Motor Racing: Trulli rules on truly strange day
An advance party of Schumi's Army have made it to the great concrete bowl of the Stadium here, but this was a token presence, a token gesture. The klaxons playfully welcomed Schumacher's understudy, Mika Salo, in the No 3 Ferrari. But the world championship is now the domain of others and so is Schumacher's home race.
Trulli's presence at the head of Friday's exercise is probably even less meaningful than Damon Hill's in Austria, a week earlier. The Prost-Peugeot driver - said to be in line to replace Hill next season - will surely give way to the familiar pacesetters in qualifying and in the grand prix, just as the former champion and his Jordan-Mugen did.
The Peugeot engine may well relish this, the supreme examination of horsepower and durability, and for the same reason the Mugen, too, could prove a force. However, the contest remains essentially McLaren-Mercedes v Ferrari and, provided the champions do not shoot themselves in the foot again, they should be confident of re-establishing the natural order tomorrow afternoon.
Eddie Irvine, leading the Ferrari challenge in the absence of the injured Schumacher, was second fastest but saw nothing significant in that. Nor in the fact that David Coulthard, in one of the McLarens, was fourth or that Mika Hakkinen, in the other, was 10th.
Hakkinen is two points ahead of Irvine following the bizarre events of Austria and perhaps the real test of a championship deprived of Schumacher's talent starts here.
The phenomenon of Schumi's Army is without precedent. The red-capped brigade have marched through Europe in increasing numbers in recent years. Significantly, they were scarcely in evidence in Austria last week, the organisers announced a race day attendance of 80,000. That figure was based on advance bookings, and all the permanent seating here was accounted for months ago. The circuit responded by constructing more temporary stands to accommodate a total of 130,000, but blocks of those are unsold. Fans hoping to recoup their money rather than watch a race that does not involve "The Man" have been advertising tickets on the internet.
Those who do turn up will be able to see and hear Schumacher via a satellite link from his home in Switzerland, but that may not be enough to cushion the blow of lost revenue on merchandising.
Conversely, rumours about Schumacher's recovery, or otherwise, have gathered a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Some even suggest he will not race again this year. Ferrari are talking in terms of his being back in a car at the beginning of September and racing at the Italian Grand Prix on the 12th.
Schumacher's manager, Willi Weber, maintained yesterday that it was too early to set a date for his return but that he would be back in full working order. He said: "All the things you hear about Michael are pure speculation. We do not know yet when he will be back. Ferrari hope to see him back at Monza. I wish we could see him back here this weekend. But that is not possible. Perhaps we'll know more in the middle of August.
"Michael will be back only when the doctors say and when he says. What I do know is that he will come back only when he is 100 per cent, and that he will be 100 per cent."
The Germans left in the field, the younger Schumacher, driving a Williams, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Jordan, are not so presumptuous as to assume they will have the backing of Schumi's redundant troops.
Frentzen, who won in France, said: "I don't know if the spectators will shout for me this time. It would be nice to win here. I have never even scored points in the past."
Coulthard requires maximum points if his championship quest is to be more than a fantasy and Hakkinen clearly feels the Scotsman should be instructed by the team to support his title defence. McLaren contend team orders are not an issue and Coulthard is still talking an attacking game. "I don't think the atmosphere in the team has changed," Coulthard said. "If Mika and I are close on the grid again our minds will be sharpened, but last week is finished."
Coulthard and Hakkinen had spins in a session their boss, Ron Dennis, described as "a little messy for us". He will be anxious to clean up their act for tomorrow.
Irvine, who had a spectacular double spin in the morning, is settling in to his new role. "I feel under less pressure here than I did last week," he said. "I am more confident and content. I hope that comes through in my driving."
Hill was eighth yesterday and Johnny Herbert 18th in his Stewart Ford.
ITV are back on air with live coverage of today's qualifying session, at midday, following agreement with the authorities. .
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