Schumacher is waiting in the wings

San Marino Grand Prix: Ferrari's home run a red rag to a bullish Hakkinen as technical dispute rages on
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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher might have been quoted a little out of context when he said on Friday: "We can get pole position here, just as was the case in Australia and Brazil", for that honour had fallen to Mika Hakkinen and McLarenMercedes in both opening races. But the Ferrari driver's message was clear: on their home ground the red cars could be expected to attack.

But try though he might, the German could not quite wrest fastest time from Hakkinen as F1's European season kicked off with the first conclusive qualifying session in three races.

If there was a measure of bad feeling between the two title-contending teams in Melbourne and Interlagos, the inference that McLaren were having to run "legal" front wings and were therefore off the pace in the first practice sessions was guaranteed to maintain the mutual animosity at a high level.

Ferrari came to Imola with their heads held high after Schumacher's victories. McLaren, however, were still quietly smarting following the rejection of their appeal against David Coulthard's exclusion for inadvertently running too low a front wing in Brazil. But the British team are never more dangerous than when they are being backed into a corner and Hakkinen bounced to the top of the timesheets yesterday afternoon.

"I must admit that I was on the absolute limit during my final run," he conceded. "I really pushed in the last couple of corners because I felt I might be slightly down after the first two sectors." He need not have worried. The man whom some believe to be the best qualifier in the business had done enough.

Schumacher had set the ball rolling, establishing the baseline of 1min 25.677sec soon after qualifying began. Hakkinen was only a few tenths slower, but then Coulthard shaved four tenths from Schumacher's time. Hakkinen was the first to dip below 1min 25sec, with Schumacher soon following but not quite able to match the McLaren. Coulthard just missed the elite bracket.

"I'm upset with myself,' Schumacher admitted. "I made a bad mistake at Ravazza on my third run. Up to that point it had been a very exciting lap and I was ahead."

It was interesting to note that the tifosi who packed Imola in the hope of a Ferrari success were once again cool in their acknowledgement of the German. They cheered Rubens Barrichello, even though his best lap was a nearly half a second slower than his team-mate, for whom they reserved polite applause. For all his speed, and for all that the tifosi love chargers, they have yet to take to Michael Schumacher.

His brother Ralf's superb performance in placing a Williams-BMW fifth, ahead of the Jordans of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli was in danger of being overlooked. While his team-mate Jensen Button's learning curve on this tricky circuit was not helped by mechanical problems which cost most of the morning's running, Schumacher Minor timed his run just right; his BMW engine expired afterwards. There was a ray of light too for Jaguar, with Eddie Irvine again enjoying a reliable run to separate the Jordans, but Johnny Herbert's miserable fortune continued thanks to a split exhaust pipe.

Qualifying provided a welcome relief from the weekend's other talking point, which arose following the ambiguous remarks of the governing body president, Max Mosley, on Friday. The FIA chief accused one team of cheating during the 1999 season - "Only one?" cynics asked - though naturally, without conclusive proof, hedid not elect to identify thealleged culprit.

Referring to proposed modifications to the rules governing engine electronics, Mosley said: "There is nothing worse in any form of motor sport than a culture of infringement of the regulations. Because, as soon as that happens, a completely honest man who doesn't want to cheat is put in the position where he has to if he wishes to be competitive.

"It happened at one stage in the World Rally Championship, but we stopped it. There were beginning to be signs that it might be happening in F1 and we're absolutely determined to stop it because it is the most unpleasant culture that can develop."

Mosley said that the FIA became aware over the winter that a team had been cheating. "We don't have 100 per cent proof, but we are sure enough to know it's something we have to put a stop to. We found it during our auditing procedure. It was very complex."

Though speculating on the miscreants' identity became something of a sport itself, Williams's technical director Patrick Head, whose team were not the one in question, provided a measured response.

"I have heard some things that have been said, that we know one team were cheating but can't prove it," he said. "I think in law you have to be very careful. It's easy to come out with small innuendos that can push the views of people in a certain direction."

Meanwhile, sweet assurances offered by Mosley did not dissuade cynics in other teams from the point of view that Ferrari are favoured by the governing body. It remains to be seen whether today's race, which holds all the promiseof a dogfight between theevenly matched McLaren and Ferrari teams, will throw further fuel on to that particular fire.