Reluctant Ferrari in the spotlight

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The Independent Online
This time the spotlight turned on Eddie Irvine, his late charge claiming top place on the time sheets. He was, however, reluctant to bask, maintaining he and Ferrari were miscast as potential pace-setters for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix.

More significantly, Irvine's team-mate, Michael Schumacher, on pole for the last two races, acknowledged a logical order had been restored to proceedings. Williams were looking good, ominously good, and both their drivers were contrastingly upbeat.

Damon Hill, fourth in yesterday's unofficial practice, was conspicuously content, and his partner, Jacques Villeneuve, sixth, defiantly talked a good championship, insisting he and perhaps Schumacher still had the prospect of challenging the Englishman for the title.

Irvine said a test session earlier this week had given him more confidence in the Ferrari, yet had done nothing to convince him he was ready to win a race. "Anybody can win, as Olivier Panis proved at Monaco, but I'm not in a position to be looking for a genuine win," the Ulsterman argued.

"The car is still very difficult to drive. You have to work at it every metre, which isn't the right way. Every metre the car changes. It is impossible to get this car the way I need it."

Schumacher, buoyed by recent improvements, was distinctly subdued yesterday afternoon. Although he was sandwiched between the two Williams, he felt they were in another league.

"You look at the cars and you see the difference," the champion said. "The Williams is always very steady, even over the ripples. Ours becomes very hard to drive over these bumps.

"Monaco was a particular circuit, but here we are back to a normal situation. I'm not saying we can't win and I think qualifying will be close. For us, though, it will be very tough to beat Williams."

Hill's smug expression suggested he was thinking much the same as his old adversary. The championship leader said: "You can have a bit of fun on Fridays now because no one knows what's going on. I'm happy because I know what we are doing. Panis is third again today and driving well, and it's good to see another factor in the equation, but I would expect Benetton and Michael to be good here before the weekend is over."

Villeneuve, trailing Hill by 21 points, has lost some of his gloss after that precocious debut in Australia and victory at the Nurburgring, but none of his conviction. The Canadian said: "I'm more on the pace here than I was at the Nurburgring. I've done a day of testing at this circuit and it obviously helps. In fact, the only bad patch I've had was at Monaco, but the higher you are, the faster you fall. I still feel just as confident and that everything is going to plan. I think the championship is still wide open. There's still hope for me and Michael. Twenty-one points might sound a lot, but that can disappear in two races."

Johnny Herbert in a Sauber Ford was 12th, Martin Brundle, driving a Jordan Peugeot, was 15th and David Coulthard, of McLaren Mercedes, 19th.