Last year's battle ended in acrimony, but yesterday they shook hands after Schumacher's last-ditch effort had failed to dislodge Hill from pole position, earned with the time he set during Friday's session, while Schumacher was out of action following a heavy crash. The stage is set for a fascinating trial of strength between the two Renault-powered teams, since behind Hill's Williams and Schumacher's Benetton come their respective team-mates, David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert. A more emphatic demonstration that Renault's new three-litre V10 engine is ready to maintain the advantage its predecessor enjoyed for the last three years of the 3.5-litre formula could not have been devised, and there is little to suggest that their supremacy will be seriously challenged today.
Behind the French-engined cars on the grid come the resurgent Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, the first three rows covered by less than a second. The McLaren-Mercedes pair of Mika Hakkinen and Mark Blundell (substituting for Nigel Mansell) overcame their cars' inherent instability sufficiently to find themselves seventh and ninth, sandwiching the Jordan- Peugeot of Eddie Irvine.
All the drivers were perturbed by the state of the newly resurfaced track at Interlagos, a circuit which is what you would get if you took Brands Hatch, moved it to the outskirts of Croydon, and added more weather. Encircling the horizon on a clear day, the endless concrete tower blocks of Sao Paulo disappear into the mists when the autumn rains come, coinciding with the arrival of the grand prix circus.
Like Brands Hatch, Interlagos winds around the contours of a natural amphitheatre. And this year it offers an even greater challenge: ripples and corrugations in the freshly relaid surface, making life extremely unpleasant for the drivers. "It's as though they put a layer of bricks down first and then spread the tarmac over it," Herbert observed. Blundell confirmed that it was even bumpier than last year, when the drivers had complained about the problem. "The effect of the new aerodynamic regulations might be making it worse," he said, "because the cars are riding a bit higher. When we had more downforce, it squashed the bumps.''
The bumps may have contributed to Schumacher's crash during Friday's qualifying session, caused by a partial steering failure as he entered a long, fast right-hander. The car ran wide, flicked into a half-spin, and went backwards into a wall of tyres at about 140mph. Echoes of Ayrton Senna's fatal crash, which is believed to have been caused by some form of steering failure, were troublingly evoked. But an evening's work by the Benetton technicians identified the cause: a broken stem on a steering joint, which was quickly replaced on both Benettons by a simple bolt.
"It's a part that's been on the car for two or three years," Ross Brawn, the team's technical director, said. "It's not particularly highly stressed, and it's never broken before.''
Initial uncertainty over the reason for the accident prompted the team to keep Herbert in the pits, their understandable prudence costing him half his qualifying laps. Yesterday he made up for lost time with a performance which, as Schumacher pointed out, confirmed his race-winning potential after a difficult time during winter testing. "My quickest lap wasn't perfect,'' Herbert said. "I locked up at the first corner and missed the apex. There's definitely more to come.''
Schumacher expressed his satisfaction with the team's solution to the problem that caused Friday's crash, but went off the road again in yesterday morning's untimed session. Trying to match Hill's time on the streaming track, he lost control on a long left-hander and shot along the grass for a couple of hundred yards, the car bucking and leaping as its front wing disintegrated. This time, as he later admitted, pilot error was to blame.
"It's going to be a very tough race," Schumacher said when asked about how the drivers would cope with a full hour and a half on a track more suited to testing armoured vehicles. "Whoever is the best prepared physically is looking the best for the race." And Schumacher, of course, is celebrated for his dedication to physical fitness.
"I learnt from last year never to underestimate the guy," Hill said after the session. "But we've got him surrounded, as far as the British are concerned: one ahead of him, and two behind.''
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