Schumacher dismisses Irvine title bid

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MIKA HAKKINEN and his McLaren-Mercedes in front and Ferrari not so far behind; the indications are that it will come down to a straight fight between the Finn and Eddie Irvine for both tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe and for the world championship.

MIKA HAKKINEN and his McLaren-Mercedes in front and Ferrari not so far behind; the indications are that it will come down to a straight fight between the Finn and Eddie Irvine for both tomorrow's Grand Prix of Europe and for the world championship.

Irvine was fourth fastest in practice yesterday while his Ferrari team- mate, Mika Salo, was second, confirming that the scarlet cars will be better suited to this circuit than they were to the high-speed stretches of Monza a fortnight ago.

As significant as Ferrari's progress was, the backward momentum of the Jordan-Mugen-Hondas was in line with Heinz-Harald Frentzen's fears that he will be unable to sustain his title challenge. The German was 12th and although he lost most of the first hour with a gear box problem, his car is patently less effective here.

The other theoretical contender, David Coulthard in the second McLaren, was sixth and apparently consigned to a peripheral role. He contends that he is still in the hunt and, should both Hakkinen and Irvine fall by the wayside tomorrow, the opportunity would present itself to the Scotsman.

However, it now seems inconceivable that McLaren would be prepared to compromise Hakkinen's prospects, especially with Ferrari back in business. Coulthard will doubtless be instructed to assist his partner's cause if, that is, he is in a position to do so.

Salo will unhesitatingly move over for his team-mate if the situation arises, so everything points to a Hakkinen-Irvine confrontation, with the latter doubtless hoping for another lapse by the McLaren team or their lead driver. Michael Schumacher, the indisposed Ferrari No 1, envisages no other hope for Irvine. The McLaren remains the best car and Hakkinen's 11 poles from 13 races are proof enough of his pace. The German believes it is a championship for Hakkinen to lose.

"Mika has to be favourite to win the championship," Schumacher said. "McLaren should win it because they are stronger and their car ought to give them the advantage for the rest of the season. They have made mistakes and I think the only way Ferrari can win the championship is if McLaren go on making mistakes. I cannot see Jordan winning either. If circumstances are normal the only logical winner is Mika."

That Schumacher should have chosen the eve of this important race - only two more follow - on which to give his state of the championship address, is being seen in some quarters as further proof of the rift between him and Irvine.

If it was meant to undermine the Ulsterman's confidence it appears to have failed. Irvine, no back marker when it comes to playing mind games, used Schumacher's words to massage a few egos inside the Ferrari camp.

"What Michael says is not important. What matters is what happens here on the track on Sunday," Irvine said. "All I can say is that he obviously has less faith in Ferrari than I do. I know my mechanics, my engineers and the whole team never stop working for me, as they never stopped working for him."

What Schumacher says, of course, is what most observers believe, but clearly he would be irked to see Irvine win the championship. It was Schumacher's mission to bring the title to Ferrari. He doubtless feels he would have made better use of McLaren's errors and built a decisive lead.

Schumacher, who broke a leg in the British Grand Prix 11 weeks ago, is due to test again on 7 October with a view to making his competitive return in Malaysia, 10 days later.

He has declared his willingness to follow team instructions and assist Irvine if required, but few believe he could bring himself to play the subservient role. If he does not race he does not have the problem, hence the suspicion he will not expose himself to such an awkward situation.

"Malaysia is still the target but at the moment I cannot be sure about that," Schumacher said. "We have to see what happens when I drive the car again. I am training but I am still not 100 per cent fit. I have to be guided by the doctors. There will be no point in taking any unnecessary risks."

Ferrari's commitment to Irvine's cause in pursuit of the championship has been questioned on the grounds they would not wish to see him take the champion's No 1 plate to Jaguar. Such claims have met with repeated rebuttals from Maranello.

Johnny Herbert, in a Stewart-Ford, was 13th and Damon Hill, who lost time after a puncture sent his Jordan spinning into a barrier, was 14th.

NuRBURGRING PRACTICE TIMESEUROPEAN GRAND PRIX Provisional times (after opening practice session): 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1min 20.758sec (ave speed 203.095kph/126.200mph); 2 M Salo (Fin) Ferrari, 1:20.920; 3 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot, 1:21.134; 4 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari, 1:21.338; 5 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-Supertec 1:21.385; 6 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:21.461; 7 R Barrichello (Br) Stewart-Ford, 1:21.505; 8 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife, 1:21.636; 9 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot, 1:21.750; 10 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Supertec, 1:21.850; 11 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas, 1:21.850; 12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda, 1:21.983; 13 J Herbert (GB) Stewart-Ford, 1:21.982; 14 D Hill (GB) Jordan-Mugen-Honda, 1:22.207; 15 L Badoer (It) Minardi- Ford, 1:22.311; 16 A Zanardi (It) Williams-Supertec, 1:22.321; 17 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife, 1:22.427; 18 P Diniz (Br) Sauber-Petronas, 1:22.462; 19 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows, 1:22.853; 20 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford, 1:22.872; 21 R Zonta (Br) BAR-Supertec, 1:23.604; 22 T Takagi (Japan) Arrows, 1:24.282.

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