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Saturday Practice - Williams close on Ferrari 06 Mar 2004

Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams BMW FW26.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 5 March 2004 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R24.
Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 6 March 2004 Olivier Panis (FRA) Toyota TF104.
Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 6 March 2004 Giancarlo Fisichella (ITA) Sauber Petronas C23.
Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 6 March 2004 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Ferrari F2004.
Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 6 March 2004

Montoya moves on to Schumacher's tail in final practice

Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher again led the way in practice in Melbourne on Saturday, but this time the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya was very close behind.

Friday pacesetter Schumacher remained fastest in the first of Saturday's two 45-minute sessions, but his advantage over team-mate Rubens Barrichello was eroded to 0.373s, and over Juan Pablo Montoya to only 0.409s, much to Williams' relief. The general feeling was that the Ferraris had set their Friday times on the softer Bridgestone tyre, which would not have been able to go the distance, and that they had switched to the harder tyre for the remainder of the weekend.

The opening session was a relatively quiet one, though both Schumacher and Montoya had wild grassy moments on the exit to Turn 12, and Sauber’s Felipe Massa and Minardi’s Zsolt Baumgartner had moments in Turn 1 and Turn 4 respectively. Nick Heidfeld also had a big tank slapper, but got away with it in his Jordan.

Schumacher's fastest time was 1m 25.786s, with Barrichello on 1m 26.159s and Montoya right behind him with 1m 26.195s. It was cooler than yesterday afternoon, with track temperatures reaching only 25C.

The second Williams of Ralf Schumacher was fourth with 1m 26.390s, the German heading six other drivers within just over half a second of his time. David Coulthard set fastest time in the first sector but managed only 1m 26.428s for fifth, again outpacing McLaren partner Kimi Raikkonen who was seventh on 1m 26.725s. They were separated by Renault’s Fernando Alonso, who was at one time fastest with his 1m 26.610s.

Behind them came Mark Webber, again looking strong for Jaguar on 1m 26.804s, Jarno Trulli in the Renault, who took away Coulthard's fastest first sector time on his way to 1m 26.817s, and BAR’s Jenson Button, who was the final runner under 1m 27s with 1m 26.995s.

The second session began with Schumacher waving off Toyota’s Cristiano da Matta for holding him up, and then aborting what should have been the quickest lap after coming across Montoya out on the circuit. Alonso set the ball rolling once again, but was soon supplanted by Barrichello. With 29C track temperature this was immediately a faster session.

Soon Schumacher was back in charge, this timed managing 1m 25.093s to pip the Williams duo (Montoya ahead of Ralf) by 0.162s. They recorded 1m 25.255s and 1m 25.628s respectively. Barrichello was fourth on 1m 25.649s, ahead of Alonso on 1m 25.908s. Trulli wasn't far off either, on 1m 25.927s.

The surprise, however, was Olivier Panis, who boosted Toyota to sixth with 1m 25.916s, well ahead of team mate da Matta's best of 1m 26.597s which left the Brazilian only 12th.

Once again Webber was in good form for Jaguar, lapping in 1m 26.066s for eighth, while rookie team mate Christian Klien looked more confident on his way to 1m 27.088s which put him 13th.

Again it wasn't a great session for McLaren, though Raikkonen moved ahead of Coulthard for the first time. They lapped in 1m 26.127s and 1m 26.133s respectively. BAR also had a disappointing time, both cars having picked up understeer since yesterday. Button was 11th with 1m 26.403s, Sato only 16th on 1m 27.592s.

Sauber, too, were unhappy to be two seconds off the latest Ferraris on similar rubber, Massa just edging out team mate Giancarlo Fisichella this time, 1m 27.172s to 1m 27.195s. Both drivers had adventures, Massa going off momentarily in Turn 9, Fisichella in Turn 12.

Nick Heidfeld could have been a lot higher than 17th in his Jordan, but ruined a strong lap by running wide in the third sector. He had to be satisfied with 1m 27.755s, but that was a second clear of rookie team mate Giorgio Pantano's 1m 28.825s.

Gianmaria 'Jimmy' Bruni continues to dominate at Minardi, lapping confidently in 1m 30.496s compared to Zsolt Baumgartner's 1m 31.763s.

The stage is thus set for the two qualifying sessions this afternoon, and though Ferrari are right in the ballpark, Williams and Renault are looking a lot stronger.

For the full results from the Saturday practice sessions, including full sector time and speed trap listings, click here.