Champions lead but Davidson close for BAR
Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello took their customary first and second places in this mornings first free practice session at the Bahrain International Circuit. Track temperatures were over 50 degrees as the drivers got their first taste of the new venue.
The world champion lapped in 1m 32.158s with eight seconds to go to pip the Brazilians best time of 1m 32.651s, and in the red camp it was situation normal as neither driver experienced any problems and made the most of Bridgestones liking for green tracks.
Unlike Australia and Malaysia, however, the next runner was close. Anthony Davidsons BAR was only 0.600s slower than Schumacher as the talented Englishman sliced down to 1m 32.958s. Naturally, as the teams third driver, he did the lions share of the running, but after a couple of problems team mate Jenson Button annexed fifth place on 1m 33.898s. The pair were separated by Juan Pablo Montoya, who had an adventurous morning for Williams with a couple of dusty off-track moments. Eventually the Colombian got down to 1m 33.027s.
Team-mate Ralf Schumacher had the distinction of being the first man to spin on the new track, in Turn 13 early on, and was only 11th on 1m 34.619s.
There were an awful lot of drivers in the 1m 34s, starting with David Coulthard in sixth place for McLaren on 1m 34.023s and ending with 15th fastest Giorgio Pantano, who stayed right with more experienced Jordan team mate Nick Heidfeld on his way to 1m 34.967s. On the new track there was little to choose between the Italian and the German, who took 14th place on 1m 34.872s.
Ricardo Zonta did the most laps 21, while setting seventh fastest time of 1m 34.289s for Toyota, but neither of his team mates had a good morning. Olivier Panis was 19th on 1m 35.981s and Cristiano da Matta 20th on 1m 36.359s, both of them having spins.
Felipe Massa was the faster Sauber driver, with eighth best 1m 34.488s, but Giancarlo Fisichella was feeling unwell, running a fever and high personal temperature. He did only eight laps to Massas 12, for a best of 1m 35.388s which left him 16th.
Kimi Raikkonen was ninth on 1m 34.603s, but then stopped in the final sector with an undisclosed mechanical problem. The same fate befell Renaults Fernando Alonso, after he had recorded 1m 34.810s for 13th. That left the Spaniard right behind team mate Jarno Trulli, who posted 1m 34.796s.
Ahead of them was Takuma Sato, who was as enthusiastic as ever on his way to 1m 34.610s for 10th slot for BAR.
Timo Glock was the first man out on the track, for Jordan, and wound up 17th on 1m 35.760s, beating Mark Webber who spent the morning running a reasonable fuel load in the Jaguar. The Australians quickest lap was 1m 35.905s, while team-mates Christian Klien and Bjorn Wirdheim did 1m 36.645s (21st) and 1m 37.443s (24th) respectively.
Right at the end Zsolt Baumgartner pipped Minardi team mate Gianmaria Bruni for 22nd with 1m 37.049s to 1m 37.347s, while Bas Leinders in the third car was the final runner, 25th on 1m 37.792s.
Bearing out what Jenson Button suggested yesterday, in terms of grip the track seemed no worse than the Hungaroring was on the Friday last year, but there is a great deal of dust the minute anyone strays on to the run-off areas. The times improved all the way through as drivers and teams became more familiar with the new track, and will continue to do so this afternoon. Overall, Bahrain International Circuit has so far had the thumbs up from the majority of the drivers.