Motor racing: Flying Ferraris grab control

Luxembourg Grand Prix: Schumacher and Irvine take the front row as McLarens show the strain
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THE SIGNS were there all morning, as Michael Schumacher lounged in the Ferrari garage and watched calmly as his rivals used twice the number of laps he completed just to match his times. And yesterday afternoon he proved that appearances had not been deceptive. No sooner had his World Championship rival Mika Hakkinen sprung to the top of the qualifying time screens, than Schumacher set a time a full second faster. It was the realisation of McLaren's worst nightmare.

It scarcely need be repeated that this is crunch time in their fight for the title. As McLaren's fortunes have inexplicably dipped, so Ferrari's have risen. They reached the crossover point when Schumacher triumphed in Italy, bringing each driver to 80 points. Today's Luxembourg Grand Prix could be the race in which Hakkinen finally surrenders the grip he has exerted on the leadership board since dominating the Australian GP in Melbourne in March. Back then everyone feared a McLaren walkover, but Ferrari's fight back to prominence has given the season impetus. Now a significant question mark hangs over the reliability of the McLaren- Mercedes, whereas Ferrari's record has been astonishing. Schumacher blew an engine in Australia, and Irvine a gearbox in Hungary, but otherwise the red cars have made it home with unnerving consistency. "I suppose we have been giving a few presents away due to the reliability problems we have had," Hakkinen conceded. The transmission let him down in Imola and Canada, and suspension and brake problems lost him higher placings respectively at Hungary and Monza.

But strategically Ferrari have also been streets ahead, and nothing pinpointed that more than Spa, where McLaren's decision to start Hakkinen on Bridgestone's intermediate tyres may have cost the Finn any chance in the rain. With minimal grip he slid wide enough in the first turn at La Source to tangle with Schumacher; when Johnny Herbert arrived moments later with nowhere to go, Hakkinen's personal disaster was complete.

The manner in which the two title protagonists played down the intensity of their situation in the pre-race build-up provided an illuminating insight. "Our strongest point has been reliability," Schumacher acknowledged. "This is due to loads of winter testing, when we concentrated on that. At the beginning of the season we were a little short of speed, due to the car and several other factors. But now we have a package which is close to the top. Overall, I believe there is a 50-50 opportunity to win the championship."

Hakkinen has resolutely been resisting negative thoughts on a weekend when, if he should win and the odds catch up with Schumacher and force the Ferrari into retirement, he could wrap up the World Championship title regardless of what happens in Japan in five weeks' time.

"When you come to a grand prix," he said, "you aren't wondering what might go wrong, you're here to race flat out and to win. That has to be the mentality."

Tough professionals, these, and far too well versed in the lore of Formula One to let their guards drop. But part of their duel goes back to 1990, and the Macau Grand Prix for Formula Three cars. It was a race that Hakkinen had in his hand, and the event which really brought Schumacher on to the world stage when he forced Hakkinen into a needless mistake, and stole the win. The parallels with the present situation are all too obvious.

Hakkinen knows what he has to do - or more importantly what he mustn't do - if he is to stay ahead. But in many ways the odds favoured Schumacher even before he dominated qualifying. He is on home ground, and he has already worn the crown twice, so he knows what is required of him. And Ferrari are on a roll. Hakkinen, by contrast, has been becalmed by his recent run of poor fortune. "Pressure is something that you must handle naturally," he said, refusing to let his innate dignity to be ruffled. "I believe that anyone who gets into a car to go racing is confident about his abilities and talent. If you are not, that is when pressure starts building up and you are likely to start making mistakes. Although there isn't any real pressure if you know what you are doing, it would be wrong for me to say that there is none here. I just think you have to turn it so that it becomes positive."

But there was nothing positive for McLaren yesterday, as not just Schumacher but Eddie Irvine too pushed the silver cars off the front row. "McLaren," Irvine said, "really underperformed. You just have to look at Fisichella in the Benetton to see that." The Italian lapped faster than David Coulthard, who was only just ahead of the local heroes Ralf Schumacher and Heinz- Harald Frentzen.

Hakkinen, albeit more diplomatically, agreed with Irvine's diagnosis. "I'm disappointed, of course," he said. "Our starts are usually pretty good, and I'm hoping that's the case tomorrow. But we were definitely not as quick as we should have been today. And from past experience we know that whatever problems we have in qualifying we seem to get in the race. We must try and sort it out in the morning warm-up, when I just have to hope it's dry."

The forecasts suggest otherwise. Heavy rain is expected, further tipping the World Championship balance. With pole position, his team-mate alongside him, and the likelihood of a wet race, Schumacher scarcely dare ask for more.