Motor-racing: Alesi Italy's standard bearer

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The Italians are often grateful for Jean Alesi's Sicilian birth, even if the world regards him as a Frenchman, and yesterday the Benetton- Renault driver upheld national pride on a day when Ferrari fell short of expectations.

The qualifying battle here at Monza distilled into Williams- Renault versus Benetton-Renault and Jordan-Peugeot, with Ferrari, the darling of the tifosi, disappointing.

Giancarlo Fisichella kicked off for Jordan with 1min 23.565sec, a time Jacques Villeneuve, Gerhard Berger and Schumacher just failed to equal, before Heinz-Harald Frentzen and then Mika Hakkinen took up the running.

As Schumacher struggled, Fisichella rose to the occasion to reassert himself and salvage some national pride. Villeneuve was then baulked in his response, but Frentzen and Alesi continued the needle battle. Fisichella's assault on Alesi's time fell short, and Villeneuve threw it away vaulting a kerb. Schumacher, meanwhile, remained bogged down, leaving Alesi to take his first pole position since this race in 1994.

But horsepower means nothing if not allied to reliability, a fact of high-speed life that may favour Williams and Benetton this afternoon, and which left McLaren-Mercedes with concern after both Hakkinen and David Coulthard suffered engine problems in practice.

The heart of Italy's motor racing passion, Monza is traditionally a hotbed of rumour. And as some momentarily looked back, others inevitably continued to look forward. For the third race in succession, Damon Hill stood uncomfortably at the epicentre of yet more speculation over the identity of the team he will drive for in 1998.

Since Belgium, he has reportedly frustrated the Jordan team with the sort of prevarication and wishy-washy negotiation that brought his talks with Sauber to a premature close in August. And although Bernie Ecclestone would like to shoehorn him into a Benetton team that may or may not be on the verge of reorganisation, his most realistic options remain joining Prost or staying with Arrows.

Over dinner on Friday evening, Alain Prost spent much time perusing a bulky document, but merely smiled at the suggestion that it was a draft contract with Hill. Was there any news, he was asked, and the same sheepish grin split his face. "Not yet," he said, "Not yet."

The two have talked for some time and Prost has never made any secret of his wish to have his old Williams team-mate driving for him, but there is said to be a divide of some $4.5m (pounds 2.8m), which is half what Hill is demanding as a world champion and the victor of 21 grands prix.

The Englishman and his manager, Michael Breen, remain adamant that such a figure reflects his true worth at a time when Michael Schumacher's Ferrari contract is a stratospheric $25m, but the falling driver market is an unpalatable economic fact.

Hill said cryptically: "I know where I want to be next season, but the details have yet to be sorted out." Where he didn't want to be was the gravel at the Ascari chicane where his Arrows-Yamaha pirouetted yesterday morning, cutting short the limited time drivers are permitted in which to hone their chassis settings prior to official qualifying. It did nothing to ease the growing tensions within the British camp.

On the day that Britain's thoughts were elsewhere, there were other tensions as a clearly divided FIA initially refused to sanction an official minute's silence until Ecclestone intervened at the 11th hour. Jackie Stewart spoke for many when he said: "It is the right thing to do. A lot of the guys, the mechanics, at Stewart Grand Prix wanted to do it, and they have that right. It is a mark of respect to Diana, the boys and the Royal Family."

But Formula One is an inward-looking business, and other controversies vied for attention. Last year, there were the tyre stacks which were erected to prevent drivers straight-lining the chicanes. It was after striking one of these that Hill threw away the race and his chance to clinch the championship.

This time it was the ineffectiveness of the gravel beds that sounded alarm bells, as Ukyo Katayama, Coulthard and Jan Magnussen all put them to the test on Friday afternoon.

Katayama's accident was particularly spectacular as the right front suspension failed at the fastest part of the course, his Minardi-Hart tobogganing over the gravel before crashing into the protective tyre wall 400 metres beyond the Parabolica.

None of the drivers was harmed, but in a piece of ironic pantomime, the only car to be arrested in the manner intended was the safety car, driven by former grand prix driver Arturo Merzario, which became embarrassingly embedded as it rendered assistance at the scene of Katayama's incident.