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.

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