Ferrari maintained their early season ascendancy here yesterday as Formula One grappled with a fresh allegation of foul deeds.
On the track Michael Schumacher, winner of the first two races, and his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, were fastest in practice for tomorrow's San Marino Grand Prix.
In the pits and paddock drivers, engineers and managers were digesting a revelation by Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, the sport's governing body, that a team had broken regulations last season by operating a form of traction control.
"We became aware of this over the winter," Mosley said. "We do not have 100 per cent proof, but we are sure enough it is something we have to put a stop to."
Mosley refused to identify the team but said he believed the device "did not materially affect the outcome of the championship". A retrospective penalty was a possibility. Mika Hakkinen, of McLaren-Mercedes, won the drivers' title and Ferrari headed the constructors' standings.
The sport's authorities have been on the case for some time and are determined to ensure this season's championship is untainted. To that end Mosley has called a meeting with the teams before the British Grand Prix, in a fortnight, to reach agreement on engine management system regulations that can be readily policed. It is believed teams are capable of producing electronics which provide the benefits of illegal traction control, improving grip and increasing lap speeds.
Mosley said: "We are no longer prepared to take on trust the word of major companies that rules will not be broken. It is unacceptable if some teams are not adhering to the rules. We have to end this culture of infringement and cut the wires, figuratively speaking. We have to safeguard the human contest."
The initiative was welcomed by Eddie Jordan, whose team were third in last year's championship. Jordan said: "We don't want that kind of racing and Max is right. How can one or two guys at the FIA be expected to contend with the combined brainpower of 30 boffins in a team."
Mosley and his cohorts have been accused of favouring Ferrari's cause, but he was adamant in his denial. "Absolutely not. We go out of our way to be fair," he said. "We do like to see the championship go to the last race but there is no way we can influence that."
Ferrari successfully appealed against disqualification in Malaysia last season, while McLaren's David Coulthard failed in his attempt to be reinstated in second place at the Brazilian Grand Prix, a fortnight ago.
To the delight of the locals, Ferrari dominated practice yesterday. Coulthard was third and Hakkinen sixth, behind the Jordan-Mugen pair, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli.
Schumacher, 0.373sec ahead of Barrichello, said: "We have had a better first day than we did at the first two races. We can get pole position here."
McLaren expressed frustration that a succession of spins interrupted the flow of their preparation but Coulthard said: "I'm confident we can achieve a good result here."
Johnny Herbert was an encouraging seventh in the Jaguar, five places in front of his team-mate, Eddie Irvine. Jenson Button, now credited with his first point in Brazil, had a more taxing day, stranded 20th with a broken engine in his Williams-BMW.
San Marino Grand Prix Free practice session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 26.994sec (ave speed 126.922 mph, 204.255 kph); 2 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:27.317; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren 1:27.372; 4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan 1:27.730; 5 J Trulli (It) Jordan 1:27.795; 6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:28.021; 7 J Herbert (GB) Jaguar 1:28.139; 8 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:28.236; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams 1:28.372; 10 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:28.444; 11 M Salo (Fin) Sauber 1:28.555; 12 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:28.566; 13 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton 1:28.771; 14 J Alesi (Fr) Prost 1:28.950; 15 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi 1:28.952; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows 1:28.975; 17 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1:29.097; 18 N Heidfeld (Ger) Prost 1:29.113; 19 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber 1:29.307; 20 J Button (GB) Williams 1:29.326; 21 M Gene (Sp) Minardi 1:29.412; 22 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 7:53.474.
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