MOTOR RACING: Alesi begins the Imola exorcism

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The Independent Online
They went out again at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari yesterday and this time, mercifully, they all returned. It will, of course, take longer to exorcise the ghosts of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, but Formula One slept more easily last night.

The first practice sessions since last year's tragic San Marino Grand Prix reassured the drivers and officials that the alterations to the circuit, particularly at Tamburello and Villeneuve, had made this a considerably safer place. It is also considerably slower.

Ferrari's Jean Alesi, fastest at the end of the two hours' acclimatisation, was eight and a half seconds down on Senna's pole position time here 12 months ago. It may not be the old Imola but then the old Imola could no longer be tolerated.

There were a few mishaps, the first involving Nigel Mansell, back in business after McLaren-Mercedes built a car to fit him in 33 days. He had a spin when he hit his brake pedal by mistake, yet eventually settled down to record the eighth-best lap. Karl Wendlinger, the Austrian who came out of a coma last year to resume his career, crashed his Sauber- Ford, but he was unhurt, immediately climbed into his spare car and got on with his job.

Everyone is anxious to work normally here and now they all have an idea where they stand before today's opening qualifying session. David Coulthard, in a Williams-Renault, was second yesterday, Michael Schumacher, driving a Benetton-Renault, was third, Gerhard Berger, in the other Ferrari, fourth, Mika Hkkinen's McLaren fifth and Damon Hill's Williams sixth.

As Hill acknowledged, however, this cannot be a normal working weekend. "It's not just another race," he said. "When you get in the car you forget the things that happened last year but it's not easy to escape from the memories by the mere fact of being here.

"Hopefully, with the pressure of competition, this will be squeezed out. The focus of attention will be winning the race. But you cannot pretend not to notice things coming back to you from last year."

Mansell, who was racing in America this time last year, has found this occasion no less poignant, though he said: "You have to put it aside, otherwise you wouldn't function."

The 41-year-old former champion was thankful to be functioning at all after missing the first two races of the season. His spin cut short his morning session and he hailed the completion of his afternoon stint a minor triumph. "Can somebody give me a bottle of champagne", he asked. "I've just finished a session."

Buoyed by the upturn of events, he parted with a reminder that he does not consider this season his swan-song: "I hope they [McLaren] give me an option for another year."

Before all that, there is much to be done this weekend. The drivers now know their way around the revised circuit, generally approve of what they have found and will be making adjustments to their cars in the hope of reducing their lap times.

Hill said: "The circuit is very different to the old one. It takes a bit more work because you don't have the long straights. It's a challenge. It requires a different type of approach, but my biggest problem today was traffic. It is quite a busy and slippery track, and qualifying is going to be more important than in the past because of the lack of overtaking opportunities."

Coulthard had a slightly different view: "Overtaking probably won't be as bad as I thought. It's not the circuit it was but it's quite nice."

He was less surprised by Ferrari's form. "I was impressed," he said with a wry smile. So were the locals. It could be a lively weekend.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola, It) Leading unofficial practice times: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari, 1min 30.081sec (121.558mph av); 2 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault, 1:30.448; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault, 1:31.110; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari, 1:31.322; 5 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes, 1:31.827; 6 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault, 1:32.228; 7 J Herbert (GB) Benetton- Renault, 1:32.292; 8 N Mansell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:32.597; 9 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart, 1:32.608; 10 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot, 1:32.976.

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