Schumacher's charge lifts Ferrari fans

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As the sun warmed away morning rain, Michael Schumacher gave Ferrari's delirious fans exactly what they had come to see when he recorded the fastest time in practice here yesterday for tomorrow's San Marino Grand Prix.

The world champion used all of his famous repertoire of raw speed and car control as he powered the red machine around in glorious slides, raising eyebrows along the pit road and hopes among the tifosi, the Italian Ferrari enthusiasts.

A year ago Schumacher was one of their villains and Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger their heroes. But times change. The volatile Frenchman no longer enjoys a place within tifosi hearts after his winter outbursts against the team. There were only crocodile tears when he finished the day in 13th place.

Alesi's excessive brio does not always endear him to Benetton either. In Germany a week ago a reckless attempt to pass Mika Salo's Tyrrell after a bad start resulted in instant retirement after contact.

Schumacher's speed yesterday caught many on the hop, particularly since it had been achieved with the standard V10 engine, and without using a set of fresh tyres - the latter ploy catapulted Rubens Barrichello's Jordan- Peugeot into second place ahead of the European Grand Prix winner Jacques Villeneuve in the closing stages.

"I am feeling confident," said Schumacher who only a week ago had suggested that he felt the very opposite about his prospects on a circuit whose numerous bumps would not suit his car. "We did a lot of work on set-up today and used less fuel than we normally do on a Friday in order to conserve our tyres [drivers are allowed only seven sets of tyres per weekend]. We still have a lot of work to do," Schumacher said.

Damon Hill echoed that sentiment as he languished a relatively lowly sixth separated from his Williams-Renault partner by Mika Hakkinen's McLaren and Olivier Panis's Ligier. His run was interrupted by an altercation with Andrea Mantermini's Forti, which resulted in a trip across the edge of a gravel bed.

Hill was cautious in summarising his day. "You can always expect Ferrari to go quickly here," he said, "and they were close to us in Germany too, so I expect Saturday's qualifying to be close and very exciting. The circuit was very slippery today and it's uneven in places so it's quite difficult to set up the car." Williams spent all day juggling with the springs and dampers in its cars' suspension systems to try and find the optimum handling balance, and Hill added: "I have something in hand for qualifying."

Imola is of course a circuit that holds mixed memories for Hill and the Williams team. They won here last year but it was during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 that Ayrton Senna was killed while trying to resist the challenge of Schumacher and Benetton. As he goes out in search of his 15th pole position this afternoon Hill knows he must win here to exorcise the old ghosts of questions about his psychological frailty raised by his disappointing race in Germany last week. Cynics, meanwhile, say they will believe Ferrari's apparently dramatic progress if it is repeated today - and tomorrow.

SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX (Imola) Leading practice times: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1min 28.831sec; 2 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:29.886; 3 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 1:29.921; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren- Mercedes 1:29.984; 5 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 1:30.150; 6 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1:30.415; 7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:30.420; 8 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:30.430; 9 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:30.462; 10 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford 1:30.570.