Motor Racing: Bold Barrichello braves the rain

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FOR Rubens Barrichello it was a case of right place, right time. The Hautes Fagnes region is to Belgium what the Lake District is to Britain when it comes to rainfall, and all weekend dry track has been as hard to find as a Benetton fuel filter. But in the dying moments of Friday afternoon's first qualifying session the 22-year-old Brazilian timed things to perfection. Switching from treaded rain tyres to smooth slicks he snatched pole position from Michael Schumacher.

'At first I told them it was too risky for slicks,' he said. 'Then just as they were going to get the rain tyres I changed my mind and said, 'No, let's take the risk and go for it.' '

It was a gamble that paid off handsomely when yesterday's final qualifying session was also affected by rain, and a delighted Barrichello sat glued to the television monitors with his team manager, John Walton, clapping with excitement as Schumacher and Ferrari's Jean Alesi failed to get within four seconds of Friday's best time as the racing line refused to dry sufficiently.

The success comes at a crucial time for both Barrichello and Jordan. The Brazilian is being wooed by McLaren for 1995, but rumours have also begun to link him with a Ferrari contract for the year after that, if he stays at Jordan next season.

Three years ago a Jordan qualified seventh here, at that time the team's highest-ever grid position since it joined Formula One that year. The driver was Michael Schumacher, making his debut. By Monza a fortnight later, he had been poached by Benetton. The rest is history.

It has been a long way back for Eddie Jordan and his team. After a 1992 that was as disastrous as 1991 had been brilliant, the garrulous Irishman switched from the Japanese Yamaha V12 engine to a compact V10 built and developed with neither fanfare nor vast finance in Harlow by the dedicated Brian Hart. With Eddie Irvine fourth on the grid, Jordan desperately hopes that his cars will get a long way beyond the first lap, after accidents in the last two races.

As the chess pieces of Formula One are moved around the board behind the scenes in readiness for 1995, Jordan is desperate, despite his success with Hart, to forge an alliance with a major manufacturer. The one he covets most is Ford, on the run from Benetton, whose deal to run Renault engines in the future was announced last week.

If Spa has been good for Barrichello and Jordan so far, it has been the wrong place for everyone else. Damon Hill is third on the grid and must win today to keep his championship hopes alive, but Williams are smarting from the discovery - contrary to their expectations - that Benetton will get exactly the same Renault engines as they do. Hill's team-mate, David Coulthard, was fastest until the track began to dry on Friday, but will start a disappointed seventh.

Ferrari have been in trouble, too. Alesi was very quick during the wettest period on Friday, but was incensed when he and Martin Brundle spoiled each other's best laps. Their subsequent verbal exchange was acrimonious in the extreme. 'Everyone knows you're in the car because Ron (Dennis) couldn't find anyone else,' Alesi said. 'I hope next year he doesn't waste the seat and gets a young driver with talent.' Brundle, unmoved, pointed out that he, too, had a right to use the circuit. Had he wished, he might also have pointed out that their results have been very similar, right down to the fact that each has yet to score his first victory.

Gerhard Berger suffered engine failure on Friday and starts only 11th, and celebrated his 35th birthday yesterday by spinning his Ferrari on the soaking track on his first lap out of the pits.

If nothing else, in a weekend when few feel they have really got going, the majesty of a Formula One car at speed in the wet has been all too apparent here, but this magnificent circuit has been emasculated this year by changes made at the daunting Eau Rouge corner. Normally this sweeps downhill from La Source hairpin, edges into a quick left flick, then sweeps uphill to the right. It is one of the great corners in motor racing, and to keep the throttle pedal flat throughout it, as the g-forces load up the car and the driver works on the very edge to flick it neatly through without sacrificing any of its vital momentum, was something that taxed even Ayrton Senna. Spa, for him, was always one of the greatest challenges.

Now, after the modifications following Senna's death at Imola in May, Eau Rouge is a wan shadow of its former self. Devised by Schumacher and FIA's safety delegate, Roland Bruynseraede, it is now just a tight chicane. When the circuit goes into private ownership for 1995, promises have been made to restore Eau Rouge to its former glory. To a man, the drivers fervently hope such promises are upheld. Even when it is wet.

(Photograph omitted)