McLaren primed for fast response

Brazilian Grand Prix: Bizarre interruptions cause concern as Hakkinen hurries to reassert his authority
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Smoking may be bad for your health, but at Interlagos yesterday it was also harmful to Formula One's credibility. Three times qualifying had to be red flagged while sections of broken Marlboro hoardings were dragged away. Then a rain shower added to the farce, bringing the session to a slightly anti-climactic halt.

Nothing could disguise the same old story up front of McLaren versus Ferrari, however. The Italians came to Brazil bubbling with the confidence that comes from the belief that, after four years of high expectation and ultimate disappointment, they have a car capable of allowing Michael Schumacher to challenge for the world championship right from the start of the season. But the Anglo-Germans remained stubbornly and defensively sure that their cars have an inherent speed advantage for today's Brazilian Grand Prix regardless of the reliability problem they encountered in Melbourne a fortnight ago.

"We know the reason for that," countered Mercedes' sporting director, Norbert Haug. "It was a broken filter in the air compressor that controls the engine's pneumatic valves. We have fixed it and we tested the cure at Silverstone last week, so we should be okay. It's something that shouldn't have happened, but as long as there is motor racing you won't get rid of such problems on a 100 per cent basis."

Haug made no apology for McLaren-Mercedes' philosophy of maximising the race speed of their cars. "Sometimes that brings problems. But we have a long season in front of us and I have to say that I feel quite confident. Certainly it's going to be tough. You know, people say it's a surprise that Ferrari is so strong. It's no surprise for me. For me it was a surprise when Ferrari was a second slower than us. In normal circumstances I should expect Ferrari to be within the same 10th of a second as us. If we can handle that, go for poles and wins on a regular basis, that'll be fine for me."

The gap between McLaren and Ferrari ebbed and flowed throughout practice, spiced by the inter-team rivalries between Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Hakkinen lost no time stamping his initial authority, but Barrichello soon pushed up to displace Coulthard for second as Schumacher uncharacteristically damaged his car with a spell of violent autocrossing. By the time he had been strapped into the spare Ferrari the flow of qualifying was interrupted by the most ludicrous of circumstances as the first chunk of hoarding dropped on to the pit straight.

Coulthard lost little time in displacing Barrichello, and just before the rain Schumacher squeezed ahead of his team mate. But while McLaren won the day, the half second gap that covered the top four cars left little grounds for complacency, especially since qualifying for the second race running did not wholly reflect reality.

Behind them, Flavio Briatore had fresh reason to smile. It is not as if he has ever been away, but there was a new bounce to the former Benetton chief's step this weekend. The man whose antecedents seem to some more mysterious than the Lone Ranger's never actually left the sport after his first spell with Benetton ended ingloriously three seasons back. But the low profile he has maintained since then, as boss of the Supertec engine company, was always a stark contrast to the days when a victorious Michael Schumacher would wrap his legs inelegantly around the grey-haired Italian's thickening waistline in celebration of yet another demoralising triumph in the mid-Nineties.

Now Briatore has returned to prominence as the new chief of Benetton, and the recently announced sale of the team to Renault, for what would seem to be a bargain-basement price of £75m, has imbued the paddock with a fresh optimism at a time when the growing animosity between the evenly matched McLaren and Ferrari teams is the harbinger of yet another season dominated by only two teams. To celebrate, Giancarlo Fisichella did a fine job to take fifth place for Benetton, just ahead of Eddie Irvine's Jaguar.

Honda, Jaguar and BMW are each at a differing stage as they traverse the nursery slopes of F1's Everest. As Irvine flew, team-mate Johnny Herbert was again mechanically troubled and lines up 17th. But there was light for BAR again with local hero Ricardo Zonta eighth behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan, and Jacques Villeneuve 10th. At Williams, meanwhile, there was elation when rookie Jenson Button continued his excellent form convincingly to outqualify Ralf Schumacher as he took ninth on the grid. Button was not the only star in the camp.

McLaren's Ron Dennis has always maintained that there is no magic in F1, but his drivers' performances yesterday gave the lie to that. "Ron says that we lost the race in Australia," Haug said. "I think you can see that quite clearly. We were leading when our cars broke. Guys who were first and second have every right to state they would have been in a position to win, but you can discuss that for hours. Who would have won is of no interest now."

Typically F1, that. The next race is the only one that matters.