Motor racing: Irvine stalks harried Hakkinen

Hungarian GP: Second-placed Irishman splits McLarens at front of the grid
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The Independent Online
FOR A circuit on which overtaking is more difficult than interpreting an athletics drug test, the Hungaroring has a habit of throwing up unusual races. How else to explain long-gone Belgian Thierry Boutsen's feat in holding off Ayrton Senna for all 77 laps back in 1990? Damon Hill's near- miss in 1997 with the never-as-competitive-again (or before) Arrows-Yamaha? Or Ferrari's brilliant tactical gamesmanship which won last year's race for Michael Schumacher, in the face of stiff opposition from McLaren?

This afternoon could see the trend continuing, for much may depend on the weather and its effect on tyre performance. The leading teams - McLaren and Ferrari, plus Stewart-Ford and Williams - opted for Bridgestone's harder compounds, but soft-tyre qualifying runs from Benetton, Jordan, Sauber Petronas and Jacques Villeneuve in the BAR-Supertec have thrown wild cards on to the table.

As David Coulthard again failed narrowly to deliver the goods for McLaren- Mercedes, beleaguered team-mate Mika Hakkinen fought successfully to prevent on-form Eddie Irvine from taking pole position for Ferrari. The two championship protagonists spent time relaxing last week. Reports on the Ferrari driver centred on him staying in bed until three in the afternoon in St Tropez. "It's hard to relax there, believe me," he said smirking. "I was in bed all day and all night.''

The Finn opted for a week afloat in Sardinia and Corsica. "After what happened in the last two GPs I think I deserved a break," he observed in wry reference to his high-speed exit from the recent German GP. "I was very lucky to get out of that spin in one piece, because it was a top speed accident. I was going something like 330kph and to lose control at that speed is incredible. The moment that the car got out of control and went sideways, I thought it would be launched into the air. Luckily for me the run-off area at that place, on the entry to the stadium, is quite long.''

Somehow it was fitting that the two of them shared the limelight and the front row. When Hakkinen set the ball rolling with the lap of 1min 18.156sec that would prove good enough to secure his ninth pole of the season, Irvine struck back with 1:18.934, and was thus able to gauge the size of the mountain he had to climb. And where Hakkinen's subsequent efforts came close but failed to better that initial run, the World Championship leader ate steadily but surely into the deficit, to end the day only a 10th of a second shy of the Finn.

"Wherever we end up on the grid," Irvine said beforehand, "I know that we will go better in the race. I'm happy to be this close to pole, because we will be more competitive in the race.''

Coulthard held on to third place, but a late run by Giancarlo Fisichella thrust his Benetton ahead of the Jordans of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Damon Hill, the latter creating a more positive impression than he has of late to end only three thousandths of a second adrift of his team-mate. Alexander Wurz also pushed ahead of Rubens Barichello and Johnny Herbert, whose Stewart-Fords were separated by Villeneuve.

The performance of the day came from Jean Alesi, 11th, who shrugged off an accident in the morning triggered when he had swerved to avoid the slow-running Pedro de la Rosa. Alesi was briefly hospitalised for an X- ray on his right ankle, and said: "First, Pedro was going slowly, second he was on the line, and third he lifted off. That's a very long corner, and I had no chance to brake. I just had to swerve to avoid him. But he apologised later. He didn't do it on purpose. He just made an incorrect evaluation. The problem for me is closed, but I am a little concerned about the situation when drivers back off suddenly. We have seen it several times recently, such as with David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher at Spa last year."

On that occasion the German lost a wheel after hitting the back of Coulthard's slowing McLaren in heavy rain.

The sort of tyre failure that gave Hakkinen such a dramatic ride at Hockenheim is unlikely at the Hungaroring. McLaren and Bridgestone have circled the topic warily ever since the incident, neither making definitive public statements, but some of the tyre companies representatives believe that McLaren ventured beyond their recommendations on tyre pressures. Mclaren refute this. Lowering them enhances grip and therefore performance, but risks stressing the tyre beyond its intended design parameters.

"Obviously Bridgestone and the team have been investigating and they are still trying to understand exactly what happened," said Hakkinen, who desperately needs to score well this afternoon. "Hockenheim is a circuit with extremely high speed straights, and here the tyres are not loaded as much as they are there."

Tyres may play a key role, influencing strategy. Those on harder, more durable rubber hope for a hot race, the others that their gamble will pay off.