McLaren still reticent despite upward curve

Motor racing
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The man in the red and white apparel offered the usual word of caution: "Remember, it's Saturday that counts."

McLaren personnel are indoctrinated in the "say little, better still, say nothing" policy. It does not do to boast and strut, especially when you have had to endure a very long and public fall from grace.

This season, however, there have been ever more distinctive signs that McLaren, in partnership with Mercedes, have acquired a foothold on the upward curve and their performance here yesterday appeared to confirm those indications. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were first and third respectively in practice for Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix.

Damon Hill, second yesterday, may well have been in cruise mode, his elbow on the side of the cockpit. Michael Schumacher, a distant 11th, might have stopped off at his apartment on the way round.

This season the first day of practice for a grand prix has been reduced to a mystery tour, onlookers left to guess what the teams are up to. Most prefer to prepare for the race rather than strain for a meaningless position on the time-sheet. But there is a gathering momentum at McLaren which could represent a potentially serious threat to Williams and Ferrari.

Improvements to the car have complemented engine development and their youthful, ambitious drivers are eager to explore the machine's limits.

For Hakkinen, especially, yesterday's drive was immensely gratifying. He has been overshadowed by his team-mate of late and some were beginning to question whether he had fully recovered, or indeed ever would, from his accident in Australia at the end of last season.

"Although this is just free practice, being fastest means a lot to me," he said. "But I know we still have a lot of work to do and, when we do that, and I am comfortably first, we can really go for it. At the moment it is a little too spectacular.

"I am not surprised by David's speed this season. He is a race winner; he's had pole positions. He's a good guy to work with. We are two young guys working hard to improve the car. We all work well as a team, the way it should be."

Eddie Irvine has not had to share so much of the workload in testing at Ferrari because that is the way the champion, Schumacher, prefers it. As a consequence, the Ulsterman says he is not yet confident in the car and yesterday he was 17th in practice.

Irvine said of his German partner: "The guy works flat out. He's got a serious relaxation problem: he doesn't know how to do it." Martin Brundle, driving a Jordan-Peugeot, was eighth, and Johnny Herbert, in a Sauber- Ford, was 19th.

MONACO GRAND PRIX (Sunday) Leading times after opening free practice sessions: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1min 23.762sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams 1:23.801; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:23.850; 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan 1:23.976; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton 1:24.160; 6 O Panis (Fr) Ligier 1:24.167; 7 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams 1:24.257; 8 M Brundle (GB) Jordan 1:24.270; 9 G Berger (Aut) Benetton 1:24.285; 10 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber 1:24.585; 11 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:24.757; 12 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork 1:25.112; 13 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell 1:25.322; 14 G Fisichella (It) Minardi 1:25.326; 15 P Lamy (Por) Minardi 1:25.441.