Schumacher stays hot

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AFTER the dullest final qualifying session in recent memory, Michael Schumacher and his Benetton-Renault will start tomorrow's San Marino grand prix in pole position, ahead of Gerhard Berger's Ferrari and the Williams- Renaults of David Coulthard and Damon Hill, with Jean Alesi's Ferrari and Mika Hkkinen's McLaren-Mercedes completing the top six.

Yesterday's high temperatures and a slippery track meant that few drivers improved on their times from Friday's first qualifying hour, although Schumacher came within a fifth of a second of his Friday time without really extending himself. Hill, who trails the world champion by 14 points to 10 after two rounds of the current series, was an exception but it was not enough to put him further up the grid.

Most of the top drivers were content to save their precious allocation of tyres for the race rather than waste them in unhelpful conditions. Berger, indeed, failed to appear until five minutes from the end, relying on his heroic last-minute lap on Friday, when he came within eight thousandths of a second of Schumacher's time - a matter, according to some experts, of 45 centimetres over the 4.8km lap.

This was a disappointment to the tens of thousands - including the manager of the Italian football team, Arrigo Sacchi - who had turned up in glorious weather in the hope of seeing the two Ferraris mount a serious challenge. Their only real entertainment came from the efforts of Alesi, their perennial favourite (who, like Berger, had his Ferrari road car stolen from the paddock the previous night), and Johnny Herbert, who spun his Benetton twice while endeavouring to reduce the gap of more than two seconds between his car and Schumacher's.

The German may well be faster than his English team mate, but half a second would be a more plausible reflection of the difference, and Herbert would be justified in wondering what Schumacher's car has that his lacks. The late Ayrton Senna, it will be remembered, was asking himself that very question when he died in this race last year.

After a full 12 months of mourning for him, Senna's ghost will probably be exorcised when the field goes into Tamburello for the seventh time today, although the corner itself is now unrecognisable. At the point where his car struck the concrete wall, a gap has been left for a makeshift shrine. A little further down the track, at the similarly reprofiled Villeneuve kink, two small bunches of flowers commemorate the death of Roland Ratzenberger a day earlier. Now the world of Formula One appears to feel that it is time to put the past in its place.

Generally speaking, the drivers like the modified track, although it places even more severe restrictions on overtaking opportunities, both by its configuration and its condition. "It's very dusty off the racing line," the impressive Coulthard said, "which means that if you make a small mistake, you pay the price." Hill, his team-mate, remarked that most of the significant overtaking in today's race will be done during the pit stops. "It's not a Mickey Mouse circuit, but it certainly will be hard to pass people," he said. "And when you've got a car capable of pole position, you don't like being fourth on the grid."

Nigel Mansell, who will start from ninth place in his new wide-bodied McLaren after an characteristically incident-packed practice, would no doubt be happy to swap places.

Alesi's ambition, page 12