Eddie Irvine was fastest in first practice for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix here, suggesting Ferrari might be better equipped than they appreciated to withstand the combined force of nature and McLaren-Mercedes. The McLaren was generally expected to reassert itself after Michael Schumacher's consecutive victories at Imola and Monaco had carried him clear at the top of the championship. The faster corners here should, in theory, suit the car driven by Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.
Yesterday's stiff breeze should, we were told, have further restricted the potency of the Ferrari, an assumption based on previous experience this season. Instead Irvine emerged from the buffeting - and an off during the morning - with top place ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen in a Jordan- Mugen. Schumacher was third, Hakkinen fourth and Coulthard seventh. Hakkinen hurried away like the wind at the end of the session, apparently reluctant to talk. Coulthard stepped into the breach, insisting the team's programme had gone well, that no alarm bells were ringing in the camp.
Unofficial practice can never be taken as a clear indicator of relative capabilities. Each team has its own agenda. Sandbagging is not unheard of. However, Irvine was gratified with the performance of his car. "Normally the car is a disaster in the wind, but not today," the Ulster- man said. "I don't know if McLaren were sandbagging and that doesn't concern me. I can only concern myself with my car and I am pleased with the way it is handling.
"I went off in the morning and that was because of the wind. It's why you see so many going off. The handling of the car is very different this year. You find on some corners you're having to break 20 metres earlier than you would in normal conditions. It was windy in Australia and I won there, so maybe it's an omen."
Coulthard delivered much the same wait-and-see message. He felt a truer, different picture would become apparent by the end of proceedings here. "You just don't know what the other teams are doing in unofficial practice but I do know we are comfortable with our performance given the fuel loads we have," Coulthard said. "We can't be surprised by Ferrari's times, but then it's not about times today. I'd be surprised and disappointed if we had the same positions in qualifying."
Coulthard is in particular need of an improved position in this afternoon's qualifying session and tomorrow's race. It is more than a year since he won a grand prix and he is having to fend off questions about his future with McLaren. He maintains he has the faith and backing of the team, while acknowledging: "In the end it comes down to results.'
Damon Hill is 10 years his senior and, although the Englishman has a world championship to comfort him in retirement, he is adamant that he is not contemplating quitting at the end of the season.
The subject has been forced on him by an inauspicious first quarter of the season. He has finished only one of the four races, a plight compounded by the consistent excellence of his team-mate, Frentzen, who stands fourth in the championship. However, Hill remains defiant, not least, he states, because of the support he continues to receive from the team and its owner, Eddie Jordan.
Hill, sixth yesterday, said: "These reports saying it's going to be my last year are premature and predictable. I had an up and down start to last year as well but turned it round and I think I can again. The team have been very supportive and that's surprising to me. It's outside my normal experience in Formula One. The engineers and mechanics are right behind me, helping me through. So I feel a lot better than I would normally feel in this situation."
Hill was patently alluding to his "normal experiences" at Williams and Arrows. He was dismissed by the former even as he was closing in on the 1996 championship and publicly criticised by Tom Walkinshaw, team principal of the latter, the following season.
Hill survived an uncertain early 1998 to deliver Jordan's maiden grand prix victory. "You write off Damon at your peril," Eddie Jordan said. "He knows he has our support. That's how we treat our drivers."
Hill is less content with the current cars. "I find them really frustrating to drive. Last week we had no wind and the car was OK. Today it was totally different. It's down to the aerodynamics. They should be more fun to drive."
SPANISH GRAND PRIX (Barcelona) First unofficial practice session: 1 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari, 1:23.577, average speed 203.654kph/126.57 mph; 2 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:23.790; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:23.895; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:23.982; 5 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec 1:24.312; 6 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:24.318; 7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24.339; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart- Ford 1:24.347; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1:24.458; 10 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:24.559; 11 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:24.571; 12 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:24.823; 13 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:24.957; 14 O Panis (Fra) Prost- Peugeot 1:25.140; 15 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:25.448; 16 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 1:25.667; 17 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife 1:25.901; 18 M Salo (Fin) BAR-Supertec 1:25.998; 19 P De La Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:26.595; 20 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:27.296; 21 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:27.314; 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 1:27.506
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