Schumacher steals show

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Bobby Rahal's tanned face broke into its customary smile, and as usual it was hard to credit the 44 years that now make him the "Old Man" of CART IndyCar racing. His eyes lit up. "Yeah, I sure wish we could race our cars here. I remember my F1 debut back here in 1978. I was fourth fastest the first day before I had a brake problem and crashed the car. After that we had to run the old car, and from then on I was history," he said.

On such things do F1 fortunes turn. In North America's junior Formula Atlantic series Rahal was one of the few men who could challenge a young whirlwind called Gilles Villeneuve, who would go on to establish cult status as the dashing prince of F1 until his death at Zolder in 1982. Today, the abrasive little track nestling by the St Lawrence Seaway on Montreal's Ile Notre Dame is named in his honour, and memories of Rahal's F1 aspirations are firmly rooted in that near 20-year past. Instead, he made his name in IndyCars.

Once, 44 years was young by American racing standards, and in many ways it still is as the legendary Texan A J Foyt only last week continued his lifelong penchant for trading punches by attacking the Indy 500 race winner Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane.

Foyt, a sprightly 62, is a throwback to the old days of the sport; his career began as Juan Manuel Fangio's was drawing to a close. An employee once described working alongside him as "like dancing with a chainsaw". Rahal, for all his benign looks, is also tough. Tough enough to accept defeat being shoved into the jaws of victory recently in Rio, when his leading car caught fire two laps from the chequered flag.

In Canada Mark Blundell could sympathise with him, having lost last weekend's IndyCar race in Detroit for the lack of a cupful of fuel two corners from home. Like Rahal, the British F1 refugee made some telling observations on his first trip back since moving Stateside two years ago. In IndyCar racing, communication is the hub around which everything else revolves. "I took my disappointment out on the steering wheel as I started to get out," said Blundell, "because I knew damn well that within seconds I would have a camera and microphone shoved in my face. Over there, whatever happens, you are expected to be Mr Corporate."

And so he smiled through his tears, in a way that would have had many of his former F1 colleagues pondering his sanity. "You know something," he added," I can't believe what an unfriendly place the F1 paddock feels. I didn't see that before, or maybe it's changed. But it just seems so different to what I have become used to."

Greg Moore, the young Canadian star who has won the last two IndyCar races, was discouraged from doing some television work for the national network, prompting one humorist to wonder whether the FIA had a down on Canadian drivers, after Jacques Villeneuve's latest run-in with Max Mosley.

The 26-year-old has been at verbal war all season with Mosley, the president of the FIA, over the technical changes which, among other things, will embrace the mandatory return of grooved tyres next season. Mosley firmly believes they will slow the cars down, and provide a mechanism for the governing body to exert greater control over the annual escalation of speed.

Villeneuve has tried the tyres, and described them as dangerous, claiming that next year's cars with be unworthy of the F1 tag. But, according to the influential German magazine Der Spiegel, he also described the situation as "shit", to which Mosley took grave exception. And in what observers see as a thinly disguised attempt to provide his campaign this weekend with the greatest disruption, he demanded that he fly from Canada to Paris last Wednesday, where he received an official reprimand from the World Motor Sport Council. Villeneuve, the 1995 CART PPG IndyCar champion, maintained an impenetrable external veneer, despite the considerable pressure of racing on the circuit named after his father.

Yesterday's qualifying session was stopped prematurely five minutes from the end when the Austrian newcomer Alexander Wurz, standing in for sinus- troubled Gerhard Berger at Benetton, crashed in the last corner and took a wheel off his car. Up until that point Villeneuve had won a dramatic fight with Michael Schumacher for pole position, edging out the Ferrari driver by just 0.051sec as Heinz-Harald Frentzen brought the second Williams- Renault into third place just ahead of David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella and Jean Alesi.

On the restart Rubens Barrichello spurted through into third place for Stewart but as the flag to end the session was unfurled it was Schumacher who stole the show, squeaking ahead of Villeneuve by 0.013sec to end Williams' run of 10 pole positions and give the Canadian yet more cause for concern as the championship race hots up.