MOTOR RACING; Alesi survives 150mph crash

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The Independent Online
SOMETHING FAIRLY startling was required to deflect attention from the manoeuvrings off the track to the activity on it yesterday, and Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher did their best to oblige.

Alesi, the flamboyant French-Sicilian driver, survived unscathed when his Sauber-Petronas careered off the track at 150mph and flipped over. Schumacher took the less stressful approach, watching most of the first practice session for tomorrow's French Grand Prix from the Ferrari pit and then nonchalantly posting the day's fastest time.

Eddie Irvine confirmed the strength of Ferrari's challenge here with second place, while the championship leader, Mika Hakkinen, and his McLaren- Mercedes team-mate, David Coulthard, were third and fourth respectively.

That orderly arrangement contrasted with the frenzy of the behind-the- scenes rumour mill. Irvine, a conspicuous figure in this season's racing, appears to be equally prominent in the negotiations for seats next year.

Irvine's name was instantly linked with Jordan-Mugen-Honda following Damon Hill's announcement of his intention to retire from Formula One at the end of the season, but the word is that the Ulsterman is more likely to leave for Stewart-Ford.

Ferrari are said to be prepared to trade Irvine for Rubens Barrichello, the Brazilian who is not only demonstrating his prowess this year but also offering the team, their sponsors and indeed the Formula One show, huge commercial prospects in South America.

Irvine is reluctant to turn his back on a winning car, but at Ferrari he is No 2 to Schumacher and a contract worth perhaps pounds 4m a year might well tempt him. That is considerably more than Jordan are willing to pay despite a reported pounds 4.5m annual outlay for Hill.

Eddie Jordan said: "Damon was a special case. Our sponsors helped us put together what was a one-off deal. I think Eddie Irvine would be better off not coming back here.

"He is having a great season and he has become the darling of the Ferrari fans. He is more their kind of driver than Schumacher is. I think they're getting a bit fed up of Michael.

"Eddie wants to win races, so where better than Ferrari? It's the same with David Coulthard. He would be crazy wanting to leave McLaren."

Coulthard is another driver mentioned as a possible candidate for Jordan. The team owner says he has a shortlist of contenders to replace Hill. He hinted his willingness to move out if he could not deliver in the near future, but Jordan has no intention of paying him the rest of his retainer unless he completes the championship.

Jordan said: "I don't want to disrupt the team mid-season. Damon owes it to himself to produce a big finish. I'm looking for 20 points from him between now and the end of the season. He believes that making his announcement has taken the monkey off his back. But in some ways it has added pressures of a different kind. He knows it will be on him here and at the British Grand Prix."

Jordan will ensure the pressure is applied to the end of the season. He has targeted third place in the constructors' championship and, thanks to the form of his other driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan are on course.

"I'm not sure if it is because Frentzen has been so good or the fire has gone out of him that Damon has decided to retire," Jordan said. "But he started the season badly and there was no way back."

Hill's position as Britain's favourite driver has survived indifferent spells since his championship win in 1996, and now Coulthard sees himself as the successor: "I know I've got to earn the sort of support that Damon and Nigel Mansell had. I've been the best-placed British driver in the championship for the last two seasons and although Eddie Irvine is ahead of me at the moment there are 10 races left. "I've not given up hope of the championship," he said. "There are 100 points to race for and things can turn round in a couple of races."

Alessandro Zanardi gleaned much-needed encouragement from fifth place in his Williams-Supertec. Frentzen was sixth, Johnny Herbert - in a Stewart- Ford - 10th, and Hill 12th.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX (Magny-Cours) Leading times after opening practice: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 17.912sec (121.994 mph); 2 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:18.199; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:18.251; 4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:18.468; 5 A Zanardi (It) Williams- Supertec 1:18.746; 6 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:18.779; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:18.908; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:18.950; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:19.069; 10 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 1:19.266; 11 A Wurx (Aut) Benetton-Supertec 1:19.491; 12 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:19.591; 13 G Fisichella (It) Benetton- Supertec 1:19.651; 14 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1:20.002; 15 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugot 1:20.121; 16 O Panis (Fr) Prost- Peugot 1:20.285; 17 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:20.528; 18 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows-Yamaha 1:20.655; 19 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec 1:20.681; 20 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows-Yamaha 1:21.418; 21 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:21.506; 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 1:21.928.