Motor Racing: Stewart's burning desire

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MOST TEAMS in Interlagos are concerned about a wet race, but for Jackie Stewart the worry will be fire. Who could forget the sight of both of the former champion's Stewart-Fords catching fire moments before the start in the Australian Grand Prix?

"It was," he conceded wryly, "a peak and valley weekend. We were competitive, but though I had an ulcer through too busy a schedule when I was racing back in 1972, it was nothing compared to the sight of both cars going up in flames." Ford's promising new engine had developed a small oil leak which was quickly ignited.

This is a key season for the team formed by the Scot and his elder son, Paul, two seasons ago. From a brilliant second place in only their fifth race, at Stewart's old stomping ground of Monaco, they fell into the rut that so often derails promising newcomers. They say the second season is always tougher than the first, and last year Stewart and his long-time technical partner, Ford, seemed perilously close to the divorce courts. But a new car, designed by Jordan refugee Gary Anderson, and Ford's excellent new powerplant have injected fresh life into a popular outfit. If Rubens Barrichello hadn't been obliged to start the Australian GP from the pit lane in the spare SF-3, instead of from his rightful fourth place, the team might have been celebrating their first victory.

Here at Barrichello's home race the spirit remains high. The 26-year- old from Sao Paulo makes no bones about the homage he paid to his late friend and mentor Ayrton Senna, in whose shadow he has become used to residing. Barrichello came into F1 in 1993, Senna's last full season. Now he says he is treating 1999 as a fresh start to a career which has never delivered on its initial promise.

"The fire in Melbourne was such a surprise," he admitted. "I was prepared for the race, and then I saw the yellow lights. Until then it wasn't a problem, but when I switched off the engine the fire got going. I didn't get out of the car until the smoke was turning black. While it was white I wasn't going to give up. I couldn't throw away fourth place on the grid."

Now he is revelling in the poise and traction that have made the Stewart SF-3 the talk of the paddock. "It is everything I have been asking for, for a long time, and now I can deliver a lot more than I have been able to in the last five years. Now I have the equipment I must be ready for it and not throw away any chances. I feel like I overtook 55 cars in Melbourne because I was all the time going up and down the grid. It was a very good race, and I hope we can repeat the situation here. The car works well in both conditions, wet or dry. You bet I'm optimistic."

The McLarens dominated practice yesterday, which had to be stopped after the 23-year-old Brazilian driver Ricardo Zonta had a 150mph accident in his BAR-Supertec. He will miss the race with ruptured tendons in his left foot.

BAR's misery was complete when Jacques Villeneuve's car was found to have used illegal fuel. The stewards stripped him of 16th place and ordered him to start at the back of the grid.

Under the threat of rain, qualifying saw a flurry of early activity in which the blistering Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard confirmed their superiority, running faster than last year and being chased by Barrichello, Schumacher, Fisichella, Irvine, Hill and Frentzen.

If they are reliable in the race, a one-two victory seems a foregone conclusion for McLaren. But this season they have opted primarily for speed, and in Australia the lightweight MP 4/14s broke while running away with the race. The car's lightness makes it quicker but is also its Achilles Heel. Lack of resistance to vibration forced world champion Hakkinen to retire with a throttle problem, and Coulthard to succumb to a transmission problem.

A shell-shocked Ferrari, by contrast, found themselves thrust into the role of tortoise, winning on reliability courtesy of Eddie Irvine after Michael Schumacher started from the back after stalling on the grid for the second consecutive race. The red cars have made progress this weekend, sufficient for Barrichello to remain cautious about his prospects. "To be honest I don't think we will win the race if the McLarens are still there, or maybe even the Ferraris, because the Ferraris are quicker than they were in Melbourne. If they keep going as well we must say it is difficult to win the race. But it is not impossible, because at least at the beginning of the season everybody has problems. I think if we are there at the end of the race, it can be a podium finish."