Motor Racing: Frentzen displays dry wit

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FOR A long time the thousands of Germans who have flocked here this weekend had nothing but empty track to watch. But as the racing line dried out following a morning shower, qualifying for the Grand Prix of Europe exploded suddenly into something out of Bugs Moran's worst nightmare. Lap times flew like machine gun bullets on St Valentine's Day.

Pole position changed hands 15 times as conditions kept improving, but ultimately Heinz-Harald Frentzen's finger was the hottest on the trigger. The winner of the Italian GP pulled off a fabulous spot of brinkmanship for Jordan to snatch pole position from the McLaren duo, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, in the final moments, leaving each with wounds to nurse. Ralf Schumacher dodged the flying ammo to take fourth place on the grid for Williams but the other championship contender, Eddie Irvine, stopped a bullet with a self-induced offroad moment which left him way back in ninth place. "I locked my rear brakes on a damp patch, went on the grass, and that was the end of it," he said.

Frentzen also apologised to his team afterwards. "There was some friction and shouting about when was the best time to go out," he admitted. "The team wanted me to go early, but I thought the track would dry out." He was right, and the second pole of his career was just reward for a bravura display.

It is a fair few years since four drivers were in contention for the World Championship with three races to go. By happy coincidence there have been several occasions when two drivers have gone mano a mano into the final races, but you have to go back to 1986, when Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost locked horns. But there has been much speculation this weekend whether Hakkinen, Coulthard, Irvine and Frentzen will all be in a position to fight here, or whether Coulthard will, after all, be obliged to ride shotgun yet again to his McLaren team- mate Hakkinen. The Finn rolled his eyes to heaven as the inevitable question arose. "Jeez," he said. "I've been asked this question ever since I joined the team. You know the rule at McLaren: the two drivers are equal and we both fight to the maximum." Then he added reflectively: "But it depends on the situation."

At Jerez in 1997, Coulthard was forcibly instructed to move over and let Hakkinen through for his first GP victory. At Melbourne in the 1998 opener, something similar happened. Later that year, he was told to help Hakkinen's title quest. Draw your own conclusions. But of late the team chief Ron Dennis has sniped obliquely at Ferrari's preferential arrangement with Michael Schumacher by referring to McLaren as a "proper" race team rather than a "sham" in which one driver was subservient to the other. He denies there will be team orders. Frentzen's devastating form in qualifying, however, may yet threaten Dennis' laudable desire to let his pilots fight one another fair and square. Coulthard himself put a brave face on things.

"It's not a concern for me when I get in the car. There isn't a clear answer at the moment. If I win this weekend, my chances will be looking good. If I don't, it's not looking good. It's pure logic. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out the mathematical possibilities." Quite so. Hakkinen is joint first in the points table with Irvine, on 60. Frentzen is 10 points further back, Coulthard 12. Tactics for the race will be crucial, especially if the forecast rain arrives.

Equipped with a Ferrari that works better on a high downforce circuit, Irvine kept his head down and got to work, while Frentzen focused quietly on improving his status as the fast-rising dark horse. It was left to Schumacher to say what he really thought of it all. When asked who he wanted to win, he smirked. "I don't really care," he said. As the political incorrectness of his statement dawned, he added hastily: "So I wish the best of luck to all of them." Of course he does.

If it does rain this afternoon, the conditions will test nerve and mettle to the maximum. The former F1 driver David Kennedy recently drove Frentzen's Jordan for RTE at Mondello Park, marking the first time one of Eddie Jordan's cars had run in his native Ireland. "Mondello is a little bit like Monaco, with a lot of tight corners, and relatively low grip," he said. "I really couldn't believe how delicate you need to be with the throttle. I thought these guys just mashed it, but you can't do that. Even on the installation lap the car was sliding all over the place. If you don't squeeze the throttle really carefully, you get wheelspin and power oversteer all the way up to third gear, even on a dry road..."

Frentzen's recent form suggests none of that will trouble him. After suffering mechanical problems on Saturday morning he only managed part of a lap right at the end of practice, but two of his three sector times exactly matched Hakkinen's fastest lap. In the afternoon he timed things to perfection and blew everyone away.

"The race'll be a different story," Irvine consoled himself, but Frentzen and Jordan hope not. Another victory would do very nicely. Ron Dennis knelt before Eddie Jordan in mock supplication yesterday; it is something F1's maverick team owner could get to like.