Schumacher holds the aces

Canadian Grand Prix: The assured world champion quickly seizes the initiative to lead the pack again
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IT HAD been billed as an opportunity for Ferrari to push that little bit further, and for Williams-Renault to level the score after the embarrassing defeat by Michael Schumacher two weeks ago in Monte Carlo, but so far the Canadian Grand Prix has once again seen the world champion holding the best cards.

The supremely confident German dealt summarily with all challengers on Friday, while the threat of rain yesterday added an extra edge to proceedings, and even when the second day remained dry he stayed ahead. As the rumours of a $20m (pounds 12.8m) pay offer from Ferrari continued to eddy round the paddock, Schumacher simply concentrated on extracting the best from a Benetton-Renault that looked as smooth as its Williams rivals looked twitchy. How times have changed since the opening races in Brazil and Argentina.

Ferrari arrived at the circuit, named in honour of their former star Gilles Villeneuve, nursing wounds from Monaco that had compromised chances of running the latest engines and aerodynamics, which Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi had been confident would draw them level.

As Schumacher came in below 1min 28sec to wrest back the advantage from the Scot, David Coulthard, Berger frantically tried to make up for time lost in morning practice when his Ferrari had stranded him out on the track with a pneumatic valve fault after a mere three laps. Within three laps of afternoon qualifying, however, one of his typically bold efforts had reaped the second-fastest time, but when the big push to try and beat Schumacher's eventual 1min 27.661sec best came close to the end, a problem with his car's refuelling equipment created a critical delay. Berger managed one lap to warm everything up, but the chequered flag was shown two frustrating seconds before he was able to start his pukka qualifying lap.

"If the flag hadn't beaten me, I am sure I could have got under the 1min 28sec and got on to the front row, and the split times proved that," he said.

Instead, Damon Hill, riddled with a head cold, recovered from a spin in the morning to fight his Williams-Renault to the other provisional front-row slot, with a lap of 1min 28.083sec. It was ragged and unsatisfactory, but something that stood him in good stead when Saturday was dry and marginally warmer, and neither he nor Schumacher could improve.

There was further disappointment for Ferrari when Alesi's final effort was stymied by an electrical fault which kept him in the pits when the fastest times were set. Like Coulthard, who complained of lack of grip and a problem with his gearbox's downshifts, the Frenchman was in an unsettled mood by Saturday. But where Alesi did not improve, Coulthard was happier with his Williams and he vaulted by both red cars to take third on the grid.

Eddie Irvine had impressed again with sixth place on Friday, but he spun and stalled on Saturday and was unable to improve, as Johnny Herbert and Mika Hakkinen supplanted him. Herbert looked more aggressive than he has all year, and fought hard to push his Benetton to sixth place right behind Alesi, while Hakkinen used a more powerful Mercedes engine than team-mate Mark Blundell, who was 10th overall.

The driver market is a hotbed of rumour this weekend for, as well as talk of Schumacher's possibilities for 1996 (which he insists he will not even begin considering until September), there are strong suggestions that his fellow German, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, may soon transfer from the unhappy Sauber-Ford team to join Hakkinen as Nigel Mansell's full- time replacement at McLaren-Mercedes. Though the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, publicly denied that the two parties had made any sort of approach, there are strong indications that the sponsors have initiated behind-the-scenes discussions which are taken as a sign that McLaren and Mercedes have acknowledged that their performance level thus far in 1995 is unlikely to tempt Schumacher in the near future.

The track proved very slippery on one particular corner on Saturday, catching out Rubens Barrichello in the morning and then Ukyo Katayama and Roberto Moreno in the afternoon. Even Schumacher went off the road briefly, when he spun in the first corner. But still the German looks unruffled after his early-season troubles. Unless the weather upsets things for the race - and rain is forecast - the omens once again do not look promising for his rivals.