The ongoing bombardment between Benetton and FIA over the cause of the pit-lane fire at the German Grand Prix produced a statement from the British team, reiterating their assertion that they removed the filter from the refuelling equipment with 'the full knowledge and approval' of the authority's technical delegate, Charlie Whiting. Flavio Briatore, Benetton's managing director, expanded: 'We have proved that a FIA official gave us permission but we will present that proof at the right time and the right place - in a court if necessary.'
The statement also says: 'With regard to the refuelling fire at Hockenheim, we categorically disagree with the conclusion within the press statement, issued on 10 August by FIA, as to the cause of our pit-lane fire.' The teams' refuelling rigs are being fitted with modified nozzles, a development Benetton feel adds substance to their argument. FIA felt no need to launch an immediate counter- attack but Whiting said: 'There is no way I would give any team an advantage over the rest.'
We may have to wait until the world council meeting on 19 October for the full account of events at Hockenheim, but in the meantime, Benetton appear determined to stay on the offensive. They even refuse to say whether or not they plan to use a filter in tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix here.
It has been suggested in these parts that FIA has fixed that distant date to sustain the pressure on Benetton and provide the opportunity of ensuring a level playing field for the final two rounds of the world championship. The sport's rulers dismiss such notions as nonsense, insisting they cannot go on summoning delegates from all corners of the world to extraordinary meetings to consider allegations against Benetton.
Schumacher, Benetton's championship leader, will have his appeal against a two-race suspension and the deduction of six points heard in Paris on 30 August. If FIA's court of appeal upholds the ban, the German driver may miss a race in his own country. A European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring is a possible replacement event for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, on 11 September.
FIA, exasperated over the dispute between the Italian authorities and conservationists, who are resisting the cutting down of trees to facilitate alterations demanded by the drivers, concluded yesterday that it had 'no alternative but to remove the event from the calendar'.
This amounts to a final kick up the backside for the Italians and Monza may yet be saved, but Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario, confirmed he was actively seeking an alternative track. There is very little time left to organise a grand prix, yet it is understood German officials have long anticipated the prospect of such a chance. The removal of Schumacher from the cast, however, would be a considerable setback.
Schumacher, conscious that his title lead over Hill could, in effect, be no more than seven points, was as combative on the circuit yesterday as his team were off it. He conjured a spectacular late performance in the opening qualifying session to claim pole on the overnight grid. Hill, in a Williams-Renault, had leapt clear of the pack only for Schumacher to retaliate and beat him by two-tenths of a second.
A hugely satisfied Schumacher said: 'It's very nice to be back in front. After all the problems the team has had recently, this is the best answer we can give to everyone. I am very happy with my time because it was quite a struggle.'
Hill remains positive. He said: 'Given our improving competitiveness, Schumacher has got his plate full because we are not going to give him an easy ride. We have got everything to fight for and I've got nothing to lose.'
David Coulthard, Hill's partner, was third, suggesting a Benetton- Williams confrontation in the race. Ferrari, winners in Germany, are less effective on this slower, twisting circuit. The dark horses could be McLaren-Peugeot, much to Martin Brundle's relish. He was fourth fastest yesterday, after handing over his car to Philippe Alliot, substituting here for the suspended Mika Hakkinen.
Peugeot have been lobbying for Alliot's inclusion over Brundle, but the Englishman responded in the most effective manner, while the Frenchman was 17th. Brundle said: 'If I'm blown off by Alliot, I'm history. You gain confidence from being team leader. Psychologically and performance wise, it makes such a big difference.
'I haven't finished a race since Monaco so I haven't been able to show my strongest hand, which is racing. If I'm on the front two rows, put a few shillings on me.
'Physically, it is going to be a very demanding race, a real beat- you-up race. It'll be like two hours on a roller-coaster, over bumps, flat out, except that you have to control it.'
Eddie Irvine, in a Jordan-Hart, was eighth, Mark Blundell, in a Tyrrell-Yamaha was 10th and Johnny Herbert, of Lotus-Mugen Honda, 20th.
Austrian authorities are optimistic grand prix racing will return to the Osterreichring next summer for five years. They are ready to spend pounds 12m on a new track layout and facilities.
HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX (Budapest) First qualifying times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1min 19.479sec (ave speed 179.730kph, 111.682mph) 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:19.700; 3 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:20.395; 4 M Brundle (GB) McLaren-Peugeot 1:20.819; 5 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:21.009; 6 J Verstappen (Neth) Benetton-Ford 1:21.141; 7 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:21.280; 8 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart 1:21.406; 9 R Barrichello (Brazil) Jordan-Hart 1:21.498; 10 M Blundell (GB) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:21.731; 11 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:21.877; 12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Mercedes 1:22.268; 13 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Ford 1:22.311; 14 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Footwork-Ford 1:22.375; 15 M Alboreto (It) Minardi-Ford 1:22.379; 16 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:22.754; 17 P Alliot (Fr) McLaren-Peugeot 1:22.915; 18 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Ford 1:23.244; 19 E Bernard (Fr) Ligier-Ford 1:23.269; 20 J Herbert (GB) Lotus- Mugen Honda 1:23.306; 21 A Zanardi (It) Lotus- Mugen Honda 1:23.361; 22 A de Cesaris (It) Sauber-Mercedes 1:23.573; 23 D Brabham (Aus) Simtek-Ford 1:24.181; 24 P Martini (It) Minardi- Ford 1:24.440; 25 O Beretta (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:24:645; 26 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Ilmor 1:26.521; 27 J-M Gounon (Fr) Simtek-Ford 1:26:678; 28 P Belmondo (Fr) Pacific-Ilmor 1:28.334.
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