The British show jumping team’s last-ditch quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics – and win a first championship medal since 1998 – has started promisingly.

The quartet is lying fourth and best of the 14 unqualified nations after the first, speed, leg of the European Show Jumping Championships which started today in Mannheim, Germany.

Michael Whitaker (pictured) is best-placed individually, in 14th place on Suncal Portofino, only marring an otherwise excellent, fast round with an irritating knockdown at an innocuous oxer at fence 8.

“It’s really annoying,” said Michael. “You’d have thought that fence was almost impossible to have down! It was an unusual and hectic course — the four choices of route were mind-boggling — but all our horses seem to be jumping high and carefully, and it’s not a bad start.”

Ellen Whitaker, 21, making her senior team debut on Locarno, jumped one of the 20 clear rounds and is 21st; fellow rookie David McPherson is 17th on Pilgrim with one fence down and John Whitaker, making his 10th European Championship team appearance, is the discard in 32nd with Peppermill.

Meanwhile, the Germans are ominously well en route to a third consecutive European team gold, heading Switzerland and the Netherlands who won silver and bronze behind them at San Patrignano in 2005.

Ludger Beerbaum is in second place individually on the veteran 16-year-old stallion Goldfever, who won the individual silver medal in 2003.

But the Germans had to regroup after Marcus Ehning’s shock elimination on Noltes Küchengirl, who took a dislike to the bogey fence, an unusual double of blue “waves” with knockdown tips.

Switzerland’s Christina Liebherr, the defending individual silver medallist, leads the individual rankings on No Mercy.

Christina said: “I took a risk [with the tight turn] at fence 6, but if you don’t take risks, you don’t win. I really wanted to be in front at this stage.”

Newcomers Stefan Eder from Austria and Paola Amilibia Puig from Spain have made their mark. Eder, 25, is third on Cartier PSG ahead of Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (Shutterfly, GER) and a visibly under-pressure Jessica Kurten (Castle Forbes Libertina, IRL), who would have been fastest on 66.37sec but for a knockdown. Paola is sixth on Cabri D’Elle, formerly a British team horse in 2002 with Scott Smith.

Only Germany, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Switzerland are qualified for Hong Kong, with three more places up for grabs in the two-day Nations Cup, which starts tomorrow (Thursday).

Team standings

1, Germany 5.18pen
2, Switzerland 7.13
3, Netherlands 7.37
4, Great Britain 9.43
5, Spain, 9.69
6, Belgium 11.45
7, Ireland 11.68
8, Ukraine 12.96

Individual rankings

1, Christina Liebherr (No Mercy, SUI) 0
2, Ludger Beerbaum (Goldfever, GER) 1.11
3, Stefan Eder (Cartier PSG, AUT) 1.12
4, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (Shutterfly, GER) 1.54
5, Jessica Kurten (Castle Forbes Libertina, IRL) 1.6
6, Paola Amilibia Puig (Cabri d’Elle, ESP) 1.67
7, Vincent Voorn (Audi’s Alpapillon-Armanie, NED) 2.01
8, Jeroen Dubbeldam (BMC Up And Down, NED) 2.24
9, Jos Lansink (Al-Kaheel Cavalor Cumano, BEL) 2.42
10, Christian Ahlmann (Coster, GER) 2.53

Full results on: www.em2007.de