Motoracing: McLaren take their front-row seats

Late Mika Hakkinen charge leaves Ferrari feeling short-changed at San Marino GP
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The Independent Online
MIKA HAKKINEN'S pole positions are usually rather more clear-cut than his latest was in Imola yesterday, when both David Coulthard and Michael Schumacher felt short-changed.

If the German, in particular, was a professional poker player, instead of opting for the financially rewarding task of trying to coax maximum performance out of the second-best car in F1, he'd be a multiple world champion. His continuing ability not only to disguise whatever frustration he must be feeling but also to indulge in ultimate bluff, is worthy of the greatest card sharp.

"I'm upset that I made a small mistake on my last lap," he said, "because otherwise I'd have been on pole." A little economical with the truth, that, for even before the error, the split times had revealed him to be slower than Hakkinen's best. But hey, this autodromo is named after Enzo Ferrari and his fated son, Dino, so if a Ferrari driver can't indulge in a little poetic licence here.

Schumacher's self-control is as impressive off the track as it has become on it since he appeared to learn the lesson of his ill-advised lunge at Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez, two seasons ago. To be the best, as he still clearly is, and yet to have only the second-best machinery, is patently not a situation a man of his calibre is prepared to tolerate indefinitely. Ferrari is long past delivering on the plentiful pledges of a 10th drivers' world title that it has made at the beginning of the last three seasons. Each race now features Schumacher's regular mantra, a pre-event build- up describing in not-too-specific detail Ferrari's latest developments, with a little top spin to suggest that they might just provide the breakthrough necessary to topple McLaren. In there somewhere is a smattering of reality, and a gentle prod to the team's design engineers that it is past time that they gave him something not just equal to, but better than, the Mercedes- powered silver bullets of Hakkinen and Coulthard.

Schumacher says he is committed to Ferrari until he quits F1. But like the late Ayrton Senna, whose name is sadly synonymous with Imola, he is not a man designed to finish second or third. Schumacher is a natural winner, and he is getting fed up with second-row starting positions.

Naturally, the Italian fans continue to believe with religious fervour in the legendary scuderia, to judge by the myriad banners around this charismatic venue. But they, too, are getting impatient. When the Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo stood up in Maranello earlier this season, to launch the new F399 and to make his habitual promise to capture Ferrari's first drivers' crown since Jody Scheckter's in 1979, he faced more than the usual degree of rank scepticism.

When the McLarens ran riot yet again on Friday, Schumacher's body language said it all. "Yes," he admitted grudgingly, "we have been encouraged by our recent testing. But F1 never stands still, so we won't know until qualifying and the race whether we have made any real progress."

His pearls of wisdom were distributed to the media, but always there is the impression that his words carry a message for the remaining old- style emotional members of Ferrari who have yet to be converted by the phlegmatic philosophy of their sporting director Jean Todt, technical director Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne, and for whom complacency or despair lie treacherously in the shadows like strong drink tempting a reformed alcoholic.

Yesterday afternoon Schumacher electrified qualifying with a fabulous performance, and it was not until the dying moments of the hour-long session that the McLarens could lay safe claim to the front row of the grid. Pushed back by the on-form Coulthard, Hakkinen was third fastest with seven minutes to go, before thrusting himself to his 13th pole position with a time that undercut his team-mate's by less than a tenth of a second. "If I hadn't been baulked by one of the BARs, I'd have beaten Mika this time," said the disappointed Scot, who lost out in the end by twenty-two hundredths of a second. But Hakkinen, too, was convinced he could have gone faster still had he not over-stressed his tyres early in his last effort. If F1 is indeed, as the FIA president Max Mosley suggests, a chess game, these guys certainly have their verbal strategies off pat.

Schumacher, meanwhile, finished a menacing couple of tenths further back, leaving them little room for complacency. It was, indeed, stirring stuff. But how much of it was the product of Schumacher's remarkable ability, and how much Ferrari's technical improvement? "Let's wait and see what happens," was all he would say.

Eddie Irvine continues to have a ball. Yesterday, attending their first grand prix of the season, Ed Snr and Kathleen watched their son take fourth place, less than half a second off Schumacher, ahead of Jacques Villeneuve and Rubens Barrichello. The 1997 world champion gave the new BAR team their best starting position in their short three-race life.

McLaren should still be superior in race trim, but with question marks over the reliability of their seven-speed transmission, and the forecast of rain, the result may not be a foregone conclusion. Given a reliable run, Irvine can ride shotgun for Schumacher, staying within the terms of his contract, and still leave Imola in the lead of the world championship.

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