Motor racing: Schumacher silences rival

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The Independent Online
Michael Schumacher underlined the strength of his World Championship challenge here yesterday when he took Ferrari's 120th pole position on a circuit that he had not expected to suit his car. In doing so, the German resisted the efforts of his fellow countrymen Heinz- Harald Frentzen and his own brother, Ralf, and also temporarily silenced Jacques Villeneuve, his closest rival for the title.

Villeneuve began his weekend with customary controversy, sporting newly bleached hair which has variously been interpreted as a statement of free spirit, a misguided emulation of the comedian Freddie Starr or a juvenile gesture of defiance by a man losing his grip on the World Championship. "It doesn't bother me at all," the team owner Frank Williams said. "I like a bit of individuality."

Not so many liked yet another of his extraordinary outbursts on Thursday afternoon, however. Speaking of the accident which befell the French driver Olivier Panis in the Canadian GP, Villeneuve said: "I don't like how politically correct F1 has become, and how when someone has an accident everybody will do as if they were really sad, when they don't really care. It's just a motor racing accident."

Fundamentally he was saying nothing new. Of course drivers had a measure of sympathy for Panis, but all of the teams will tell you that whenever a driver is incapacitated the phone never stops ringing with hopefuls touting their services as replacements. The only thing the team chiefs won't tell you is their identities. It was not so much what Villeneuve said that left a bad taste, as the way he said it.

Villeneuve naturally still bore in mind his catastrophic departure at the end of the first lap in Canada, which left him a pointless trudge home and set the stage for Schumacher to scoop another 10 points in an increasingly menacing World Championship challenge for Ferrari. And he had to smile bravely through the rain on Friday morning, ending the day fifth fastest as a drying track rendered the times a lottery in which, predictably, Schumacher held all six winning numbers and the bonus ball. Then a high-speed shunt on Saturday morning, when he lost control of his Williams-Renault, left him on the back foot for the rest of the day.

Yet his qualifying adventure was still preferable to that of the world champion Damon Hill who managed only 17th place - one behind his Arrows team-mate Pedro Diniz - after stalling the car following a spin and being forced to use the spare: "I have only got myself to blame," said Hill. "I had a brake lock up and I spun off at the hairpin.

When qualifying began Rubens Barrichello stole a temporary pole position for Stewart-Ford before Jarno Trulli thrust his Prost Mugen-Honda to the fore. The 22-year-old Italian has left Minardi to replace Panis in the Prost team, and rose strongly to the occasion in its home race.

Jean Alesi became the third holder of the fleeting honours until he was displaced by the other newboy, the 23-year-old Austrian Alexander Wurz who is standing in for Gerhard Berger at Benetton-Renault.

At this stage Villeneuve was only sixth, still setting up his repaired car, but after 12 minutes Schumacher set a time of 1min 14.548sec that would ultimately withstand all threats. The German was in peak form, though his brother Ralf got within two-tenths of a second on his best run in the Jordan-Peugeot.

Villeneuve was only 12th after 20 minutes and ninth after 25, and his final thrust - when it came- resulted in a wild lap that was good enough for only fourth place, more than half a second slower than the Ferrari.

"Definitely, I'm surprised to be on pole," Schumacher admitted. "We have a new front wing since testing, but it's difficult to know how much difference it has made. All through testing we were a second off the pace and were struggling; now we are ahead. I can't explain it, but obviously I'll take it!"

Schumacher said he was running more wing than most of his rivals, and later Frentzen added more and improved to 1min 14.749sec to prevent an all- Schumacher front row. The youngest of the Germanic trio thus joined the unhappy Villeneuve on row three, while Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari made smooth progress to take fifth place just ahead of the impressive Trulli. With Wurz out-running Alesi for seventh, it was indeed a day for celebration for the up and coming generation.

Schumacher was characteristically downbeat about his race prospects, suggesting that Ferrari might struggle. Upon hearing this, Frentzen smiled. "Michael often says he is struggling, but when it comes to the race he's in front. I think this is a good way to keep the pressure away."

Better, some ventured, than the verbal tactics adopted by Villeneuve so far this weekend.