Motor Racing: Hill warms to his task

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EARLY SEASON frustrations evaporated for the old champion and the contender here yesterday. Damon Hill and David Coulthard were counter- punching and talking a good fight.

The two Britons, without a finish between them in the first two races of the season, believe they are finding their range in time for tomorrow's San Marino Grand Prix.

Hill, eclipsed so far by his Jordan Mugen team-mate, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, was fourth fastest in unofficial practice. Coulthard, trailing his McLaren- Mercedes partner and reigning champion, Mika Hakkinen, by 10 points, was a close second to the Finn.

Coulthard fortified his championship aspirations with victory here last season, only for them to be dismantled by the pace and consistency of Hakkinen. He maintains this is not a crossroads in his campaign, yet can scarcely dispute the perils of falling further behind Hakkinen on a circuit he acknowledges as one of his best.

Another glitch on the McLaren - this time an alternator fault - held up Coulthard's programme yesterday yet by the end of the session he was routinely posting competitive times, his fastest just 0.138sec off Hakkinen's.

Ferrari's Eddie Irvine, the championship leader, was four-tenths of a second further back in third place, while his senior partner, Michael Schumacher, parked his car opposite the pits and had to settle for fifth position. The locals shared his obvious dismay.

"Michael didn't look too happy," Coulthard observed with scant sympathy. The Scotsman, by contrast, was content with his day's work. "Had I been able to run untroubled, I'm confident I would have been quickest. The rest of the day has gone well. I don't feel under pressure because I know the problems in the first two races were not mistakes on my part. This is not a make-or-break race, but it is one I want to win. I'm going for maximum points."

After skirmishes with other cars forced him out of the two previous races, Hill is short of race laps, watching from the sidelines as his team-mate Frentzen claimed second and third places in Australia and Brazil. Yesterday, however, Hill worked up a lather in what amounted to a much- needed sparring session.

He said: "We're cutting back on the gap all the time. When you are on the cutting edge, as McLaren are, it gets more difficult to find that extra bit. I'm under no illusions. They're going to be nearly impossible to beat this weekend. But I'm confident we can go faster. It's been difficult for me to get in tune because I've had only 10 racing laps. You only get close to your car in the race."

Irvine, who heads the table by virtue of his win in Australia and fifth place in Brazil, acknowledges that only more mishaps for McLaren will open the door for Ferrari tomorrow. Schumacher aborted a late run because of a rear tyre failure but said: "I think we are in better shape than at the last race."

Alessandro Zanardi, seeking his first points with Williams, was sixth, immediately ahead of his team-mate, Ralph Schumacher. Jacques Villeneuve was a healthy seventh for British American Racing, while his new partner, Mika Salo, was 14th. Johnny Herbert was 18th for Stewart-Ford.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola) First unofficial practice session: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28.467, ave speed 200.617 kph/124.7mph; 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28.605; 3 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:29.046; 4 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:29.452; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:29.534; 6 A Zanardi (It) Williams 1:29.614; 7 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:29.630; 8 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:29.765; 9 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewar-Ford 1:29.792; 10 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:29.808; 11 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:30.182; 12 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:30.408; 13 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:30.482; 14 M Salo (Fin) BAR 1:30.569; 15 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:30.830; 16 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:30.854; 17 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen Honda 1:30.991; 18 J Herbert (GB) Stewart- Ford 1:31.046; 19 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:31.257; 20 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:31.547; 21 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:31.557; 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 1:33.529.