Motor Racing: Irvine struggles to answer the faithful's prayers

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IF MICHAEL SCHUMACHER is depressed by his inability to race at Monza - the spiritual home of Ferrari and the scene of his victory last year - it may be just as well for his recuperation that he is not here this weekend to cast an eye over the banners draped in the grandstands.

There are more for Gerhard Berger than anyone else, even though the irreverent Austrian has been out of the cockpit since 1997, but those for Eddie Irvine far outweigh any messages of support for Ferrari's undisputed No 1. While they exhort the Ulsterman to win for Ferrari, there do not appear to be any wishing Michael a speedy recovery. Perhaps it means something, perhaps not, but the tifosi have ever been vocal, and can always be relied upon to offer a barometric reading of their feelings at any particular moment. Italian hearts sit comfortably on sleeves in the hallowed autodrome.

The key to a good lap here is to use the kerbs in the numerous chicanes. The two McLarens and Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan looked particularly confident and comfortable there all weekend. The Ferraris did not. Last week in testing, the kerbs had so battered Schumacher that the German was obliged to scrap his plans to return to racing in front of Ferrari's disciples. It was all too much for his injured leg, and after he had completed only 27 laps, he decided there and then that he would not last for a race distance.

If Schumacher could hobble away, there would be no such relief for the championship contender Eddie Irvine, who was left to struggle on publicly with the car everyone had come to see win. While rivals hopped nimbly through the chicanes, the Ferraris just did not work in them.

Mika Hakkinen is still privately smarting from the first-corner brush with his team-mate David Coulthard at Spa, and his team boss Ron Dennis's public support for the Scot. But the Finn made no bones about taking his 11th pole position of the season.

Coulthard's progress was interrupted by occasional yellow flags as others lost the fight with the laws of physics and spun off the track, but even so the Scot was struggling to match Frentzen. The German was in terrific form in the Jordan, relishing the strength of its Mugen-Honda engine and tackling the chicanes with total commitment. Though he put everything into it, Coulthard could not dislodge him from the front row.

"I had a feeling that we could be on pole and I would have liked to get my revenge on Mika after he beat me in Hockenheim," Frentzen said good- naturedly, "but it wasn't to be. But in any case, the qualifying performance was excellent." His team-mate Damon Hill was not as fired up as he had been in Belgium, but was safely in the top 10 with a time one second slower than Frentzen's.

Alex Zanardi overcame the problems that have dogged him most of the season to take his best qualifying performance of the year with fourth place in the improving Williams, alongside Coulthard. The American Champ Car ace has no axe to grind for the Scot after their verbal clash in Austria, and the McLaren driver need expect no favours in the run to the first chicane. "I hope that Irvine wins the championship," said Zanardi.

"He is the nicest among those in the running. Probably, he is also the one I mostly identify myself with, as a person. Mika shields himself behind some kind of professionalism that doesn't suit him, as I think that `of his own' he would be a playful good guy. Coulthard is a professional. but something less when he's driving." Nice to see that some do not tediously subscribe to political correctness.

But even the likeable Italian optimist concedes that McLaren has much the stronger and faster car. In this three-horse race, the odds do not favour Irvine. A fortnight ago he indicated that Ferrari have few developments in the pipeline to take them through the final races of the season. Since then, team president Luca di Montezemolo has read the riot act, but the ensuing reaction of a revised aerodynamic package may now come too late. Even if Ferrari play their usual trump card of reliability, it may not be enough this afternoon if the silver arrows fail to hit their target.

A year ago Ferrari were the only team able to put McLaren under any pressure; this year they are separated from their championship rivals not just by Jordan and Williams but, in Irvine's case, also by the Stewart- Ford of Rubens Barrichello, the man who replaces him at Ferrari next season. Irvine qualified only eighth, two places behind his team-mate Mika Salo.

The chicanes make Monza particularly hard on brakes, as McLaren discovered to their cost last year. But it also stresses tyres. At Hockenheim, Hakkinen crashed at high-speed following tyre failure.

Fearful of a potential repeat, and still locked in argument with McLaren over tyre pressures, Bridgestone has issued mandatory inflation figures.

Such semantics may be academic for the Prancing Horse. On qualifying form, they must pray for the sort of miracle deliverance that saw backmarker Jean-Louis Schlesser beach Ayrton Senna in the 1988 race, thwarting McLaren's clean sweep and gifting a Ferrari 1-2 to Berger and Michele Alboreto.

One banner here reads "Eddie: We believe in you." But he has a mountain to climb this afternoon if he is to manhandle a recalcitrant car into justifying that faith.