The second coming of Schumacher Malaysian Grand Prix: Ferrari's talisman returns to poll position and can have a big say in title race

MCLAREN'S WORST nightmare became reality yesterday when Michael Schumacher spearheaded a Ferrari monopoly of the front row of the grid for Malaysia's first Grand Prix. In a triumphant return to active duty following the broken leg he sustained in July, Schumacher demonstrated conclusively that he has lost none of his speed by lapping almost a second faster than his team-mate Eddie Irvine, as the McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen struggled in their wake.

MCLAREN'S WORST nightmare became reality yesterday when Michael Schumacher spearheaded a Ferrari monopoly of the front row of the grid for Malaysia's first Grand Prix. In a triumphant return to active duty following the broken leg he sustained in July, Schumacher demonstrated conclusively that he has lost none of his speed by lapping almost a second faster than his team-mate Eddie Irvine, as the McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen struggled in their wake.

Schumacher was inevitably asked what help he would afford Irvine in his championship quest, and he replied: "Eddie is clever and fast enough to do a lot for himself, but I'll do everything I can to help as long as it's fair and within the rules. It doesn't matter if I'm the champion or he is, so long as we score the goal."

For his part, Irvine said: "Of course I'm pleased to see Michael back. Provided he does the job he is here to do." It remains to be seen what that might be.

Schumacher pronounced himself 100 per cent fit after qualifying, but said he had not expected pole position. "To be one second ahead was clearly surprising," he admitted, "though the car is very good here."

The choice of tyre compound could have a crucial effect this afternoon, even if it rains. Most of the teams appeared quite content to run Bridgestone's "super-soft" tyre choice, despite ambient temperatures which reached 32C in qualifying, and track temperatures which soared as high as 47. Naturally, the softer the tyre a team can run the better, because it allows more grip on the corners; the flipside can be reduced longevity. But if a team can get away with running the softer tyres and keep them alive long enough to maintain their efficiency between refuelling stops, there will be an advantage over the optional harder rubber. And it goes deeper than that. At this time of year it tends to rain every afternoon in this region, and the chances of that happening at some stage of the race are extremely high. As in the recent Grand Prix of Europe at the Nürburgring, if drivers have to stay out on a wet track on dry tyres, the softer rubber confers further advantage.

The whole subject has been particularly vexatious here for McLaren, who were alone among the teams which appeared to struggle on the softer rubber during free practice on Saturday morning. Hakkinen and Coulthard worked hard to hone the silver cars to the challenging Sepang track as their team chief Ron Dennis anticipated the possibility of trading off some speed on harder tyres in qualifying in return for potentially better race performance.

For Ferrari, Schumacher and Irvine seemed perfectly at home on the soft Bridgestones. The mood is tense in both camps as the title battle hots up, and the Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt admitted privately: "You could not believe the pressure that we are under here."

McLaren's worst fears were realised the moment that Schumacher assumed command early in qualifying. Only Irvine came close to challenging him, and such was the superiority of the red cars that they used only eight of their allotted 12 laps. In contrast the McLaren drivers flogged round for an even dozen laps apiece, with Hakkinen overcoming Coulthard's initial advantage to take third place. Right until the dying moments the European GP winner Johnny Herbert upset the symmetry at the front of the grid in his Stewart-Ford, but a final effort by Coulthard saw the Scot squeeze back in front by one-tenth of a second. Herbert's team-mate Rubens Barrichello was sixth fastest.

Qualifying was little short of a disaster for the fourth championship contender, HeinzHarald Frentzen. His first run came to an inglorious halt for the most unusual reason, as he was momentarily distracted under braking when the protective padding surrounding his cockpit worked loose and struck him on the head. After spinning off the track and stalling the engine he was obliged to run back to the pits to take over the spare Jordan, only to discover that it was afflicted by a brake problem. He lost further time while this was rectified, but was never really happy with the car and lines up in only 14th position. "I'm really disappointed to be so low down the grid," Frentzen said, "But the weekend is not over."

So will Schumacher disappear today to underline what might have happened had he not had his accident? Or will he be the team player and ride shotgun ahead of the McLarens as Irvine builds a victory that would be crucial to his championship aspirations?

"You know, I really think that Monza and the Nürburgring have affected Mika psychologically," Schumacher said. "I've seen him out on the track a few times this weekend and his driving does not look as strong to me as it usually does."

That might simply be one rival trying to destabilise another, or there may be a grain of truth in the observation. Hakkinen may have engineered himself a race-day advantage. But whatever happens, he faces a hard road this afternoon if he is to preserve his championship lead going into the final race.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat