Coulthard's high-speed crash accelerates tension

The cat and mouse games begin between Ferrari and McLaren in the build-up to showdown in Suzuka
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The Independent Online

David Coulthard provided a reminder of the high stakes in the Ferrari/McLaren battle when he crashed at 140mph during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix. The Scot climbed out unharmed, but his car was badly damaged.

David Coulthard provided a reminder of the high stakes in the Ferrari/McLaren battle when he crashed at 140mph during practice for the Japanese Grand Prix. The Scot climbed out unharmed, but his car was badly damaged.

"It was a productive morning until the point of impact," Coulthard said, after hitching a ride back to the pits in the medical car. "As you would expect, I was pushing very hard on one corner, I went a bit wide and put one wheel on the kerb which saw the car spin quicker than I could catch it."

That put a dent in McLaren's corporate pride as the world champion, Mika Hakkinen, raised their morale with the fastest time of the day just over one tenth of a second quicker than his Scottish team-mate, and an apparently significant half-second faster than Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. But the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, was the first to counsel caution when studying times set during the free practice sessions, when it is difficult to know precisely what strategies each team is pursuing. While the McLaren drivers worked through their programme, Schumacher and his team-mate Eddie Irvine focused on setting their Ferraris up for the race.

"I don't think things are as bad as they look from my lap time today," said Irvine, who was only 10th fastest. "My main concern was a lack of grip. In this situation it is always difficult to balance the car."

Suzuka, the only circuit on the calendar which has a crossover section like a schoolboy's Scalextric set, is a demanding mixture of fast and very fast corners. Initially the track was still "green" but, with more rubber going down following the various practice sessions, it would improve for the crucial qualifying period.

Having been so dominant in Malaysia, the Ferraris are not so well suited to a circuit which requires less downforce, but Schumacher still believes they have a strong chance of repeating their Malaysian success.

"We knew that our car would not suit this track as well as it did Sepang," he said. "Suzuka has many fast corners, whereas our car tends to go better in the slower ones. The track was also very slippery on the first day and offered less grip than at the last race." But he held out hope of a tight contest for the front row of the grid as he added: "Towards the end of the afternoon session we found quite a good set-up, which is not reflected in our lap times as the tyres were past their best by then. There is still room for improvement, so I am confident we can fight for pole position, and for victory on Sunday."

In Malaysia, Schumacher was obliged to reverse the traditional roles at Ferrari. Where Irvine has deferred to him for the past three seasons, the former champion had to ride shotgun for Irvine in order to help him in his quest for the title. But since the Ulsterman's four-point lead over Hakkinen was restored by last Saturday's FIA court of appeal hearing in Paris, Irvine need not actually finish ahead of Hakkinen in the race. Provided that Schumacher wins, Irvine can settle for third behind the Finn. Certainly, the German is unlikely to hand over a second victory. "It's easy for me this time," he conceded. "We just need to win the race. If I can, I can do a good favour to us all."

After all the concerns over the right leg that he broke at Silverstone in July, Schumacher proved himself completely fit in Malaysia. "The leg was a little more painful the next day than is normal," he said, "but there were no major concerns. I was flat out all through the race, but I'm probably a bit fitter than the rest. But it will be tough here, because the performance will be closer together. I expect to fight all the race in order to win, so it will be difficult."

Having lost his own chance of the title in the accident that some have suggested was partly triggered by Irvine's reluctance to let his team-mate overtake at Silverstone, Schumacher has a point to prove and is only likely to help Irvine this time if Coulthard is also able to offer a threat. The dark horse, however, may be Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was a championship contender until his retirement while leading the Grand Prix of Europe. He was third fastest until his time was disallowed after he cut a chicane, but he remained confident. Suzuka is Honda's own circuit, and he will have the use of a special engine with 800bhp in his Jordan. Suzuka is also a working honeymoon for the German, who married his fiancée Tania Niger in Phuket last week. There must have been something catching in the air in Malaysia, for Jacques Villeneuve revealed that he became engaged to singer Danii Minogue after the Sepang race.

JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka) Provisional opening practice times: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1 min 41.746sec (ave spd 207.481kph/129mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:41.894; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:42.215; 4 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:42.529; 5 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec 1:42.718; 6 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:42.925; 7 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:42.953; 8 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1:43.047; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:43.235; 10 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:43.375; 11 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:43.399; 12 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:43.430; 13 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:43.485; 14 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:43.599; 15 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 1:43.652; 16 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:43.720; 17 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec 1:43.776; 18 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:43.804; 19 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:43.916; 20 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford 1:44.179; 21 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:44.423; 22 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:45.543.