Light relief from Alesi, strictly business for Schumacher

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The Independent Online

Thank the Lord for racing drivers such as Jean Alesi. Who else could don the yellow jersey of Benson & Hedges Jordan Honda, and then forgetfully drive down to park outside the pit of his old Prost team? A rival team owner remarked: "These guys can spot pennies on a track at 200mph; you'd think they could see that their hands were now wearing yellow gloves, not blue, when they are doing 30 down the pit road..." It was a curious, if humorous, oversight from the man whose enthusiasm for his return to the team that saved his career back in 1989 has been almost tangible.

Pantomime is needed here. It helps take the mind off the prospect of 77 laps of demonstration driving by Michael Schumacher, the most likely outcome of this afternoon's race. The German stands on the threshold of historic achievement. Victory will bring him equal with Alain Prost's record of 51 Grands Prix triumphs, and the Frenchman's tally of four World Championships.

Only the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio has won more titles, and odds are short against the Ferrari driver matching the Argentinian's five by next year.

Schumacher exudes the body language of a poker player holding all the high cards in the pack. His first flying lap on Friday morning was within two tenths of his 2000 pole position here. By Saturday afternoon he had lopped three and a half seconds off it. It took him only half his 12 allotted laps to secure his 41st pole. Here, more than ever, it is a crucial advantage. Back in 1990, Thierry Boutsen, a pleasant enough fellow but no world champion, fended off the attentions of Ayrton Senna for the entire race. It's harder to pass here than on the M25 on a Friday night. Assuming his Ferrari does not suffer a recurrence of the gearbox failure that made the start of the German GP three weeks ago such a dramatic affair, the newly reintroduced electronic traction and launch control systems will alleviate Schumacher's former predilection for poor getaways.

The Hungaroring demands maximum downforce. It's Monaco without the glamour or the concrete walls. But on Friday it had a different kind of trap for the unwary. One serrated kerb on the downhill leg of the course proved so razor-sharp that it disembowelled David Coulthard's McLaren Mercedes, splattering the track with carbon fibre debris that brought out the red flag. Overnight, the kerbs were milled down two and a half centimetres.

Alesi's Jordan drive has generated much excitement. It's seen as the last chance for a man of immense talent who has underachieved in a lengthy career, through a combination of the failure to place himself in the right car at the right time ­ he turned down the Williams Renault in 1991 that made Nigel Mansell a champion at this race in 1992 ­ and his own mercurial character.

Equally, there is plentiful feeling for the deposed Heinz-Harald Frentzen, now driving the Prost vacated by Alesi. His former team-mate Jarno Trulli told Frentzen's manager Monty Field on Friday: "This is the only time I'll say it, but I really hope that Heinz outqualifies me tomorrow." Fat chance. But Frentzen drained the well of sympathy on Saturday afternoon when he blocked Coulthard's first attempt at a quick lap.

History beckons Schumacher today, and he looks unstoppable, a man on course with his destiny. The race is Coulthard's last chance to give his moribund title aspirations the kiss of life. Schumacher need not worry at all about the Scot if he secures his 51st victory. He needs only three points to throw the thing beyond his rival's reach, and you get 10 for winning, only six for second place. But the Scot's Braveheart blood was stoked by Frentzen's silliness, and he responded to the occasion by setting the second fastest time to share the front row with Schumacher.

"I don't think we could have claimed pole today but I'm confident that we could have been closer to Michael's time," Coulthard said. "We have generally tended to be quicker in race trim this year so we will see what happens." Yesterday, victory brought Briton Justin Wilson within a point of the F3000 championship, but Coulthard's chances are less rosy.

With Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher, Trulli and Mika Hakkinen next in line, the first corner may provide the greatest interest in the race, but it should all be academic for the elder Schumacher.

"Today was the result of the perfect lap and a car that was already one hundred per cent in the morning," he said. "I just got the maximum out of the car and myself. Of course I'll be trying to win, but I don't expect the advantage will be as big as today. I expect a tight, competitive race." As usual, the champion is always at his most dangerous when he starts playing down his chances.

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