Motor Racing: Schumacher fastest in new forest: German sets pace for Pacific Grand Prix as drivers feel their way on unfamiliar circuit

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER removed any suspicion that his victory in Brazil was a freak of nature or modern science by obliterating the opposition in yesterday's opening practice session for Sunday's Pacific Grand Prix here in Japan. For 'the opposition', read Williams-Renault, and it appears even the defending champions are currently in no condition to compete with the young German and his Benetton-Ford.

This unofficial one and a half hour stint was by way of a familiarisation exercise for the drivers, an opportunity to explore the 2.3-mile circuit edged into forested mountains so remote from Tokyo and other major cities it is hardly surprising that they cannot sell all 55,000 tickets for the race. A package trip from the north will set you back pounds 1,000, and even then you face a three-hour coach journey from your hotel.

Most of the drivers liked what they saw and found the track fun to drive. They also expect the race to be physically and mentally exhausting, and Williams anticipate an especially torrid ordeal.

Schumacher completed his first afternoon on the TI circuit 1.265 seconds ahead of Ayrton Senna. Damon Hill, who inherited second place at Interlagos following his partner's spin, was at least in touch with Senna, just three one- hundredths of a second separating them.

What both Williams drivers require, however, is parity with Schumacher, and that looks some way off. Hill suggests it could be as distant as mid-season. The British driver said: 'The gap is concerning. Benetton have turned the tables on us from last season. They are now stronger and appear to have the upper hand.

'The problem is that we have precious little time for testing between the races. We are into the season and it's difficult to develop the car at the same time. I have every confidence we can improve the package, but it's going to be tough for us over the first half of the season.'

Senna, who signed for Williams believing he had, in the process, booked a near-certain fourth world championship, expects a technical step forward for the next race, at Imola, where the power of the Renault engine should be more significant. On this circuit, which Schumacher likens to a go-kart track, the Brazilian fears the Benetton will be too elusive.

'Power does not count for much here,' Senna said. 'Our car is very unstable in the slow corners, where Benetton have their biggest advantage. The probability is that it will be worse for us than it was at Interlagos.'

All of which further fuels Benetton's determination to capitalise on their superiority while they can. They have the team, the equipment and, in Schumacher, a man inspired.

He said: 'I was very surprised with the big gap. It is unusual. It is the result of our winter work and the team have prepared a tremendous package. Brazil was more of a power circuit than this one, so it may suit us even more. I would be surprised if it continues like this, but the signs are very good.'

But signs do not necessarily lead to a straightforward race for Schumacher. The minimal length of the circuit and the scarcity of overtaking possibilities could scupper the best of strategists, as he and his main rivals acknowledge.

'The whole facility is very beautiful and the circuit is very interesting,' Schumacher said, 'but it is quite slippery, it is small, tricky and technical.'

Hill, anxious to compete with Schumacher and Senna here, said: 'It won't be easy to overtake and the traffic will make things difficult. Qualifying could be a lottery and the race is going to be very demanding. Fuel stops mean we are lapping three seconds quicker than we used to be in a race, so it calls for even more physical effort and concentration.'

His countryman, Martin Brundle, also envisages a test of patience. He said: 'It's a fun circuit and I'm enjoying it very much. When it comes to overtaking, though, you're going to need the other guy to be willing or to make a mistake. I can see there being a lot of fist- shaking out there in the race.'

Brundle might have been shaking his fist in frustration as a water pressure problem on his McLaren-Peugeot hindered his work yesterday. He wound up with the 12th fastest time, but can be encouraged by the fourth place of his team- mate, Mika Hakkinen.

Johnny Herbert, in a Lotus- Mugen Honda, was 16th, and Mark Blundell, driving a Tyrrell-Yamaha, was 18th.

(Photograph omitted)