Motor Racing: Defiant Schumacher hits back

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL Schumacher and the beleaguered Benetton team struck a blow against their critics here yesterday as their world championship assault came under further threat of penalty from the governing body, FIA. The German stamped his authority on qualifying for today's Hungarian Grand Prix here with a time more than half a second faster than that of his arch-rival, Damon Hill.

Last week, hard on the heels of its allegations that Benetton's onboard computer contained software that could have facilitated the use of an illegal automatic start system, FIA accused the team of precipitating the fire which engulfed its second car during the German Grand Prix by illegally removing a filter from its refuelling rig. That, it said, allowed debris to clog the fuel nozzle. It could also increase flow-rate by up to 12 per cent, which is highly significant when fuel flows at 12 litres per second and pit stops last less than 10 seconds.

Benetton are adamant that they had received permission to do so from the FIA technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, and the team's managing director, Flavio Briatore, said: 'I have evidence that can prove that in court.' FIA denies giving any such authorisation and it was reported last night that the German police had launched an investigation into the incident. Benetton instigated their own independent investigation and are adamant that it did not reveal any evidence of debris.

Rivals initially called for Benetton's immediate exclusion, but saner counsel has prevailed, given that guilt has not yet been proven. At worst, Benetton were bending the rules, at best they were nave. 'In my view,' Patrick Head, of Williams, said, 'I would have to say the man who decided to remove the filter was . . . unwise.'

These latest accusations have obscured the outcry against refuelling that followed the Hockenheim fireball. While investigationof the causes is essential, the bottom line is that despite the vociferous assurances to the contrary by Max Mosley, the head of FIA, at the beginning of the season, predictions of such a fire proved valid.

Grand prix racing had a terrifying demonstration of what could happen, with the foot soldiers in the pits and the sponsors' guests above them being obliged to share the drivers' risks. No more than six litres of fuel was spilled, yet the conflagration was of frightening intensity. On most cars, the tanks can hold up to 200 litres, although the usual practice is to fill them no more than half full.

Yesterday, Schumacher and his engineers concentrated on winning their fourth pole of the year with an attack that at one stage put him 1.5sec clear, until Hill, once again fighting a Williams that was less nimble than its rival, pared his own best time by just under a second in the dying stages. His team-mate David Coulthard was third, but cursed himself after spinning his Williams on his fastest lap. He is marginally ahead of the German Grand Prix winner, Gerhard Berger, and Ukyo Katayama, who again used his Tyrrell- Yamaha to maximum effect to squeeze Martin Brundle down to sixth in the McLaren-Peugeot.

Hill won this race last year, but the tortuous natureof the Hungaroring favours the Benetton as much as it penalises the more powerful but less well-balanced Williams-Renaults and Ferraris. It is, however, a confused Benetton team who are all too aware of the Sword of Damocles being wielded by Mosley. They have been summoned before FIA's world council on 19 October to answer the allegations of refuelling malpractice, but many suspect that the president could take action before that, when the German's appeal against his recent two-race ban is heard at the month's end.

Some believe that the matter is no longer a question of rules and interpretation, but the culmination of the personal animosity that developed in the dispute over regulations between Mosley and Briatore during the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona in May.

(Photograph omitted)