Motor Racing: Ferrari fall in behind Irvine

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The Independent Online
TEAM ORDERS, curse or legitimate convenience of Formula One racing, depending on your viewpoint, were at the fore of concerns on a day that confirmed the ascendancy of McLaren-Mercedes.

David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen were first and second in practice for tomorrow's Belgian Grand Prix here. Perhaps more significantly, Ferrari's Mika Salo and Eddie Irvine were eighth and ninth respectively.

Hakkinen, trailing Irvine by two points in the drivers' championship with five races remaining, would probably have beaten Coulthard's time but had to brake for a slower car towards the end of the lap. No matter. McLaren were palpably at the office. Ferrari were not.

Irvine arrived appealing for a pledge of Ferrari's support, conscious as he is of Michael Schumacher's impending return. That appeared to surprise the team's technical director, Ross Brawn, who is adamant Irvine is recognised as Ferrari's only realistic contender for the championship and everyone in the camp, including Schumacher, will be committed to his cause.

McLaren are more at ease following their 1-2 success in Hungary a fortnight ago and will be further comforted by Coulthard's willingness to abide by team orders, should they be necessary, and support Hakkinen's title defence.

Irvine may well require the backing of Schumacher, who is scheduled to make his grand prix comeback at Monza two weeks tomorrow. The German is 24 points adrift but the Ulsterman is clearly anxious that his team's No 1, recovering from a broken leg, might not be prepared to take a subservient role.

However, Brawn said: "I have personally told Eddie he will have the full support of the team in the championship. It is obvious he is our best chance. Michael has no realistic hope and it isn't even certain he will be back at Monza.

"But when he does return he will do all he can to support Eddie. Michael is obviously disappointed because he came here to win the championship for Ferrari. He still wants Ferrari to win it, though, and would rather the championship went to Eddie than any other driver.

"I think Eddie is a little nervous. When Michael turned up for his first test since the accident all the attention was around him and not Eddie. But that is understandable. Everyone wanted to see how Michael would go. Eddie can just concentrate on his work."

Schumacher suffered a reaction from his test last week and will have another run at Monza next week before deciding if he is fit enough to race again at the Italian Grand Prix.

Irvine would welcome the help. He said: "We have a lot of work to do because the car's handling is all over the place. We made very little progress and I think the car actually got worse during the session."

By contrast, McLaren were instantly into their stride and Coulthard, back from a week's holiday, was clearly refreshed. He is 22 points behind Irvine and although he refuses to concede he is out of the championship frame, he will step aside for Hakkinen if instructed to do so.

The Scotsman said: "If it's for the good of the team, I'm prepared to do it. But I'm not going to step forward and offer. The situation is open. If I win here we have four exciting races to come.

"It seems Hungary dented Ferrari's confidence. Faster circuits like this suit our car but I'm not going to write them off."

Spa remains the most stunning circuit in Formula One and drivers and administrators alike will hope the ongoing political squabble here over tobacco sponsorship will be resolved to ensure it retains its place on the calendar. Safety is the other concern and Jacques Villeneuve was fortunate his suspension failed on a straight section of the track. He was travelling at 200mph when his front right wheel broke away.

The Canadian blithely said: "You just look at what you're likely to hit and there are not so many things to hit when you're going in a straight line."

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, of Jordan-Mugen, did hit a barrier but was unhurt. He was fourth fastest, behind Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton. Damon Hill in the other Jordan was fifth and Johnny Herbert, in a Stewart-Ford, seventh.

Germany's Nick Heidfeld, the Formula 3,000 champion, will replace Olivier Panis at Prost Peugeot next season.

BELGIAN GRAND PRIX (Spa-Francorchamps) Free practice times: 1 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 53.577sec; 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:54.021; 3 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:54.066; 4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:54.678; 5 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:54.892; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:54.899; 7 J Herbert (GB) Stewart- Ford 1:54.975; 8 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari 1:55.032; 9 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:55.242; 10 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:55.271; Selected other: R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford 1:55.484; 18 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1:56.429.