French Grand Prix: Stewart gamble earns reward

Barrichello takes advantage of extraordinary conditions to claim pole position
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RUBENS BARRICHELLO and the Stewart-Ford team threw a spanner in the dampened works of Formula One's major leaguers yesterday, with some canny strategic thinking that saw the Brazilian secure his second pole position and the team's first. As most others chose to await better weather that clearly would not arrive within the next 60 minutes, the Stewart- Ford and Sauber Petronas teams sent out Barrichello and Jean Alesi to make the best of the prevailing conditions.

The Frenchman initially set the pace. "I was cautious on my first lap, and saw that Jean was a second and a half faster than me," Barrichello admitted. "That was the incentive I needed and I really pushed hard to do a good time on my second lap. It paid off. I knew that the weather was probably going to get worse, and that this could be it, and that was how it worked out. Just fabulous!"

Alesi, who had survived unscathed a heavy accident the previous day, was delighted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his F1 debut - in the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard in 1989 - by securing the other front row position. "Yesterday I had been telling a journalist that the thing I had improved most in my 10 years of F1 was my car control," Alesi said. "The accident was my fault and I was thinking about that as I climbed out of the upturned wreckage.

"This is the best-ever starting position I have had for my home Grand Prix and probably my best-ever chance to do well here. My team did a fantastic job to finish off building up another car for me after yesterday, so this is a present for them too."

The conditions promoted Olivier Panis to a similarly opportunist third place in the Prost-Peugeot, but left rainmaster Michael Schumacher only sixth and the World Championship leader Mika Hakkinen a dramatic 14th.

"The point that you guys have missed," Ron Dennis said here on Friday, "is just how Mika is able to dig deep. People say that I have a soft spot for Mika and that I favour him because of it. It's true that I am in awe of the kid, because of what he has achieved and the way in which he handles himself."

However, he is adamant that Hakkinen's partner, David Coulthard, gets the same shake of the dice. And yesterday, after the weather rendered academic all the endless test miles that the teams had logged here on a dry track last week, it was the Scot who dug deeper. Of all those who ran when the track was at its wettest, he was the fastest, dragging his McLaren-Mercedes into fourth place after an impressive display that was, like most others, punctuated by off-track excursions.

"Clearly running at the beginning was the wise thing to do," he admitted, "but even though we missed that window, and considering the weather, I'm delighted to be on the second row."

Coulthard, who was involved in a controversial incident with Schumacher at Spa last year, voiced serious reservations about racing in similar conditions: "The conditions were dangerous. We were aqua-planing off the straights and visibility was zero. If anyone took the decision to let us race in those conditions they'd be risking the lives of all the drivers. I know that my fellow Grand Prix Drivers' Association directors Michael Schumacher and Alex Zanardi share that opinion. For the sake of entertainment we don't want to go out in risky conditions like this when it's purely down to luck whether you hit a puddle or another car. Conditions today were as bad as I've ever known and it's even worse when you're racing. In qualifying you can back off and find space, in a race you don't have that choice. You go into that sea of spray and it's a journey into the unknown over which you have no control."

Damon Hill had seemed a different man on Saturday morning, and not just because of his recently announced retirement. A less supine seating position and reduced steering power assistance on his Jordan Mugen-Honda made the former champion far happier than he has been all year, but his afternoon was beset by incidents. After qualifying he had to wait until officials waived the rule which demands that each driver qualify within 107 percent of the poleman's time. He, Marc Gene, Luca Badoer, Pedro de la Rosa and Tora Takagi found themselves in the same predicament. But due to the extraordinary circumstances, they will all be allowed to start today's race.

Meanwhile, Hill has indicated that he might retire sooner than the final race. "If my performances are not up to it then of course we will have to discuss it," he said, "but that is certainly not my intent. It is not in my nature to throw in the towel in the heat of the moment. It may well be that that might have to happen. I don't know, but I hope not." Hill consistently refused to deny that he may make the British Grand Prix his swansong.

Qualifying took place beyond the eyes of ITV's UK viewers, following the latest spat in an ongoing dispute between the terrestrial television network and Bernie Ecclestone, who retains all of his fabled feistiness despite recent heart surgery. "It's just a trial of strength, really," one senior ITV representative declared. "But how timely such a fight is while Wimbledon figures strongly on some viewers' agendas, remains to be seen."

With Hakkinen so far back, and a track on which overtaking is difficult, the Grand Prix holds serious promise. And if it remains wet, ITV may have great cause to celebrate that their contract at least allows them to cover the race itself.