Motor Racing: Talk of Mansell's return eclipses Ferrari display: Championship leader upstaged by determined Alesi in first qualifying for Canadian Grand Prix

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The Independent Online
THE contest Formula One is craving could be closer at hand than anyone anticipated. While most were consumed by the prospect of Nigel Mansell's return and a confrontation with Michael Schumacher next month, Jean Alesi and Ferrari emerged as serious contenders for tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix here.

Alesi was fastest in yesterday's first qualifying session, half a second ahead of Schumacher's Benetton-Ford, which expired in a cloud of smoke at the end of the session. Mika Hakkinen, in a McLaren-Peugeot, was third and Gerhard Berger, in the other Ferrari, fourth.

Damon Hill, about to receive Mansell as his partner at Williams-Renault, if only on a part-time basis, was a subdued sixth, behind the Tyrrell Yamaha of Ukyo Katayama.

The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, named after the French Canadian, killed driving a Ferrari in 1982, clearly suits the much-maligned scarlet cars. Power and hard braking are the requirements here, and changes to regulations appear to have served the Italian cause.

Alesi, who has never won a race, led the early part of the one-hour session, succumbed to Schumacher's first assault, but then found additional pace and adhesion to earn provisional pole position.

Tom Walkinshaw, engineering director of Benetton, reflected the anxiety in his championship leading team when he said: 'The circuit is ideal for the Ferrari and even if we could catch them it wouldn't be easy to overtake here. That could prove the biggest problem.'

Much of the paddock banter had been concerned with the return of the former World champion Mansell. He is due to visit Williams' Oxfordshire factory and test the car at Pembrey, in south Wales, during next week.

Endeavours to buy out the remainder of his contract with newman-Haas appear to have been resisted by the American team's sponsors, which means the Englishman is likely to be restricted to grands prix which do not clash with his commitments in IndyCars.

The first of the six races available to Mansell under those conditions is the French Grand Prix, on 3 July, and the coming week offers him the only opportunity to acquaint himself with a car stripped of much of the technology he enjoyed on his successful world championship campaign, two years ago.

The 40-year-old IndyCar champion provokes opinion as no other driver. Love him or loath him he cannot be ignored. The men immediately affected by his comeback are the current incumbents at Williams, Hill and David Coulthard. The 23-year-old Coulthard will step down for Mansell this season, a programme which may be limited to France and the final three races, Europe, Japan and Australia, which follow the completion of the IndyCar series. There are no plans for Mansell to compete in Belgium or Portugal, but that could change.

Hill's anxieties may be more long term. If, as expected, Mansell signs for next season, the position of Hill could be placed in jeopardy. Coulthard has time on his side. Hill, at 33, knows he may never have another top drive.

Hill said yesterday 'I have enough on to keep my mind on this race without having emotions about the situation with Nigel. But I take a positive attitude. I've partnered Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Nigel would be the third world champion. I just hope I don't have to partner Schumacher]'

The feeling inside Formula One is that Schumacher and his Benetton will be too much for Mansell and this year's Williams. Johnny Herbert, of Lotus-Mugen, said, 'I can't see anyone beating the combination of Benetton and Schumacher. Senna couldn't so I don't see that Nigel will be able to.'

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX (Montreal) First qualifying session: 1 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1min 26.277sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Ford 1:26.820; 3 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Peugeot 1:27.616; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:27.652; 5 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:27.827; 6 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:28.011; 7 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Mercedes 1:28.048; 8 M Brundle (GB) McLaren-Peugeot 1:28.451; 9 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Hart 1:28.612; 10 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:28.636; 11 G Morbidello (It) Footwork-Ford 1:28.730; 12 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Hart, 1:28.843; 13 M Blundell (GB) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:29.108; 14 C Fittipaldi (Bra) Footwork-Ford 1:29.493; 15 O Panis France Ligier-Renault, 1:29.530; 16 J J Lehto (Fin) Benetton-Ford 1:29.580; 17 M Alboreto (It) Minardi-Ford 1:29.597; 18 E Comas (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:29.653; 19 P Martini (It) Minardi-Ford 1:29.691; 20 A de Cesaris (It) Sauber-Mercedes 1:29.793; 21 J Herbert (GB) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:30.063; 22 E Bernard (Fr) Ligier-Renault 1:30.806; 23 O Beretta (Fr) Larrousse-Ford 1:31.167; 24 A Zanardi (It) Lotus-Mugen Honda 1:31.698; 25 D Brabham (Aus) Simtek-Ford 1:32.376; 26 B Gachot (Bel) Pacific-Ilmor 1:32.838; 27 P Belmondo (Fr) Pacific-Ilmor 1:33.291.

(Photograph and map omitted)