Motor Racing: Alesi suspends the disbelief: Italian Grand Prix: Favoured Ferraris roar back to the forefront as Hill begins to feel the pressure from all sides

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The Independent Online
IN BELGIUM a fortnight ago Jean Alesi's lament was intended more to express disbelief than to rail against the capriciousness of fate.

All that was forgotten yesterday, however, as the Frenchman surfed on a sea of adoring fans after parking his Ferrari on pole position for the Italian Grand Prix. Only the Pope was more popular in Italy at that moment, and then it would have been a close call.

All weekend he has looked fast and smooth in his resistance of the expected onslaught from the Williams-Renaults of Damon Hill and David Coulthard, and all that Ferrari lacked on its home ground was the sister car sharing the front row. Shortly after Alesi had improved to 1min 23.844sec to secure the first pole position of his career, his team-mate Gerhard Berger duly obliged by recording a time just one tenth of a second slower. The last time both red cars started from the front row was in Germany in July, where Berger went on to win.

In a supremely ironic twist the man under the greatest pressure, the tifosi's expectations of the Ferrari drivers notwithstanding, is Hill. It might appear that the enforced absence of his arch rival Michael Schumacher should work in the Englishman's favour, but now victory is expected of him. If he is to carry his championship challenge further, and to reap a points harvest while the sun shuns the German, nothing less will do.

Where, in recent events, Hill has borne pressure well, here it cloaks him like a shroud; for over the most important challenge of his career floats the spectre of Nigel Mansell. The former champion will join him for the final three races of the season and is highly likely to feature in the 1995 Williams driver line-up, which leaves the team to decide whether Hill or Coulthard (whose engine broke during his final challenge yesterday) will partner him. They are due to decide whether to take up their option on Hill's services by Thursday, and the need to defend his long-term situation at the same time has added an unwelcome dimension to his concerns this weekend.

If the presence of the Ferraris ahead of him was not discomfiting enough, there was also a point when his fellow countryman Johnny Herbert had stunned the paddock by slipping his hitherto unloved Lotus into third place until Hill was able to retaliate by two meagre tenths of a second.

After a season of frustration and disappointment, Herbert finally has the means with which to demonstrate his considerable talent, now that Lotus has a new engine supplied by Mugen Honda, and he made full use of the car's dramatically improved performance. If Hill was relieved to reassert himself, that was nothing to Herbert's feelings as he was able to rescue a career that was in serious danger of subsidence.

'It is a great feeling,' he said with quiet emphasis, 'to have a car that I can really do something with. I could push it hard and drive it properly.'

Relief was evident throughout the Lotus camp, where the sudden upturn in fortune proved a timely fillip as the team's precarious financial situation has prompted considerable negative speculation about its future. 'This is satisfaction. Stage one,' said an emotional Peter Collins, the managing director.

It has been easy to overlook the plight of the Benetton team, whose escape from penalty during the FIA hearing in Paris on Wednesday has been seen here either as justice or nothing less than a miraculous deliverance, according to affiliation.

According to the FIA president, Max Mosley, the team admitted it had breached the regulations on refuelling at the German Grand Prix, as charged. 'But though one might consider excluding them from the championship, if you genuinely believe from the team that they thought what they did was legitimate, you really can't bring yourself to do that. You would not feel right morally.'

Mosley is thought by some to have laid on a rather thick coat of whitewash to alleviate accusations of a witch-hunt against Benetton, perhaps with some good old-fashioned hogwash thrown in, but none of that was any comfort as Benetton missed Schumacher desperately.

Their Dutch junior driver Jos Verstappen did well in the circumstances to take tenth place on the grid, but J J Lehto, the troubled Finn who is standing in for Schumacher, watched his Formula One future receding as he struggled to balance the handling of his car and qualified an unhappy 20th. None of this troubles the unsympathetic tifosi, for whom a Ferrari victory would be emotional affirmation that the Prancing Horse is indeed back to a gallop. Nor will it be of undue concern to Hill, who has the Ferraris uppermost in mind in the race he must win.

(Photograph omitted)