Schumacher hits the skids

Hill fails to capitalise on world champion's error as Ferraris of Berger and Alesi charge to head of grid
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FLAVIO BRIATORE, the Benetton team chief, would have killed for a little dry weather in Belgium yesterday, when a rain shower just after the start of final qualifying caught him on the hop.

As the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi sped to the fastest times in a desperate and successful bid to beat the rain, Michael Schumacher was recovering from a huge accident earlier in the day which had left Benetton with the task of rebuilding his car during the one-and-a-half hour break between sessions.

The demanding Spa-Francorchamps circuit can be a fickle mistress, as Schumacher found to his cost. The world champion was fortunate to escape without injury after his crash on the exit to the Les Combes corner, which is taken at 100mph. The German made a costly driving error and was a passenger as his car was thrown into a head-on collision with the protective tyre wall. The McLaren driver Mark Blundell was following at the time, and confirmed later: "That was a seriously big accident. He was very lucky."

When the rain arrived yesterday afternoon it seemed that Schumacher would have to rely on his Friday time, which had also been set on a wet track, and momentarily he had the humbling experience of sharing the ninth row of the grid with the Pacific-Ford conducted by the tardy Sicilian driver Gianni Lavaggi, whose name translates into English as "Johnny Carwash".

When the track dried midway through the session, Schumacher was able to hoist himself to a more respectable ninth place, but electronic problems then stymied his efforts to improve further. And as others increased their speed he slipped down the grid to 16th place, his worst starting position.

As he suffered, Dame Fortune made up for frowning on his team-mate, Johnny Herbert. The Briton had been caught out in the rain on Friday morning. A head-on collision with the crash barriers had also prevented him from running again that day. This had capped an unhappy week in which he was publicly criticised by the Ligier chief, Tom Walkinshaw, who questioned his commitment to winning races. It was thus a timely rise in fortune when the underrated driver, the winner of the British Grand Prix, redeemed himself by setting an excellent fourth place yesterday to share the second row with his former Lotus team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, who has continued to impress in the improving McLaren-Mercedes.

Berger, who is 36 today and due to make a decision this week on whether to stay and partner Schumacher at Ferrari in 1996, took his opportunity at precisely the right time. "I knew that I needed to set a time," he said, "and to make no mistakes. I played on the safe side to be sure I got the lap. But I collect my present tomorrow."

Alesi was the luckiest man in Spa. For, after his engine broke in the morning and he spun just after setting the second fastest time, the track never quite dried enough for anyone to threaten his position. It will be of little consolation to Schumacher that Damon Hill was another to err. In the tricky wet/dry conditions he was baulked on his best lap and later backed his Williams-Renault into a tyre wall. That leaves him in eighth place alongside Eddie Irvine, and a row behind his team-mate, David Coulthard, who is fifth.

Hill is keenly aware that he threw away an opportunity by spinning, and there was an echo of his words after the similar mistake which cost him the lead of the German Grand Prix when he said: "The back just stepped out at the bottom of the hill. I'm mystified. As far as performance goes it got messy, and I didn't capitalise on Michael's situation."

Schumacher's mistake has again placed a question mark over his fallibility under pressure. A month ago he seemed to be heading towards a second world championship. After Hill's victory in Hungary, however, the situation has changed. "Michael is now having to face the possibility of losing something that only recently had looked secure," Hill said. "He could be feeling a little more twitchy."

Fickle or not, Spa has been enhanced by modifications that have restored glory to the Eau Rouge corner, which was last year spoiled by the insertion of a chicane. The curve plunges downhill before a steep climb and remains one of the great challenges of Formula One. It is part of the charisma of a glorious circuit where overtaking is actually possible, something that the title contenders Hill and Schumacher will be doing their best to underline today.