Schumacher finds rhythm on tricky track

As days in the office go, it was business as usual for Michael Schumacher here yesterday. The German driver dominated the first practice session for the race that could earn him his third world championship crown.

As days in the office go, it was business as usual for Michael Schumacher here yesterday. The German driver dominated the first practice session for the race that could earn him his third world championship crown.

"We've had a good day, developing the car very nicely," he disclosed cheerfully. "Certainly the work we did at Mugello last week seems to have paid off." Schumacher, who broke down after winning at Monza in September and who stormed to a 42nd career victory in America two weeks ago, had his old stamp of ultra-confidence here on one of the trickiest circuits on the calendar.

Suzuka has a little bit of everything, from a 60 km/h (40 mp/h) chicane to the infamous 130R left-hander which is to Suzuka what Eau Rouge is to Spa-Francorchamps.

Schumacher was super-quick through the corner which nearly claimed him early in his career when he crashed in practice in 1991. The German was taken to the medical centre for a quick check-up, where Professor Sid Watkins offered him some wise counsel.

"You got a good physique, lad," he said, "and you'll make a very nice corpse unless you ease up a little." Schumacher's response then was to go out in team-mate Nelson Piquet's car and to go faster still. Just as yesterday it was to outrun his rivals with insouciant ease.

"The thing that is really different between him and me," his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello vouchsafed with quiet respect, "is that quite amazingly he is flat-out from his first lap. I was brought up to learn that you don't need to do that. I need a lap or two to assess conditions and the car, but he doesn't. He just gets straight into it."

"The circuit seems to suit me," Schumacher admitted with a hint of calculated nonchalance, doubtless designed to unsettle championship rival Mika Hakkinen. "We are particularly strong in the first and third sectors. The most important point for doing a good lap here is to get the right rhythm, because with so many corners following in quick succession, if you get one wrong the following one will also be wrong."

Both Barrichello and David Coulthard carry a heavy load this weekend. Neither can be allowed to race for victory unless their respective team-mates strike trouble; yet both must do everything in their power to back them up.

Both have been at pains to play down the situation. "As far as I'm concerned it's a normal race situation," Barrichello said. "There is no point putting greater pressure on myself. It's clear that Michael and Mika have to fight. If I can help, then I will help Michael 100 per cent, but if I start to think that way now, before we have even qualified, if I try to do something now, that would be wrong. I'd be putting unnecessary pressure on myself."

Coulthard concurred. "People are searching for an answer before the weekend is over. Well there isn't one. All you can do is play it by ear, you can't do anything else. Who knows what might happen? You can't second guess the situation, you just have to do the best you can, and that's what I'll be doing for Mika."

In past seasons the start at Suzuka has seen nerves fail at the crucial moment. In 1988 Ayrton Senna all but stalled on pole position, and then drove a brilliant race to recover from 13th place not only to catch and pass team-mate Alain Prost, but to win his first title. Ten years later Schumacher also stalled on pole position, losing his chance of the championship as he was forced to start from the back of the grid. With memories of his jump-start at Indianapolis fresh in the mind, Coulthard explained the ideal starting technique. "It's best to wait for the red lights to go out," he said laconically.

These are controlled by the FIA's race director, Charlie Whiting. "He builds up a rhythm during the season and you try to match it," Coulthard explained. "You need to prepare yourself, but you can't anticipate. You stare at the lights but don't blink. At Indianapolis I just moved a bit too soon." At one time this season Coulthard appeared to have a serious chance of becoming the first Scottish title holder since Jackie Stewart. It is a supreme irony, therefore, that the only championship he can now win this year will be one for Hakkinen. All Schumacher really needs to do is finish second in the final two races to win the title. But if the Finn wins tomorrow and Coulthard follows him home ahead of the German, and if Hakkinen wins again in Malaysia in a fortnight's time, he would retain the championship for a third consecutive time.

Yesterday Hakkinen and Coulthard made light of being split by the Ferrari drivers, paying it as much attention as the paddock had earlier paid to the minor earth tremor at 1.30 which was the corollary of a quake in Tottori, 500 kilometres north-west, which reached 7.1 on the Richter scale. "I'm confident with the work we have done today, and the balance we achieved was good," Hakkinen said, his manner clearly suggesting that reliance on the relevance of yesterday's times was at best misleading.

Nevertheless, it was impossible not to be impressed by Jenson Button's performance in staking a claim to fifth place on his first run at the track, right behind the leading quartet.

JAPANESE GRAND PRIX (Suzuka), Leading opening practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 37.728sec; 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.339; 3 M Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:38.537; 4 M Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes1:39.010; 5 M Button (GB) Williams-BMW 1:39.111; 6 M Trulli (It) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:39.261; 7 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:39.529; 8 M de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows-Supertec 1:39.547; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 1:39.669; 10 R Zonta (Bra) BAR 1:39.887; 11 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:40.014; 12 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:40.166; 13 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:40.328; 14 N Heidfeld (Germany) Prost-Peugot 1:40.403; 15 M Salo (Fin) Sauber-Petronas 1:40.431; 16 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Supertec 1:40.520; 17 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Supertec 1:40.523; 18 J Herbert (GB) Jaguar-Cosworth 1:40.824; 19 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Supertec 1:40.985; 20 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Pugeot 1:41.014; 21 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Ford 1:41.670; 22 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi-Ford 1:45.238.

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