reports from Montreal
Michael Schumacher, the world champion and current leader, again proved the irresistible force in the early sparring for tomorrow's Canadian Grand Prix.
The Benetton-Renault driver, winner of the previous two races, assumed command of the first session with familiar conviction, finishing with a best lap around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve of 1min 27.661sec, almost 0.4sec ahead of Damon Hill's Williams-Renault. Ferrari's Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi were third and fourth, and David Coulthard in the other Williams was fifth.
Hill, trailing Schumacher by five points in the championship, is anxious to contain Schumacher's progress, and will at least be thankful a late surge carried him in front of Berger to the provisional front row of the grid. Rain is forecast for today, so these may well be the positions when they line up for tomorrow's race.
Hill will be aware, however, that he has not only Schumacher but also Ferrari to contend with. The Italian team have maintained all along that their challenge would start in earnest from this event and Alesi said: "Everything is in place for us now to start winning races."
Alesi led the early part of the session and Hill almost twitched into the wall at the last corner in his attempt to go top. He recovered his line and his composure to unseat the Frenchman, only for Schu-macher to get down to business. The German went clear by 0.2sec, then 0.6sec, and although Ferrari and Hill retaliated, they were never quite able to catch him.
Hill said: "I'm suffering from a heavy cold because of the air conditioning here. I don't feel on top of the job and it's hard to concentrate. I hope it clears up because this is a very physical race. But at least I'm on the front row. That's important in case it should rain tomorrow."
Eddie Irvine, in a Jordan-Peugeot, was sixth, Johnny Herbert seventh in the other Benetton, Mark Blundell in a McLaren-Mercedes now minus the centre wing, was 11th, and Martin Brundle, following an early shunt, managed to scramble 15th place.
Brundle damaged his own Ligier Mugen-Honda and had to wait impatiently in the pits to take over the car of his team-mate, Olivier Panis. The Englishman launched himself from the pit lane just two minutes from the end of the session and managed to produce one reasonable lap.
Blundell is endeavouring to prolong his tenure of the McLaren amid rampant speculation that he may be replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen of Sauber- Ford. The team are due to review the British driver's position after this race, and the suggestion is that they are under pressure from Mercedes to make another change.
The engine producers are said to prefer a German driver, and as Schumacher appears beyond their aspirations they have turned their attention to Frentzen, another graduate of the "Mercedes Academy".
Their fear is that unless they act now, Frentzen could be claimed by another leading team for next season. Sauber resist the rumours by maintaining Frentzen is under contract.
Blundell's has been a fragmented career so far, and he joined McLaren this year as a test driver. He was summoned to race in the first two grands prix in Brazil and Argentina because Nigel Mansell could not fit in the car, and he was drafted in again after the former world champion's ill- starred two-race stint. He has responded with three points in his three appearances.
Blundell said: "If I believed everything that I heard and read I'd have scrambled egg for brains. There'll be a decision on my situation after this event. I spent the whole winter not knowing what I was going to do. I had 10 days' notice for Brazil, and just 36 hours' notice for Monaco. I want to keep the job and the best way is by getting results."
CANADIAN GRAND PRIX (Montreal) First qualifying session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1min 27.661sec; 2 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:28.039; 3 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:28.247; 4 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:28.525; 5 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:28.590; 6 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:29.021; 7 J Herbert (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:29.295; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:29.393; 9 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:29.406; 10 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:29.809; 11 M Blundell (GB) McLaren- Mercedes 1:30.279; 12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:30.285; 13 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:30.657; 14 G Morbidelli (It) Footwork-Hart 1:30.854; 15 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:30.880; 16 P Martini (It) Minardi- Ford 1:30.859; 17 J-C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford 1:31.925; 18 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:31.958; 19 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:32.453; 20 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Mugen Honda 1:32.995; 21 B Gachot (Fr) Pacific- Ford 1:33.866; 22 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Ford 1:33.910; 23 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:34.000; 24 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:36.187.