Tight at the top ahead of qualifying 20 Mar 2004
Less than a second separates top 10 in final practice...
Michael Schumacher was the fastest man again in both of Saturday's practice sessions for the Malaysian Grand Prix. But as track temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius again the times were so close that the gap between the champion and 10th placed Mark Webber was a mere 0.855s.
After McLaren's moment in the sun yesterday afternoon, the Ferraris quickly reasserted themselves, the general belief being that they had been running heavy fuel loads yesterday. In the first session this morning Schumacher lapped in 1m 33.391s, a time that would not subsequently be beaten. Second fastest was Fernando Alonso on 1m 34.175s, a time he failed to beat in the second session.
BMW Williams staged a significant improvement, with Juan Pablo Montoya being happier with the balance of his car on his way to a best of 1m 33. 563s which was the fastest time in the second session until Schumacher beat it close to the end. Ralf Schumacher was third best on 1m 33.973s, so at least the Anglo-German team was back ahead of Renault.
In the second session both Alonso and Jarno Trulli had off-track moments; the Spaniard went off in Turn Six, Trulli at Turn 11 and later Turn 8. They ended fourth and ninth in that session. Rubens Barrichello was fifth on 1m 34.061s, then came Jenson Button (1m 34.128s) who was again happy with his BAR; Kimi Raikkonen (1m 34.163s); David Coulthard (1m 34.181s); Alonso and Webber (1m 34.381s).
Besides the Renault drivers' offs, Michael Schumacher spun his Ferrari in Turn Nine in the first session, and Cristiano da Matta put his Toyota in the gravel three times. Team mate Olivier Panis was again the Japanese manufacturer's faster runner with a decent 1m 34.929s for 11th best, ahead of the Saubers of Felipe Massa (1m 34.943s) and Giancarlo Fisichella (1m 35.036s), who were split by Christian Klien's Jaguar on 1m 34.953s, right at the end of the second session.
BARs Takuma Sato had a quieter time with 15th best 1m 35.144s, da Matta was left 16th on 1m 35.441s, and then there was a gap to Nick Heidfeld's gutsy 1m 36.607s for Jordan. Team mate Giorgio Pantano survived a spin in front of Montoya at one stage on his way to 1m 38.059s. Gianmaria 'Jimmy' Bruni was again the faster Minardi pilot on 1m 38.554s, with team mate Zsolt Baumgartner managing 1m 39.013s in the first session.
What does it all mean? Well, the indications are that most teams were running similar fuel levels, and of course all of them had to make their race tyre choice last night. On that evidence single-lap qualifying this afternoon should be a great deal more riveting than it was in Melbourne.