Motor Racing: Only rain can stop McLarens

Hakkinen and Coulthard dominate practice despite a forceful drive by Schumacher
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The Independent Online
"THE problem," Jackie Stewart summarised succinctly, "is that the current breed of F1 cars is consistently inconsistent. It's a problem that seems to affect everyone except for McLaren. In practice on Friday, for instance, Jan Magnussen would be really quick on one section of the track and slow on another, and then it would suddenly be the other way round. These cars just don't always do the things that you would expect them to, so it's very difficult for the driver to commit himself. It's like shooting at a moving target."

The McLarens were the only cars to hit the bullseye in Spain, but the Benettons at least got into the outer ring. So, too, did one of the Ferraris. But while the positions of the four Bridgestone-shod pilots owed as much to the performance of their cars and tyres as they did to their efforts behind the wheel, Schumacher's third-fastest time appeared to have been hewn from little more than iron will and his devastating ability to two- step on the brink of disaster.

"If you look at Michael, that car looks as if it is being overdriven," Stewart said, "but it isn't. It's just that it is very unforgiving, very difficult to drive. You can't put a price on sheer driveability, especially with the latest regulations."

The McLarens have it in spades and the Benettons did not look too shabby either, but on Friday Eddie Irvine, sixth quickest yesterday after a sterling effort, said: "This is the worst I have known the Ferrari this year. Too much oversteer, understeer, and brake problems."

Schumacher was quietly resigned when he said: "Tomorrow I think that third place is the best I can hope to do, unless something unexpected happens." It didn't. Barcelona merely confirmed the worst fears of Goodyear's runners as Benetton moved up to help McLarens in underlining the superiority of Bridgestone's present wares.

It was no surprise to see the McLarens on top, especially since they have amassed more test mileage than anyone else on the 4.7km track. Nor to see Mika Hakkinen once again asserting over David Coulthard on a circuit that he loves. But besides favouring the Finn's style, the Circuit de Catalonia has been a happy hunting ground for Bridgestone all through testing, and both Alexander Wurz and Giancarlo Fisichella were able to push the Benettons to the fore. The gap to the McLarens was still a whopping great 1.5 seconds, but they held third and fourth places for much of the session until Schumacher screwed out a truly awesome lap to thrust the Ferrari on to the second row.

"It's not that we're pleased with third place, but things could be worse," the former champion said. "For tomorrow we must keep a careful eye on the Benettons as they are not far behind and they can run consistently in the race. For sure it's going to be tough."

While the leading cars behaved much as they had in testing at the venue the previous week, others found that the higher ambient temperature played havoc with their performance expectations. Sauber was encouraged when Johnny Herbert was third fastest on Friday, then remained well up with seventh place in qualifying even though he was Goodyear's only runner to opt for the softer compound tyre and saved one run to harvest a set of fresh rubber for a race that is historically a nightmare in terms of tyre wear.

Jordan and Stewart, too, had respective reason to smile cautiously, with Damon Hill a reasonable eighth and Rubens Barrichello ninth. But there were few smiles chez Williams, after the champion team's most uninspiring qualifying performance in years. The world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, struggled to cut the 10th fastest time, then crashed trying to improve on it. His team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen was unlucky 13th.

"I just lost it as the rear-end snapped away," Villeneuve said of his accident. "I caught it, but by the time I did I was going straight into the gravel. It's going to be a hard race. Balance is really important on this track, and if it's not right it's going to be even more difficult to drive than in Imola." Hard to believe that the French-Canadian won convincingly here a year ago in a Williams.

The McLarens remained so crushingly superior that the Imola victor, Coulthard, remained second fastest at one stage on Saturday morning even though he had spun off the track after only six laps. And the familiar story continued throughout qualifying as the two silver cars continually improved their lap times, kicking the ball out of touch whenever their competitors looked remotely like reaching for it.

This time Hakkinen had the upper hand. Barring mechanical disaster, such as the problem with a gearbox bearing that caused him to retire at Imola, the Finn and the Scot will walk today's race. Whether the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, will allow them to fight one another remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely.

Schumacher is the only man capable of upsetting things in the early stages, but even that is merely likely to postpone the inevitable. Rain promises the only prospect of a race for victory, and there are forecasts of widespread showers for Spain. However, the only region likely to be unaffected is Catalonia. If it stays dry, don't bet your house against another McLaren whitewash.