Motor Racing: Ferrari back to forefront: German Grand Prix: Berger and Alesi raise the stakes to spoil Schumacher's homecoming

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The Independent Online
A LONG overdue return to form by Ferrari realised all the fears Michael Schumacher brought with him here after witnessing their performance at the British Grand Prix three weeks ago.

Schumacher is, as expected, racing in his homeland this weekend, despite being banned for two races by the sport's governing body, FIA, early last week. Benetton are running under appeal, aware that had the national hero not been performing his countrymen were likely to carry out their threats to set fire to the woods surrounding the circuit or even to dig up parts of the track, Headingley style.

The championship leader is under serious pressure on a number of counts. While operating in the eye of the storm surrounding Benetton's recent disputes with FIA, the German has been powerless to resist the onslaught of the Ferrari drivers, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, and the persistent smoothness of Damon Hill.

'I think we are favourite, but Ferrari's Silverstone showing indicates they are getting stronger,' Hill said on Thursday. 'I expect they will challenge strongly here.'

Still on a roll after winning the British Grand Prix, he took full advantage of an improved Williams-Renault to set the fastest times on Friday, when he was clearly brimful of confidence. 'It's good that Michael is here, because I want every opportunity to show that I can race against him and beat him,' he said. 'All of this has turned the championship chase on its head. Michael has done a fantastic job and driven very well, but he's also had a fantastic run of luck in finishing every race. It's very rare that a season goes like that.

'I had to win the French Grand Prix to reverse the trend, and after I didn't I felt that the championship was unreasonably out of reach. But I trusted there might be occasions in the second half of the year when the law of averages would start equalling things out in my favour. But everything now has come about in a different way than I'd expected.'

While Hill and his teammate, David Coulthard, struggled to set up their cars yesterday, however, the two Ferraris were in irresistible form. First Alesi went quicker than Hill had on Friday, then Berger eclipsed the Frenchman to complete the first all-Ferrari front row of a grid since Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell in Portugal four years ago.

Though Schumacher can race here, and in the next events at Hungary and Belgium, he will then be forced to miss the Italian and Portuguese races in September if his appeal fails. That could give Hill a dramatic chance to reduce the present 27-point deficit. Yesterday the German was forced to contemplate starting from only fourth place on the grid, his worst position of the season, and as he struggled to chip away tenths of a second he was only just able to stay ahead of Ukyo Katayama. The Japanese driver with the curious, nodding-head style upheld his team owner Ken Tyrrell's prediction of a strong performance by taking his Yamaha-powered car to fifth place, just ahead of the troubled Coulthard. His teammate, Mark Blundell, edged past Mika Hakkinen for seventh place once the Finnish driver had taken over his partner Martin Brundle's McLaren- Peugeot after crashing his own.

This is the first race under new regulations which call for cars to run with a 10 mm deep strip of wood beneath the chassis, to reduce the downforce and hence cornering speeds. Universally known as 'the plank', it looks like a strip of Formica you can buy from MFI and prompted one leading designer to wonder 'if this is really motor racing or kitchen furnishing'.

Nevertheless, the effect of such a small change has been dramatic as the cars now slide around a great deal more and pitch and buck alarmingly - especially on the bumpy entries to the three chicanes which punctuate the tree-lined straights on which the cars run at maximum speed for longer than usual periods.

'You can feel the plank running along the ground and smell the burning wood,' Hill said. 'And you can burn a lot of wood at 200 mph . . .' The trick is not to wear away so much that the plank fails any post- race inspection, so all of the teams will be experimenting with chassis settings in this afternoon's race.

For Hill this is a crucial chance to capitalise on Schumacher's problems, and the Williams-Renault should be better in race trim, but though Germany craves a Schumacher triumph the sport itself would like nothing better than for Ferrari to win for the first time since Spain in 1990. If there is a God, Alesi may even score his long overdue maiden victory.

(Photograph omitted)