Schumacher back up to speed as Dennis issues 'foul play' warning

RON DENNIS, the McLaren chief, yesterday made a thinly veiled plea for fair play as the battle for the world championship nears its climax. Perhaps subconsciously remembering the controversial circumstances that tainted the series nine years ago, when the late Ayrton Senna simply drove his McLaren into the back of Alain Prost's Ferrari at Suzuka and thereby made sure of his second crown, Dennis said: "What I don't expect are any professional fouls from either of the teams. Ours is a sport coming more and more into the spotlight and I feel that the outcome of the world championship will be fair. I do not think we will see any of the teams using their drivers in an aggressive way."

RON DENNIS, the McLaren chief, yesterday made a thinly veiled plea for fair play as the battle for the world championship nears its climax. Perhaps subconsciously remembering the controversial circumstances that tainted the series nine years ago, when the late Ayrton Senna simply drove his McLaren into the back of Alain Prost's Ferrari at Suzuka and thereby made sure of his second crown, Dennis said: "What I don't expect are any professional fouls from either of the teams. Ours is a sport coming more and more into the spotlight and I feel that the outcome of the world championship will be fair. I do not think we will see any of the teams using their drivers in an aggressive way."

Last month the Ferrari stand-in driver Mika Salo was quoted in a Finnish newspaper as saying that, if necessary, he would take his fellow countryman and the championship leader, Mika Hakkinen, off the track in order to help his team-mate Eddie Irvine to win the title. However, despite a history of bad feeling between the two Finnish drivers, the remark was generally accepted as an off-the-cuff joke that backfired. Salo has since clarified the comment and made it clear that he would not be party to such tactics.

Nevertheless, the Williams team were outraged when Ferrari deliberately used Salo as a spoiler in the Belgian Grand Prix in August, to balk their driver Ralf Schumacher and frustrate any chance he had of mounting a challenging on Irvine. The return of Michael Schumacher in place of Salo, in a bid to boost Ferrari's chances of winning the championship for constructors, has been interpreted as an attempt to introduce a wild card to deprive the McLaren drivers, Hakkinen and his team-mate David Coulthard, of points. The bottom line is that in any wheel-to-wheel confrontation, Hakkinen cannot afford to play it rough with other drivers, whereas Schumacher, who surrendered his championship chances when he crashed at Silverstone in July, has nothing to lose.

As the Formula One cars took to Malaysia's Sepang track for the first time yesterday, it was Jacques Villeneuve who unexpectedly stole the limelight for British-American Racing, who have yet to score a single championship point this season. As the former champion boosted the team's morale, the championship protagonists focused on learning the secrets of the track and for the umpteenth time Dennis repeated the Friday refrain: "It's easy to be tempted into wasting tyres in Friday practice."

Neither McLaren nor Ferrari chose to use more than one set of tyres. Villeneuve, however, also claimed to have set his time on old rubber, which bodes well for a team who must score at least a point for sixth place in the remaining two races if it is to save £6m on its travel costs in 2000 and not be penalised for finishing this season pointless.

Hakkinen appeared unconcerned to finish the day in only eighth position, six places below team-mate Coulthard and behind the Ferraris of Irvine, who was fourth, and Schumacher, who delivered the fifth-best time. All of them praised the challenging nature of this new venue, 50 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur, on which no expense has been spared to create new standards.

McLaren are still smarting from the errors that denied them victory in the Grand Prix of Europe in Germany three weeks ago, but the team are habitually at their most dangerous in such circumstances and a quiet air of determination pervades their garage. Hakkinen can clinch his second consecutive title this weekend if he wins and Irvine is placed no better than fifth, though on yesterday's form Ferrari now appear much better equipped to give their long-standing rivals a hard fight.

Both teams have come loaded for battle this weekend, with four cars apiece, two per driver. But Sepang is very similar in character to the track at Barcelona, where McLaren are traditionally dominant and where last week the team conducted what was described as "a very satisfactory test".

Following the error that sent him sliding out of the GP of Europe, Coulthard is likely to receive orders to assist Hakkinen, if Ferrari get too close. Dennis, however, continued to be evasive on the subject. "We have the ability to use team orders at any grand prix, and that has never been any different," he said. "If it is appropriate to optimise our position to win both championships, we will do that. The only thing that Mika can do if we do it right, is win the race, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will win the championship."

Meanwhile, Irvine received an unexpected fillip from his former boss Eddie Jordan, who maintained that he would make a sensational world champion. "For one year he will be amazing," Jordan said yesterday, before adding: "But one year may be enough, I think. I fall in love with Eddie very easily, and fall out of love with him just as easily. The time span for that is usually 18 months, so given that any world champion's reign is usually 12 months, that should be OK. He would be very good for sport - in certain ways."

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX (Sepang) Early practice times: 1 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec 1min 42.407sec (ave spd: 194.822kmh/121.764mph); 2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:42.519; 3 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:42.701; 4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:42.725; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:42.875; 6 P Paolo Diniz (Bra) Saube 1:43.006; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:43.042; 8 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 1:43.153; 9 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Supertec 1:43.311; 10 J Herbert (GB) Stewart 1:43.349; 11 G Fisichella (It) Benetton 1:43.403; 12 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:43.417; 13 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:43.500; 14 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:43.677; 15 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:43.793; 16 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:44.818; 17 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Supertec 1:44.968; 18 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:45.164; 19 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows 1:45.397; 20 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec 1:45.833; 21 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows 1:46.690; 22 M Gene (Sp) Minardi1:49.451.

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