MOTOR RACING: Coulthard keeps out of hot water

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reports from Buenos Aires

As thunderclaps and downpours made unpopular alarm calls here yesterday and the weather proved as difficult to predict as Argentina's political climate, David Coulthard timed things perfectly to take the first provisional pole position of his Fornula One career.

In a qualifying session for tomorrow's Argentinian Grand Prix that was red flagged three times after cars had spun on the slippery surface, the Scot summoned just enough speed and control to ease ahead of Jean Alesi's Ferrari, which had dominated up to that point.

While lightning flashes illuminated a darkening skyline, the spectators were treated to the sight of cars twitching and sliding amid roostertails of spray, just within the control of the drivers and several times beyond it. During the morning Damon Hill, Gerhard Berger, Johnny Herbert, Olivier Panis and Ukyo Katayama all spun as their cars aquaplaned on standing water. Hill's Williams rotated four times after hitting a puddle, but sustained only minor damage.

In official qualifying in the afternoon, Alesi made the most of marginally improved conditions to set the pace until spins from Hill and Aguri Suzuki prompted officials to display the red flag for the first time. At that stage neither Hill nor Michael Schumacher had actually qualified. When the session was resumed half an hour later conditions were improving, and after a brief challenge from Schumacher, it was the Jordan duo of Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello who moved to the front.

Hill managed third fastest just before the hapless Japanese driver Taki Inoue brought yet another halt. By the time qualifying got under way for the third time the rain had at last stopped. Alesi soon deposed Mika Hkkinen and Hill, but just as the Frenchman seemed settled at the top, Coulthard pulled out his ace. The German Heinz-Harald Frentzen also timed his run well to take third from Hill and Berger, but Hill's chances to retaliate were frustrated by the final red flag when Inoue spun again.

"I was so frustrated after the problems in the morning that I hurt my thumb punching the wheel so hard," Hill said.

The Jordans slumped to eighth and ninth, and disaster overtook Benetton. Schumacher and his team-mate, Johnny Herbert, are only ninth and 10th, both suffering off-road excursions. At least the German managed to avoid hitting anything in making a 360-degree spin in the pit straight.

The drivers are praying that forecasts of better weather today prove accurate. "It's very, very slippery out there," Herbert said. "I went off going into the last corner this morning. The car just spun two or three times when I went over a puddle."

If the poor weather continues for the race, the result could be a lottery. "The spray here is bad even though most of the corners are relatively slow speed," Herbert said. "It's going to be very difficult if the race is wet. It's bad enough when you're out there on your own."

Rain in such a traditionally warm country is not the only irony of this grand prix. Sources within the international automobile federation, the FIA, confirmed last night that Elf - which supplies the Benetton and Williams teams - had submitted a new 120-litre fuel sample for homologation as its acknowledged "fingerprint" for the season, following the fiasco in Brazil two weeks ago. This new offering was approved on 31 March and is to precisely the same specification as the fuel used at Interlagos, which means that the same fuel that was ruled illegal in Brazil, because it did not match the previous fingerprint, could well win in Argentina.

An Elf spokesman said small variations between prototype samples and production batches were to be expected, and strongly criticised the FIA for its handling of the Brazilian affair. He reiterated the company's long-standing wish for a specialised panel of experts to judge in all matters relating to fuel. Meanwhile, the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, let it be known that his team now brings its own analysing equipment to each race, at significant extra cost, to avoid the controversy that robbed Schumacher and David Coulthard of their leading places in Brazil. Such are the polemics of the sport.

ARGENTINIAN GRAND PRIX (Buenos Aires) First qualifying session: 1 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 54.670sec (ave speed 83.567mph); 2 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:55.213; 3 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:55.583; 4 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:55.677; 5 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:56.260; 6 M Hkkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:56.449; 7 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:56.615; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:56.746; 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1:57.056; 10 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:57.068; 13 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:57.738; 14 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:58.066; 15 M Blundell (GB) McLaren 1:58.660; 16 O Panis (Fr) Ligier- Mugen Honda 1:59.204; 17 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:59.909; 18 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier-Mugen Honda 2:01.446; 19 A Montermini (It) Pacific- Lotus-Ford 2:01.763; 20 K Wendlinger (Aut) Sauber-Ford 2:01.774; 21 J Verstappen (Neth) Simtek-Ford 2:02.410; 22 D Schiattarella (It) Simtek- Ford 2:02.806; 23 B Gachot (Fr) Pacific 2:04.050: 24 R Moreno (Bra) Forti- Ford 2:04.481; 25 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 2:05.932; 26 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 2:07.298.

Photograph, page 44