Schumachershows signs of the strain

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Motor racing

DERICK ALLSOP

reports from Estoril

Michael Schumacher pushed in vain to outpace the Williams-Renault pair here today and the strain showed in a tetchy confrontation with Ferrari's Gerhard Berger. Grumbles and counter-grumbles are par for the course and the chances are it will be business as usual in tomorrow's Portuguese Grand Prix.

After the first qualifying session Schumacher's Benetton-Renault is still in touch with Damon Hill and David Coulthard, and the Ferrari is not far behind. Hill and Schumacher race under the threat of suspension and the hail of warnings about their health. If emotions are running high, all the better for the show. All useful publicity generating material.

No one is publicly suggesting the next convenient device would be a ban on Schumacher, but the mechanism is in place. In the meantime, another little skirmish involving the German does not go amiss.

Schumacher, attempting to improve on his third position, had to check his momentum as he came upon Berger and the challenge was aborted. Next time round, as both slowed, Schumacher pulled alongside the Austrian and gesticulated indignantly. Back in the pits, with Hill confirmed on provisional pole position, Coulthard second, then Schumacher and Berger, the champion said: "I'm disappointed and angry. There was no reason for Gerhard to close the door just there. He could have pulled over. I'm not saying I would have got pole, but I was three-tenths of a second faster than on my previous best lap.

"At the same time, I'm not too disappointed in that I thought Damon would be further ahead after his test at Silverstone, but our front suspension change is working well so that is good."

Berger returned a gesture as he drove past Schumacher's pit and pulled up at the Ferrari garage. He later explained: "I was on a quick lap myself and just didn't see him."

Visibility is no problem for Hill here. He reckons he has probably covered more miles on this track than at Silverstone. It has, for some years, been established as Williams' winter test base. "I could drive round here with my eyes closed," he said. "During the winter we often start in the dark and finish in the dark. It's a useful advantage to feel at home."

Familiarity, however, has not bred contempt. Hill has a healthy respect for this place. "Turn two and the last corner are brilliant, but there's hardly any run-off area," he said.

The Englishman is 15 points behind Schumacher in the championship with only five races remaining and will gain some comfort from having Coulthard between him and the Benetton driver.

There again, Coulthard's campaign for a maiden grand prix victory has gathered pace and confidence at recent events and he does not feel inclined to assist Hill's cause. The Scot may be equally unconcerned. His team- mate should hear that he described Schumacher as "the best all-round driver out there in terms of driving strategy".

Ferrari remain on the fringe of the main event - Jean Alesi taking fifth place - and Eddie Irvine, in a Jordan-Peugeot, led the rest. Martin Brundle, driving a Ligier-Mugen, was ninth, Johnny Herbert, in the other Benetton, 12th and Mark Blundell, in a McLaren-Mercedes 13th.

The contest for the second seat at Ferrari alongside Schumacher next season switches to their test track on Wednesday, three or four hopeful Italians staking their claims in competition with the team's trusted test driver, Nicola Larini.

PORTUGUESE GRAND PRIX (Estoril) First qualifying session: 1 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 1min 21.322sec, ave speed 120.690 mph; 2 D Coulthard (GB) Williams-Renault 1:21.423; 3 M Schumacher (Ger) Benetton-Renault 1:21.885; 4 G Berger (Aut) Ferrari 1:22.281; 5 J Alesi (Fr) Ferrari 1:22.656; 6 E Irvine (GB) Jordan-Peugeot 1:22.957; 7 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:23.064; 8 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot 1:23.142; 9 M Brundle (GB) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:23.244; 10 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen Honda 1:23.284; 11 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford 1:23.485; 12 J Herbert (GB) Benetton- Renault 1:23.786; 13 M Blundell (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:24.583; 14 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 1:24.631; 15 T Inoue (Japan) Footwork-Hart 1:24.883; 16 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha, 1:24.942; 17 M Papis (It) Footwork-Hart 1:25.696; 18 L Badoer (It) Minardi-Ford 1:25.746; 19 P Lamy (Por) Minardi- Ford 1:26.210; 20 A Montermini (It) Pacific-Ford 1:27.659; 21 R Moreno (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:28.672; 22 P Diniz (Bra) Forti-Ford 1:29.137; 23 J- C Boullion (Fr) Sauber-Ford 14:20.150; J-D Deletraz (Swit) Pacific-Ford, excluded after marshalls push started his car.

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