Motor racing: Jordan backs Frentzen

Brazilian Grand Prix: German driver primed to upset established order
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The Independent Online
EDDIE JORDAN firmly believes that the ambition of Eddie Irvine, his former driver, to be leading the world championship into the San Marino Grand Prix in three weeks' time will be seriously threatened by the Jordan racer Heinz-Harald Frentzen this weekend.

Jordan was in his usual ebullient form in Interlagos yesterday, exuding the bonhomie of a man whose sale of 40 per cent of his company to the merchant bankers Warburg Pincus has liberated him from the financial worries that concern most people.

"I tell you," Jordan insisted, "you overlook Heinz-Harald at your peril. You just watch him. I told him at the beginning of the year, `I want spunk. I want fire.' And the guy is really fired up. He's flying right now and he's ready for it. Don't underestimate him."

Frentzen lies second to Irvine in the world championship, after a successful start to his campaign in Australia where he challenged Irvine, the eventual winner, strongly until an air filter worked loose and partially blocked the engine's intakes, duping the electronic management system into automatically richening the fuel mixture. This forced the German to back off the throttle to conserve fuel and denied him the chance of pressuring Irvine into a mistake. "Without that," Jordan insists, "Heinz would have been right up there."

Interlagos is a tricky circuit at the best of times, one of the most challenging in the Formula One calendar even though it was shortened dramatically at the start of the decade. It is made more demanding by its relatively low grip, steep gradients, slow infield corners and fast, sweeping turns. But the biggest problem is its numerous bumps, which can seriously destabilise the stiffly sprung modern generation of cars. Yesterday the changeable weather added further to the challenge as the track was deluged shortly before free practice began in the morning.

If Frentzen is one of the dark horses for the Brazilian Grand Prix, yesterday it was business as usual initially as the McLaren duo, David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, headed the times when conditions were at their worst. Frentzen, the newcomer Stephane Sarrazin (replacing the injured Luca Badoer at Minardi), Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Pedro de la Rosa and Ralf Schumacher all spun as they explored the limit of grip.

Behind the McLarens, local hero Rubens Barrichello was a star in his Stewart-Ford. After getting out with little over 20 minutes left in the first session, the Brazilian rewarded the patience of his spectating countrymen with, temporarily, the third fastest time, once again underlining the performance he had shown in the first race. But as the track began to dry out more it became a lottery. Fisichella pushed his Benetton to the top of the timesheets before Damon Hill surged ahead. Then Coulthard restored the status quo as the track dried further, chased in the closing stages by Barrichello, Trulli and Johnny Herbert in the second Stewart as the Scotsman's team pushed into the top five, vying for third place.

Ultimately Ralf Schumacher timed the switch to dry weather tyres the best, undercutting Coulthard's time by three and a half seconds to head Fisichella and his brother, Michael.

"It really was as simple as that," Schumacher said. "I got out at the right time, on the right tyres."

But while the German celebrated, his Winfield Williams team-mate Alex Zanardi, the reigning American ChampCar champion, lay at the bottom of the times after his car had stopped with an electrical fault after one lap and remained in the garage throughout the session.

Friday practice times are a notoriously unreliable index of performance, as many teams run with differing fuel loads and not all are looking for ultimate speed at this stage. But a wet race on a weekend in which the forecast is not favourable, may be the answer to Michael Schumacher's prayers. However much the Ferrari team try to put a brave face on things after McLaren's upsetting pace in the season opener in Melbourne, it is clear that the red cars still have a long way to go before they can challenge on sheer speed. Yesterday a team insider admitted, "McLaren's pace in Australia simply stunned us. There was no way we expected to be so far behind. We knew that we went there without the optimum aerodynamic package, but though we've done a lot of testing since then I would say that we have no better than halved the gap."

There are already rumours of a witchhunt within a team desperate to win the title this season, and in the climate of growing demoralisation a wet race might turn things upside down and give Schumacher a much-needed chance to claw back some of the deficit sooner than expected. His bravura display of car control as he threw the Ferrari round yesterday was a timely reminder of his uncanny talent, and perhaps also his mounting frustration.