Motor racing: Coulthard picks up the gauntlet of Schumacher

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Motor racing


reports from Aida, Japan

Michael Schumacher threw down the gauntlet at the start, with a lap almost a second and a half faster than he had managed during unofficial practice in the morning.

Damon Hill took it up, and the Ferrari drivers Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger each had moments when they looked likely candidates for the fastest time during yesterday's qualifying for the Pacific Grand Prix. But it was the 24-year-old Scot, David Coulthard, who again squeezed the most from his Williams to beat Hill by a tenth of a second.

The Aida circuit, not far from the site of the Kobe earthquake disaster in January, is scarcely the stuff of which grand prix legends are made. Spa Francorchamps or Monza it most definitely is not. It lacks fast corners and its surface wears tyres rapidly. Qualifying was as much about rubber preservation as it was about speed and cleanliness of line. Despite the former shortcoming but probably because of the latter, this first session developed into another gripping encounter.

Revised rear suspension geometry on the Benettons made them less nervous on the limit, and Schumacher was his usual irresistible self in the early stages as he established the new bench-mark, but Hill's initial challenge was inhibited by poor handling. It was Berger who came closest to Schumacher, before Coulthard and the flu-ridden Alesi edged into the frame.

When the revitalised Hill pared his time to within six thousandths of Schumacher's, and the German's subsequent attempt to go faster was unsuccessful, they set up a showdown as each prepared to exploit the one-lap benefit of their last set of fresh tyres. Both Ferraris tantalised with faster times in the early sections of their last laps, only for Alesi and Berger to lose grip at vital moments and surrender the slight advantage by the end of the lap.

Then Coulthard upstaged them all, throwing up dust from the edge of the tight little circuit on his way to 1min 14.182sec. Hill was grim-faced and taciturn after his response fell just short, while the three-tenths of a second gap to the Williams-Renaults left Schumacher preparing for another lengthy debrief with his engineers.

"I thought I'd lost it when it went sideways in the quick section," Coulthard said, "but somehow I managed to get it back. But there is no grip out there, it's just a lottery. It's like driving a car on wet tyres on a dry road; you could almost feel the rubber crumbling and losing grip."

Behind the leading quintet both Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell did their prospects little harm at a time when each faces an uncertain future, but the other star of the day was Jan Magnussen, who is standing in for Mika Hakkinen at McLaren after the Finn's attack of appendicitis earlier in the week.

The 22 year-old Dane created the same sort of impression that Schumacher did on his Formula One debut in 1991, and lost 10th place on the provisional grid only when his last run was hampered by traffic to let Rubens Barrichello squeeze ahead.

As anticipated, the sport's governing body, the FIA, revealed details of Thursday's World Council meeting in Paris, but beyond confirming that it will be regarded as an offence repeatedly to obstruct other drivers on the straight, the governing body failed to provide concrete guidelines on what constitutes acceptable defensive or aggressive tactics.

Max Mosley. the FIA president, said: "Racing is different to the road in one sense; when competing you drive to the limit of your abilities. We held a meeting earlier this month with leading Formula One drivers, and they agreed that no driver should endanger another driver, but otherwise should be allowed to compete freely. The World Council has accepted this view. The drivers are top professionals, so we will let them get on with it."

Observers who have grown tired of overtaking attempts ending in collisions had hoped for more.

PACIFIC GRAND PRIX Provisional grid positions after first qualifying session (Aida, Japan): 1 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 14.182sec (179.704kph, 111.416mph; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:14.289; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1:14.524; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:14.919; 5 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:14.974; 6 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:15.561; 7 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:15.652; 8 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:15.696; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:15.942; 10 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:16.263; 11 J Magnussen (Den) McLaren-Mercedes 1:16.339; 12 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford 1:16.646; 13 A Suzuki (Japan) Ligier- Mugen Honda 1:17.019; 14 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:17.071; 15 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:17.213; 16 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford 1:17.224; 17 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:17.265; 18 L Badoer (It) Minardi- Ford 1:17.612; 19 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:18.288; 20 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:19.471; 21 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:19.745; 22 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:22.555; 23 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Lotus- Ford 1:22.096; 24 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Lotus-Ford 1:22.710.