Early indications were that the championship would again come down to a two-man test of skill and fortitude, and here was further evidence that Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen had distanced themselves from the rest.
Schumacher, the leader after three races, edged the duel in the first practice session for Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix by 0.136 seconds. Hakkinen, the defending champion, was almost half a second clear of the others.
That Olivier Panis, like Schumacher and Hakkinen a previous winner of this race, driving a Prost Peugeot yet to distinguish itself as a competitive runner, should have been the best of the rest was perhaps proof of this street circuit's peculiarity.
However, the performances of Schumacher, in the improving Ferrari, and Hakkinen, in the consistent McLaren Mercedes, suggest order is not merely restored but secured for the foreseeable future.
Hakkinen enjoyed a distinct advantage over Schumacher at this stage of proceedings last season, but the German driver and Ferrari have quickly closed the gap this time. Even a crash in the morning half of the session, which cost him crucial time in the pits, failed to derail the highly motivated German. He completed his day's work with the fastest lap of one minute 22.718 seconds.
Schumacher said: "The problem in the morning was a bit of a frightening moment. Suddenly I had no steering. A track rod broke at the chicane and I hit the barrier. But after the car was repaired it ran normally. It was a hard lap towards the end, but then you are pushing all the time here. A very high level of concentration is needed because it is easy to make a mistake. It was fun driving today. It is possible our car gives us a particular advantage at Monaco."
It sounded ominously like a warning from the winner of the San Marino Grand Prix and that, doubtless, was as calculated as most things in his life. He oozes self belief and menace again and the dark moods of early season have given way to brilliant optimism.
As Schumacher darted through the throngs along the harbour side his team director, Jean Todt, wore the expression of the contented and expectant, even if he offered a word of caution. "Michael is the same, and it is up to us to give him the right car," Todt said. "If we do, he will give us the results."
Hakkinen concluded it had been a pretty good day for him, too. In the morning he added his voice to the chorus complaining of ineffective set ups, yet by the end of the afternoon he was satisfied he had a familiar McLaren. "I was worried early in the day because our performance was disappointing," he said. "But we made modifications for the afternoon and they were brilliant changes. The car started going quicker and quicker and quicker."
Victory here would be the perfect antedote for a man still nursing a few psychological bruises after crashing out of the San Marino Grand Prix when he held a substantial lead.
Eddie Irvine, winner of the opening race in Australia, is now second in the standings and all in the Ferrari camp will hope he can stay there, covering Schumacher's back. At this juncture Coulthard has no such duty of service to Hakkinen, but he is aware he cannot afford to lose contact with his team mate.
Coulthard has registered his displeasure over the tardy co-operation of back markers at Imola and, at the drivers' meeting yesterday, called on everyone to adhere to the rules.
Out on the track, however, he found more congestion in the struggle for lap times and will need to find a clear course in tomorrow's qualifying session if he is to have a chance of victory.
MONACO GRAND PRIX (Sunday) Yesterday's free practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari, 1min, 22.718sec (ave speed 91.073 mph); 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:22.854; 3 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot, 1:23.318; 4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari, 1:23.396; 5 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:23.458; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:23.503; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford, 1:23.545; 8 M Salo (Fin) BAR-Supertec, 1:23.793; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec, 1:23.862; 10 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford, 1:23.865; 11 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda, 1:23.874; 12 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot, 1:23.958; 13 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec, 1:24.065; 14 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife, 1:24.363; 15 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas, 1:24.492; 16 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams, 1:24.906; 17 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber- Petronas, 1:25.094; 18 P De La Rosa (Sp) Arrows, 1:26.148; 19 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda, 1:26.336; 20 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows, 1:27.618; 21 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford, 1:27.667; 22 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford, 1:28.316.Reuse content