Motor Racing: Alesi rewards home fans with provisional pole: Patient Hill poised to pounce as Frenchman clocks the fastest time in a Ferrari on the first day of qualifying for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix

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THE commentator might have been recruited from South American football, his jubilation echoing around this famous old arena. 'P- O-L-E,' the syllable held long and clear, heralded the achievement the gallery craved. Jean Alesi's Ferrari was at the front of the grid, albeit provisionally, for tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix.

Even Damon Hill, left in second place when his gearbox stuck in fifth, appreciated the euphoria generated at his expense. He, in any case, had seen sufficient to reinforce his belief that victory and another 10 points along the road to the heels of Michael Schumacher, the world championship leader, would be within his capability.

What does appear clear is that only Ferrari represent a genuine threat to Hill's team, Williams-Renault. The Englishman's team- mate, David Coulthard, was third fastest yesterday and Alesi's partner, Gerhard Berger, fourth. Less than three-tenths of a second covered those four cars, while the fifth, Mika Hakkinen's McLaren- Peugeot, was a further second adrift.

The day's developments must have been exasperating for Schumacher, who was suspended for this race and for the Portuguese Grand Prix, in a fortnight. His team-mate at Benetton-Ford, Jos Verstappen, and his replacement, J J Lehto, are 14th and 16th respectively on the provisional grid, totally out of touch with the contest proper and seemingly as powerless to influence the course of events as the absent German.

Alesi, who revelled in the emotion of the crowd said: 'I managed to keep the promise I made to our fans. Monza is a special place for Ferrari and the technical potential is there for me to put on a good show. I am sure I can go quicker. I think I will have to do better to stay on pole.'

Ferrari do not appear at the fore merely on a tidal wave of passion. This circuit, with its revised Lesmo section, rewards horsepower, which the V12 produces, and the Italian team regularly test here, unlike Williams. That Alesi is just a tenth of a second faster overnight suggests to Hill that Ferrari are at his mercy.

Hill said: 'It is very close and I have to remember Ferrari are on home ground so, understandably, they are going to be very tough to beat, but I believe we have the engine to do this.'

Hill's improving prospects patently enhance his chances of securing a place in the team for next year and the grand plan is still to have him in tandem with Nigel Mansell.

A contract is in place for Mansell, he is apparently satisfied with its terms and he has the publicly expressed support of Williams' engine partners, Renault. There are, however, doubts among certain individuals at Williams about Mansell's competitive edge and they wish to defer until they have the evidence of his performances in the final three grands prix of this season, when he will be replacing Coulthard.

The young Scot, having demonstrated his fledgling talent in six Formula One appearances, has not yet given up hope of retrieving his job next season. He said: 'It's disappointing to have to step down for Nigel for three races, but hopefully I'll be here long term. I'm 23, he's 41.'

Another British driver anxious about his future is Johnny Herbert, who for much of the season has languished in the lower reaches of the grid, with scant hope of fulfilling himself in the uncompetitive Lotus-Mugen. And then came a new engine . . . yesterday Herbert was sixth fastest, and the old impish fun was back.

He said: 'Now you get in the car and feel you can push hard. You can attack. You begin to have doubts about yourself when you're at the back for so long. It's nice to be able to show what you can do and put your name back up there. This keeps up my profile.'

Eddie Irvine, of the Silverstone- based Irish team, Jordan-Hart, might have been sitting with a comfortable eighth place, except that he covered 13 laps in qualifying, one more than permitted, and was disqualified from the session. 'Someone miscalculated,' a rueful Irvine said. 'End of story.'

Mark Blundell, in a Tyrrell- Yamaha, is ninth on the provisional grid, and Martin Brundle, in a McLaren-Peugeot, 10th.

Schumacher may not be competing but the controversy surrounding him and Benetton rumbles on. Max Mosley, president of the FIA, the governing body, confirmed that Benetton, who were not punished after removing a filter from their refuelling equipment at the German Grand Prix, promised to make 'substantial management changes'. Some sources here suggest that Benetton's engineering director, Tom Walkinshaw, who publicly said the filter had been removed to gain a performance advantage, could be parting company with the team.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza) First qualifying times: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1min 24.620sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:24.734; 3 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:24.869; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:24.915; 5 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Peugeot 1:26.004; 6 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:26.365; 7 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber- Mercedes 1:26.406; 8 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:26.525; 9 M Blundell (GB) Tyrrell- Yamaha 1:26.574; 10 M Brundle (GB) McLaren- Peugeot 1:26.899; 11 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:26.958; 12 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:27.034; 13 A de Cesaris (It) Sauber-Mercedes 1:27.188; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Benetton-Ford 1:27.361; 15 E Bernard (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:27.387; 16 J J Lehto (Fin) Benetton-Ford 1:27.611; 17 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:27.617; 18 M Alboreto (It) Minardi-Ford 1:27.623; 19 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Footwork-Ford 1:27.675; 20 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Ford 1:27.939; 21 Y Dalmas (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:29.528; 22 J-M Gounon (Fr) Simtek-Ford 1:29.594; 23 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse- Ford 1:30.530; 24 D Brabham (Aus) Simtek-Ford 1:30.691; 25 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Ilmor 1:31.549; 26 P Belmondo (Fr) Pacific-Ilmor 1:32.035; 27 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 19:42.320. Excluded: E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart, for one too many laps.

(Photograph omitted)

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