Ferrari set the target for rivals: Motor racing

Click to follow
Relief mingled with caution here as the preliminary shots were finally fired in the battle for the 1997 world championship, which begins with tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix.

The relief came as some sort of perspective began to emerge during the first day of practice after the most confusing and inconclusive off-season in recent years had thrown up far more questions than answers regarding the relative performances of the leading contenders.

Caution might have been expected from the drivers after environmental protestors had deposited diesel oil on key corners of the Albert Park circuit. However, they failed to make any further impact and the drivers' reticence was evident not in the way they attacked the circuit but in their interpretation of the first day's running. Michael Schumacher finished the day in control by half a second for a Ferrari team which, according to the jungle drums, had been troubled for much of its testing programme.

"Our work went according to plan and our aim today was to find a good set-up both for qualifying and for the race," Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, said. "But let's not get carried away. We know what level of fuel we were carrying, but what about our rivals? This we will not know about for sure until qualifying."

This is a traditional uncertainty on the first day, when cars do not always run in full qualifying trim during free practice, which does not count for grid places. However, this year there is the added complication of the tyre war between the established kings of Goodyear and the new pretenders, Bridgestone.

Drivers must now evaluate the performance of different compound tyres, and to do that some teams choose to run with a heavier fuel load, which can produce a misleading result by slowing them artificially. Having made their choice of tyres for free practice, they must thereafter stick with it for qualifying and the race. Thus it was also hard to draw hard and fast conclusions, since nobody could be quite certain who was running what.

"Couple that with the fuel situation - maybe we had less than the others, maybe not - and coming first today is a meaningless prize," Schumacher admitted. However, he said it with the air of a man whose machinery had surprised him. Certainly, it surprised others.

Schumacher's great rival and fellow German, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who has replaced Damon Hill in the dominant Williams-Renault team, barely had time to savour the achievement of lapping faster than his colleague Jacques Villeneuve for the first time, when Schumacher beat his best time by half a second.

"It's pretty nice to be that far up the order," Frentzen grinned in acknowledgement of the plaudits, but he was not about to let anything go to his head. "It's very early right now. Friday is a day just for sorting all the things like tyres out. I don't think the times matter."

However, Villeneuve's final lap was significantly quicker than Schumacher's at the two intermediate measurement points. The 25-year-old Canadian, favourite for the title after finishing second to Hill last season, made two errors in the final segment and watched the best lap time slip away.

Hill's under-developed TWR Arrows Yamaha is clearly no match yet for his old team's quick new cars, but he remained philosophical. Relaxed, and outwardly resigned to the need to pay further dues before he can push himself back to the respectable end of the grid, the world champion even found time to joke when his specially tailored driving seat was delayed in customs. "First I lose my seat at Williams," he said, "and now I lose my Arrows seat as well."

Until a gearbox failure brought him to a premature halt in the morning Hill had momentarily set the fastest time in the early running when his Bridgestone tyres were at their best against the Goodyears of the Williams and Ferrari drivers. He expressed himself happy with 13th fastest time overall, which was rather better than some had predicted for a car that has suffered persistent teething troubles. "In all honesty I think that if we can qualify two and a half seconds away from the front of the grid that would be a good result for us right now," he said.

Hill will not have missed another noteworthy performance, however. Ralf Schumacher lapped within a second of his brother's fastest time to take fifth place, in the elite company of Jean Alesi and Villeneuve, driving the improved Jordan-Peugeot that Hill turned down in favour of the Arrows.

Hill interview, page 28