, can only hope he has the confidence to find more tomorrow. He may live here now, but yesterday was his first drive around the neighbourhood in a Formula One car and he parked in 11th place.
Johnny Herbert, in the second Benetton, settled for an uncomplicated ride to sixth place, happy to leave the dramas to Blundell, who admitted: "I was a bit too eager on fresh tyres and there's no room for error here."
Hakkinen, taking a little side-swipe at Mansell, said: "The car doesn't suit Nigel's driving style, but it doesn't suit mine, either. Nigel couldn't live with the problems, I can."
Eddie Irvine again outpaced his Jordan-Peugeot team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, to take ninth place, one better than Martin Brundle, who likewise beat his partner at Ligier Mugen, Olivier Panis.
MONACO GRAND PRIX (Monte Carlo) First qualifying session: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1min 23.754sec (ave speed 88.904 mph). 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton- Renault 1:24.146; 3 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:24.509; 4 D Hill (GB) Williams- Renault 1:24.659; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24.831; 6 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:25.623; 7 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:25.661; 8 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:26.017; 9 E Irvine (Irl) Jordan-Peugeot 1:26.447; 10 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen 1:26.457; 11 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:26.556; 12 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen 1:26.579; 13 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:26.787; 14 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork- Hart 1:26.828; 15 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:27.615; 16 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:27.714; 17 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:28.123; 18 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:28.439; 19 J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek-Ford 1:29.391; 20 D Schiattarella (It) Simtek-Ford 1:29.439; 21 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber- Ford 1:30.014; 22 A Montermini (It) Lotus Pacific-Ford 1:30.139; 23 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:30.461; 24 T Inohue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:31.542; 25 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:34.963; 26 B Gachot (Bel) Lotus Pacific- Ford (no time recorded).