Schumacher prays for rain as Montoya surges to pole

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The Independent Online

Marks & Spencer, Tate & Lyle, Benson & Hedges. Inseparable names all. And when it's Belgian Grand Prix time, you can add Spa and rain.

The Hautes Fagnes region of Belgium has one of the world's greatest race tracks, and one of the most predictable weather patterns. It rained here during free practice on Friday, and Saturday morning's free practice was delayed because safety helicopters could not take off due to low cloud.

Nevertheless, Michael Schumacher loves the place where he made his sensational, if short-lived, debut in 1991. One year later it yielded him his first victory, and had he not been denied triumph in 1994 through a technical infringement he would have enjoyed a clean sweep through to 1997.

"Coming to Spa as world champion is without a doubt very special for both me and our team," he said. "As I have said very often, I just love to race at Spa. This circuit is by far my most favourite one.

"Some people have asked me if I wouldn't have preferred to finish the championship here, where I had my debut in F1, where I had my first victory and where I have a lot of German fans to support me, as it is not too far away from where I was born. But I think arriving here with the title in the pocket is a good idea. I am really looking forward to racing here with this kind of relieved feeling after winning the championship." Yet Spa also holds dark memories for the champion. In 1998 he followed running into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren with accusations that the Scot had tried to kill him by driving slowly on the racing line.

Curiously, Schumacher let himself get trapped in a similar incident in the rain on Friday, when he ran into the back of Pedro de la Rosa's Jaguar on the downhill approach to the Eau Rouge corner, which everyone agrees is F1's ultimate test of a driver's courage and commitment. In the dry, the aces take it flat in sixth or seventh gear, peaking at 300kmh (186mph) before the track momentarily dips left then flicks right in a dramatic climb,twisting left at its peak.

"It's like flying through the air and suddenly you are confronted with a steep mountain," Schumacher said. "If you can stay flat through there, it is the most satisfying thing you can achieve as a racing driver." On this occasion there was no question of staying flat, yet Schumacher ran into the Spaniard's tail.

"It was the usual one where you are running in spray," Schumacher shrugged. "You have no chance to judge the distance nor to see the rear light. All you see is the spray. I was being careful because I knew there was a risk of aquaplaning, so I was not going flat out. For whatever reason, I just had a feeling he might be going slowly, which is why at the last moment I moved over, even though I could not see anything. By then it was already too late. I could not avoid him." The incident raised fresh concerns about a wet race.

The rain finally abated for qualifying, but bequeathed a track that was initially damp enough to discourage anyone from venturing out. Later, as it dried, the session became a lottery, a matter of who judged best the moment to switch from wet tyres to intermediates, and then, for the real aces, to dry weather rubber. With conditions improving by the lap, this was no sinecure.

While the track was at its wettest, Schumacher had predictably been peerless, putting the McLaren drivers, Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, in their place with ease. But with 10 minutes left some gambled on dry tyres and times tumbled dramatically. Up to the front spurted the Michelin-shod BMW Williamses of Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen heaped elation upon the Prost team with a perfectly timed run to bring his car into fourth place on the grid.

Events took a dramatic turn, however, as McLaren chief Ron Dennis protested that some 16 cars – among them the BMW Williamses and Schumacher – had contravened regulations by going faster while a section of the track was under yellow caution flags after Nick Heidfeld's Sauber stopped with a transmission problem. Arguments raged as evening shadows lengthened; the drivers concerned faced hhaving their fastest times disallowed. Dennis' protest was eventually thrown out and all concerned breathed a sigh of relief.

As the world champion pondered the likelihood of a wet race – his best chance of overcoming the grunt of BMW's engines on a power circuit – Justin Wilson was finally able to celebrate Britain's first F3000 championship. In two weeks' time the lanky 23 year-old will test drive a Jordan F1 car for the first time. And no doubt it will cross his mind what a similar opportunity led to for the German a decade ago.

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